The Oude Kerk (Dutch for "old church") is Amsterdam’s oldest parish church. Consecrated in 1306 by the bishop of Utrecht, its renaissance atmosphere has barely been touched and is the obvious starting point of any historic walk in Amsterdam. The foundations were set on an artificial mound, thought to be the most solid ground of the settlement in this marshy province. The church covers an area of 3,300 square meters. Today, it borders Amsterdam's main red-light district.
The original building design was audacious and the church has seen a number of renovations performed by 15 generations of Amsterdam citizens. The church stood for only half a century before the first alterations were made, the aisles lengthened and wrapped around the choir in a half circle to support the structure. Not long after the turn of the 15th century, north and south transepts were added to the church creating a cross formation. Work on these renovations was completed in 1460, though it is likely that progress was largely interrupted by the great fires that besieged the city in 1421 and 1452.
The roof of the Oude Kerk is the largest medieval wooden vault in Europe. The Estonian planks date back to 1390 and boast some of the best acoustics in Europe. Many concerts are performed here, including the BBC Singers and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.
The floor consists entirely of gravestones. The reason for this is that the church was built on a cemetery. Local citizens continued to be buried on the site within the confines of the church until 1865. There are 2500 graves in the Oude Kerk, under which are buried 10,000 Amsterdam citizens, including Dutch figureheads, the naval hero Jacob van Heemskerck and Dutch West India Company board member Kiliaen van Rensselaer, one of the founders of New Amsterdam on Manhattan, known today as New York.
Before the Alteratie, or reformation in 1578, the Oude Kerk was principally Catholic. Following William of Orange’s defeat of the Spanish and the influence of Calvinists, the church was adopted by the Protestants. Throughout the 16th century battles, the church was looted and defaced on numerous occasions. All that was spared were the paintings on the ceiling that could not be reached.
Locals would gather in the church to gossip, peddlers sold their goods and beggars sought shelter. This was not tolerated by the Calvinists however, and the homeless were expelled. In 1681 the choir was closed off with a brass screen. Above the screen is the text, “The false practices gradually introduced into God’s church, were here undone again in the year seventy eight,” referring to the reformation in 1578.
In the same year, the Oude Kerk became home to the registry of marriages. It was also used as the city archives, the most important documents locked in a chest covered with iron plates and painted with the city’s coat of arms. The chest was kept safe in the iron chapel.
Rembrandt was a frequent visitor to the Oude Kerk and his children were all christened here. It is the only building in Amsterdam that remains in its original state since Rembrandt walked its halls. In the Holy Sepulchre is a small Rembrandt exhibition, a shrine to his wife “Saskia” van Uylenburgh who was buried here in 1642.
There are three pipe organs in the Oude Kerk, the old church organ built in 1658 and the cabinet organ built in 1767. The third was built by the German Christian Vater in 1724 and is regarded as one of the finest baroque organs in Europe. It was acknowledged by the church Commissioners as “perfect.” The organ was dismantled whilst renovations were made to the church tower in 1738, and upon reassembling it, Casper Müller made alterations to give the organ more force. It became known as the Vater-Müller organ, to acknowledge the improvement of sound.
The bust of famous organist and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck celebrates the lifetime he spent playing here. His early career began at the age of fifteen when he succeeded his deceased father Pieter Swybertszoon as the Oude Kerk’s organist. He went on to compose 150 psalms and secure an international reputation as a leading Dutch composer. His music would also be played over the city from the church’s bell tower. He is buried in the church.
In mid-March each year, Catholics arrive at the Oude Kerk to celebrate the "Miracle of Amsterdam" that occurred in 1345. After taking communion, a dying man vomited the Host. When his vomit was thrown on the fire, the Host did not burn and was proclaimed a miracle. A new chapel was built on the place the miracle occurred and continued to be a place for miraculous cures.
Today the Oude Kerk is a centre for both religious and cultural activities and can be hired for presentations, receptions and dinner parties. Among the events hosted is the prestigious World Press Photo awards ceremony.