ONE OF AMSTERDAM’S LITTLE SECRETS
By Wendy Hughes
One thing you don’t expect to find tucked away in the attic on the edge of Amsterdam’s red light district is a concealed church. ‘Ons Lieve Heer op Solder (Our dear Lord of the Attic) is hidden on the upper floors of the 17th century canal house, and not only is it one of Amsterdam’s oldest museums, but the most breath-taking. At one time this area was one of the wealthiest parts of the city, earning the nickname the ‘Velvet Canal,’ before it became known as the Red Light District.
THE SECRET CHURCH
Catholic masses were officially forbidden in the 17th century (from 1578), when the city of Amsterdam abandoned the Catholic Habsburgs and declared for the Protestant rebels in what became known as the Alternate (Alteration). The new Protestant regime treated the Catholics well provided they no longer practised their religion openly and their churches were not recognisable on the outside. This resulted in an odd compromise where Catholics were allowed to hold services in any private building provided the exterior didn’t reveal its activities, hence the development of many clandestine churches that grew up around the city, although only one has survived to this day.
During the Reformation, in 1661, a wealthy German merchant, Jan Hartman, bought three adjacent buildings and turned the upper floors into a clandestine church, where he and his fellow Catholics could worship. Dedicated to St Nicholas, it remained in use as a church until 1887 and then set up as a museum.
As meander through the narrow passageways, stairways, and tiny nooks and crannies you will uncover splendid works of art, ornate furniture and an atmosphere that will take you back in time. Flanked by balconies, the nave has a mock high-alter. One end is decorated with Jacob de Witt’s (1695-1754) mawkish Baptism of Christ, painted in 1716 and is one of three alter paintings, designed to be interchangeable. At the other end of the nave sits the church organ, especially built for the church by Hendrik Meyer in 1799 and is still regularly played.
Our Lord in the Attic would not be complete without the church’s patron saint. In fact St Nicholas makes three appearances in the museum, once in a painting in the day room, secondly by inference in a painting in the living room depicting Sinterklaas, and lastly, in the form of a rather robust bronze figure. The mitre is a little smaller than the headdress usually assigned to saints these days, but his crook is the same. St Nicholas’s right-handed gesture may be a blessing, or it may be an admonition, who knows? In his left hand he holds a book, maybe a Bible, and on top of this what appears to be fruit. Why fruit? Originally it would have been the three bags of gold that the saint tossed through a poor man’s window so that his three daughters would have dowries. Legend states that the gold landed in shoes left by the fire to dry, which explains the Dutch St Nicholas Eve tradition of scattering sweets, chocolate, and leaving small gifts in shoes by the fire. As the tales moved through time, the sweets made way for oranges and mandarins, which added weight to the myth that the saint actually came from Spain. St Nicholas is not a myth he did exist, and was probably born around 280 AD in Lycia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). In the fourth century he served as bishop of the provincial capital Myra and was later canonised for his good works, becoming a popular saint in the ninth century and appearing in many biographies of saints. After his death on 6 December 342 he saved many ships from sinking, and became the patron saint of sailors and of numerous ports, including Amsterdam. He was originally buried in Myra, but his remains were transferred to the Italian city of Bari, and his tomb at St Nicholas’s basilica is a place of pilgrimage to this day. Confusingly, Sinterklaas is celebrated on 5 December these days, due to the largely forgotten tradition that each new day starts at sundown.
Worth looking out for are the church’s original decorations and utensils from the post Reformation, and the Sael (the living room), one of the best preserved 17th century rooms in the city, and the excellent period kitchen. Sadly the church fell into disuse when the Church of St Nicholas opened on Prins Hendrikkade, but a group of private collectors clubbed together, bought the building and preserved its Catholic heritage. It opened as a museum on 24 April 1888 behind the characteristic façade of the original home on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal.
THE NEWEST PART OF THE MUSEUM The church now has a new part, officially opened by the Dutch Queen Maxima on 22 September 2015. The programme included a lecture by the American writer/ historian Russel Shorto, and a performance by Amsterdam rapper Akwasi, who wrote a new song for the occasion inspired by the pupils from three Amsterdam schools. Visitors now enter the building on the other side of Heintje Hoekssteeg, and the two buildings are joined by an underground passage. Throughout the six years of expansion and renovation, the museum remained open, whilst the restoration was supervised by architect Frederik Franken. Today the museum focuses on the stories of the various people who lived in the house as well as themes such as religious freedom and tolerance that are relevant today. There is also space for new presentations in the Prologue Room in the underground passage which contains an introduction to Amsterdam during the Golden Age.
In the historic house, don’t miss the Mom Room (mom being a type of beer) that houses an exhibition of artefacts dating back to 1770-1775 that were discovered during the excavation of a cesspit. Finally in the Epilogue Room, located in the basement the visitor will find a display of objects from the museum’s collection such as a silver sanctuary lamp dating back to 1761.
This new building is part of the Amsterdam’s 1012 Project, and one of the aims is to add more variety to the Red Light District. A few decades ago the area was all about sex and drugs, but today it offers the visitor much more. The new entrance building contains several facilities which the public have come to expect from a modern museum, such as toilets, cloakrooms, a museum shop and cafe/restaurant, as well as an educational room. The building, designed by architect Felix Claus, has expanded the museum to twice its original size.
THE CO-VISIT TOUR – UNIQUE IN THE WORLD
However a word of caution for the less agile, the stairs to the church are steep and there is no lift , but don’t let this spoil your enjoyment. There is now an unique feature for those who cannot explore the historical house. The Co-Visit tour enables them to ‘travel around’ the old building from the new part by using a special mobile device to maintain ‘Skype’ contact with their friends as they walk through the house. The tour was commissioned by the museum and produced by The Creative Cooperative in collaboration with the Amsterdam healthcare institution Amsta. The tour is unique in the world and a number of museums have already expressed an
interest in this idea.
How to get there?
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 38, 1012 GE Amsterdam
By tram: 4, 9, 16, 24 or 25: stop Dam Square
By metro: stop Nieuwmarkt
By foot: This church is located just 10 minutes from Central Station. Please check out a map before you set off.
Tram: There are no trams in the Red Light district.
OPENING HOURS OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC
Monday to Saturday: 10 am – 5pm
Sundays and holidays: 1 pm – 5pm
NOTE: The ticket desk closes at 4.45pm
PRICES (do check)
Children: (5 – 18 years): €5
Children: (under 5 years): Free