Amsterdam church tour

We’re taking the long weekend in the metropolis to the north, and yesterday we did a walkling tour of six Amsterdam churches, following a trail laid out by Cate Desjardins in a 2019 blog post. This nicely took up an extended afternoon, from about 12 to about 5. The map on Cate’s blog post no longer works, so here’s mine (you go from south to north):

The first church on the list is De Krijtberg, a Jesuit church dedicated to St Francis Xavier, built in the 1880s to replace one of the many “hidden churches” in the city built when Catholics could not worship openly. Like a lot of buildings in Amsterdam, it is tall and narrow, and has adapted the nineteenth-century Catholic aesthetic accordingly. Its own website said it did not open until after lunch, but Cate’s blog said it opened at 12 and Cate was right.

Not for the first time, I was struck by one of the stained glass windows (probably by the studio of F. Nicolas in the early 20th century), in this case the Jesuits Doing Good in Africa, whether the Africans wanted them to or not.

Our second stop was at the Begijnhof, the former enclosed community for single women (usually Catholics, not usually nuns), which remains a residential space under the protection of St Ursula (who we would see again):

Unfortunately the ancient Begijnhof chapel itself was closed for renovations.

We went back this morning and sneaked into a service at the English Reformed Church. It has a lovely stained glass window commemorating the Pilgrim Fathers.

And the organist played “Simply the Best” at the end, as a tribute to Tina Turner, after the scheduled Buxtehude, which was a lovely touch.

But yesterday we were able to appreciate the serenity away from the bustle outside.

And there is Art.

Third up is the Nieuwe Kerk, one of the big Protestant churches of Amsterdam which is now an art gallery. Cate in her blog post feels this is somewhat skippable; we were fortunate because there is an impressive exhibition there at the moment, and that was well worth the admission price. The original fabric is also visible here and there, including the tomb of Admiral de Ruyter.

The current exhibition, World Press Photo 2023, is stunning and gut-wrenching. It starts with previous famous photos, such as fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts trying to go to school in North Carolina, and Tank Man from Tian-an-Men Square.

Of this year’s photos, I was particularly moved by this fifteen-year-old mother, her baby’s sixteen-year-old father having been killed in the Philippines’ war on drugs.

And the picture of the year is a woman being evacuated from Mariupol hospital in Ukraine, having been wounded while in labour by a deliberate Russian attack on the building. She and the baby both died.

Thoughtfully we wandered up to the red light district and the Oude Kerk, which had the highest admission price of any of the churches and frankly the least to see. It too is an exhibition space but there was nothing much on. A detailed audio guide takes you through the church fabric, including St Ursula again, partially preserved from iconoclasm, in the ceiling.

I think with both the Oude and the Nieuwe Kerk, it pays to check out the exhibitions in advance.

We skipped ahead on Cate’s list to go to the Basilica of St Nicholas next, because both she and the website said that it closed relatively early – in fact it stayed open later than we had been told. Like De Krijtberg, this is a working Catholic church built in the 1880s, but with a bit more space. An American choir was getting ready to perform Evensong.

Here we were both really grabbed by the Stations of the Cross by Jan Dunselman, which combine a realist sensitivity with an almost pre-Raphaelite balance of lighting.

Dunselman specialised in Stations of the Cross, and Dutch Wikipedia lists nine other churches where he tackled them. If we lived closer to this part of the world, I would try and check them all out.

Last but not least, we doubled back to Our Lord in the Attic, a hidden church from the time when Catholics could not worship openly, which has been preserved and restored. It is not very accessible for visitors with mobility issues.

This has very good displays explaining how and why the church was built in this way. I could not help but think of Anne Frank and her family, continuing the Amsterdam tradition of hiding up the staircase, centuries later and a little farther west. At the end we see St Nicholas again, patron saint of the city and of pawnbrokers and much else, holding onto his balls.

Anyway, this was a great way to explore a part of Amsterdam’s history. A couple more details: we paid for the three museums, but not the Begijnhof or the two active churches. Also, Amsterdam is full of places to snack or eat.

Thanks again to Cate Desjardins for inspiring us.