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The Oude Kerk (Old Church) has not always had this name, which it was given at the time when the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) was built. It seems simple and indeed is, but it is nonetheless the oldest religious building in the city.
When the troops of Count Floris V invaded Amsterdam in 1274, a church with a transept was being built. Work obviously stopped on account of the fire caused by the battles. A year later, however, Floris granted economic compensation to the whole city. The people of Amsterdam responded by building a huge church, bigger than the previous one, that was consecrated by the bishop of Utrecht in 1306.
Over the subsequent years, it was renovated several times. The two transepts and a choir were therefore joined to a 75-metre Gothic tower, the brick needle that presides it, and four angular towers.
Later, the church took on the appearance of a basilica, the central nave was raised above the side naves and several chapels and porticoes were added to the construction.
Changes and developments in this church have nonetheless been interrupted on numerous occasions and for various reasons. The first, the invasion of Floris V, was later followed by the fires of 1421, 1452 and 1536 in Amsterdam. If that were not enough, the Oude Kerk was seriously affected by the arrival of Calvinist iconoclasm in the sixteenth century, which is reflected in its restrained interior decoration.
The appearance of the Oude Kerk, its structure, and its details are therefore textbook examples of its own architectural history.
Its striking silhouette stands out in the old district, although the tower, which some people consider worryingly inclined, is no longer the city’s highest.
The church has a triple nave, finished with a carefully worked wooden framework, the largest of the period. The wooden panels date from the late fourteenth century and are said to give the Oude Kerk some of the best acoustics in Europe. This is perhaps why a great many concerts are held in the basilica. Take a look at the concert programme as you might be lucky and be able to enjoy a truly splendid performance.
The tower is crowned with an octagonal belfry, in which the sixteenth-century Trinity or Bourdon bell and the eighteenth-century Laudate bell hang.
The church’s stained glass windows are very recent as the windows of the Oude Kerk were destroyed by the gunpowder blast of 1654. In restoration work performed in the twentieth century, the 25 windows were therefore made with religious motifs. They are considered to be the work of the contemporary master glazier Joep Nicolas.
One detail you will certainly notice when you enter the Oude Kerk is the fact it is covered in tombstones. This is because the church was built on a cemetery, in which citizens continued to be buried until the mid-nineteenth century. Inside, you will walk over 2,500 tombs, in which some ten thousand citizens of Amsterdam are buried. These include famous figures such as composers, goldsmiths, poets and sailors, or painters such as Van der Heyden, Saskia, the wife of Rembrandt, and Van Rensselaer, one of the founders of New York.
Lastly, mention should be made of the historical rivalry between the Oude Kerk and the Nieuwe kerk. As early as the fifteenth century, the inhabitants of the new zone of the city, who were building the new church, claimed that theirs was the city’s most important. They did not change opinion over the years.
After the Reformation, the Oude Kerk remained the main church, although things changed in the seventeenth century as the deaconship was established in a building near the new church. Something as trivial as geographical proximity thus tipped the balance towards the Nieuwe Kerk. The new church prevailed once and for all with the William I’s ascension to the throne.
The Oude Kerk is nonetheless one of the most attractive points of interest in the city of Amsterdam. Its magnificent medieval silhouette stands out in the heart of the red light district, surrounded by prostitutes and tourists, and thereby makes its unique mark.
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