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Comfortably nestled in the heart of the modern-day Red Light District, Oude Kerk was built and consecrated in 1306, securing itself the title of the oldest building in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Literally translated as the "Old Church", the structure has been standing for centuries, existing as a paramount cultural and religious hub for the city. It survived the testing Reformation period, along with the Great Iconoclasm, going through many renovations in the process. Today it serves as a museum, as well as a functioning protestant church, displaying both contemporary Dutch art and the remnants of Amsterdam's distant medieval past.


  • The exterior of the church
  • The main hall of Oude Kerk
  • The choir section
  • Example of the high ceilings
  • One of the many stained glass windows that miraculously survived the Reformation
  • A statue that was beheaded during the beeldenstormen
  • Painting from Emmanuel De Witte, roughly depicting the interior of Oude Kerk in 1650
  • A map of Amsterdam in the mid 16th century, Oude Kerk can be seen in the lower left section of the city

Built on the site of the town’s demolished wooden chapel, the stone foundation of Oude Kerk was completed in 1306.[1] For the next couple of centuries, expansions and additions were unrelenting, ensuring accommodation for Amsterdam’s transition from a small town into a thriving European city. The most notable of these alterations came in 1565, when the clock tower of the church was raised and given its iconic wooden crown.[2] Oude Kerk has not since seen further remodeling. In addition to its exemplary Gothic exterior, the church’s walls and high ceilings are home to a number of decorative paintings. Stained glass windows also contribute to the church’s medieval appearance.[3] Thousands of graves, ranging from those of priests and nobility to common folk, make up much of the foundation of the church floor.[4]  

Early on, the church served as more than just a place of worship to the people of Amsterdam. Locals often gathered at what they dubbed “the living room” of the city to conduct trade, repair broken items such as fishing poles and boat sails, and to catch up on the week's news. In addition, plays and concerts were given to the public.[5] In many ways, Oude Kerk was the core of Amsterdam’s civil life, providing both religious and cultural outlets to generations of inhabitants.

The church remained a prominent structure of influence as Amsterdam grew throughout the centuries. For around 300 years, Oude Kerk was a Catholic church. However, like all other Dutch churches in the mid 16th century, this changed along with the Reformation. This period brought about many new figures in its wake, including John Calvin, the father of Calvinism. Calvinistic reform to Catholicism brought far more conservatism and modesty to the religion.[6] Calvin and his new view on Christianity had a tremendous impact on the Dutch World, eventually leading to revolt. The first instances of radical uprising were seen in Flanders, travelling from Antwerp all the way up to Amsterdam. According to eyewitness accounts, groups of radicals stormed churches, looted artwork, beheaded statues, destroyed shrines, altars, and any other remnants of Catholicism they could find.[7] This is historically referred to by the Dutch as beeldenstormen, literally meaning the storming of statues, or as we know it in English as the Great Iconoclasm. Oude Kerk faced the same treatment seen in the rest of the Netherlands in 1578, as Calvinist reformers plundered the building and robbed the church of its valuables, demolished statues, as well as painted over the decorative medieval paintings with plain blue and white paint.[8] It was not until around 1687 that the church was officially converted to protestant.[9] 

Thereafter the Reformation, the church has remained in stable condition. Many renovations have been performed to ensure the preservation and maintenance of Oude Kerk. In one notable 1956 restoration project, Dutch workers began removing the many layers of paint that became plastered on the walls throughout the years. Unbeknownst to them, after working their way through blues and greens from the 18th and 19th centuries, all the way down to the Calvinist white layer, underneath revealed the intricate medieval paintings that are now on display.[10] Today, the church is one of many notable museums in Amsterdam. It is currently protected and preserved as a national monument under both Amsterdam’s Monuments and Archaeology department and the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency.[11] Not only does it still hold congregation every Sunday, but it now hosts contemporary art exhibits throughout the year. 

[1] Ulli Fischer, “Typical Amsterdam - Oude Kerk,” amsterdam.nl, September 16th, 2009, Accessed November 23, 2019, archive.is/20130113080634/http://www.amsterdam.nl/veelgevraagd/@4676/typisch_amsterdams_-_33/. 

[2] Herman Janse, De Oude Kerk te Amsterdam (Zwolle: Waanders Uitgeverij, 2004), www.dbnl.org/tekst/jans353oude01_01/index.php: 156. 

[3] Fischer, 2009. 

[4] Janse, 165-166. 

[5] “Education,” oudekerk.nl, Accessed November 23, 2019, //oudekerk.nl/en/education/. 

[6] John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church, 1543,” Protestant Heritage Press, 1995, www.swrb.ab.ca/newslett/actualNLs/NRC_ch04.htm. 

[7] “The Image-breaking in Antwerp, Flanders, Tournai, Holland, Utrecht and Friesland,” dutchrevolt.leiden.edu, accessed November 23, 2019, dutchrevolt.leiden.edu/english/sources/Pages/15660701.aspx.

[8] Fischer, 2009. 

[9] “Education,” 2019.

[10] Janse, 167.

[11] “Education," 2019.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Trinity Buchholz

Trinity Buchholz

Trinity Buchholz

Trinity Buchholz

Trinity Buchholz

Trinity Buchholz

Trinity Buchholz

Emmanuel De Witte, Interior of Oude Kerk, oil on wood, probably 1650, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438490.

Map of Amsterdam [map]. Scale not given. In: Civitates Orbis Terrarum I. Cologne: Braun and Hogenberg, 1572, page 20. <http://historic-cities.huji.ac.il/netherlands/amsterdam/maps/braun_hogenberg_I_20_b.jpg> (Accessed December 5, 2019).