It looks like a typical Amsterdam canal house, but behind the ordinary facade lies a secret church, a Catholic place of worship tucked in the upper floors of a rich merchant’s home. Built in 1653, the covert sanctuary is now one of Amsterdam’s most popular small museums.
Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder, better known as Our Lord in the Attic, provides a window on life in the 1600s—both religious life and that of an upper-class family. It is nestled alongside Thai and Indian restaurants in the city’s infamous Red Light District, a history-filled quarter that dates from medieval times.
Spanning three houses, the three-story church, with room for 150 worshippers, was built by Jan Hartman for his fellow Catholics at a time when the ruling Calvinists forbade them to worship openly. For two centuries, from 1578-1795, Catholics were forced to gather in homes and offices to say Mass in secret. Their lavishly decorated churches were taken over by Protestants and stripped of ornamentation.
Our Lord in the Attic is undergoing restoration, with a new visitor center planned in an adjacent building, but much of the artwork and furniture is still on display for audio headset-equipped visitors who tackle the narrow stairways. Two balconies rise above the long, narrow nave. There is an altar at one end, an organ at the other. In the upper balcony you really get the attic feel. Top-floor windows afford views Old City rooftops.
Besides religious objects, including oil paintings, angels and a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel, visitors will see a porcelain-tiled kitchen, heavy oak furniture and other period pieces. A fireplace accents the formal parlor, the largest room in the house.
Mass is said several times a year in the church, a museum since 1888. The restoration project is expected to be complete by September 2015.
Just minutes away from Our Lord in the Attic is the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the medieval city’s original church. The oldest building in Amsterdam, it dates back to around 1306. Because it was added on to for 300 years, the Old Church is a jumble of different parts. And it has a rather bare interior, a result of its Catholic trappings being removed when it was transformed into a Protestant (Dutch Reformed) church during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. It originally had 39 richly decorated altars. The witty map/guide, with a diagram of points of interest, delivers some comic relief.
The expansive church floor is covered with 2,500 gravestones—the most famous is that of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia (1612-1642). Graves were banned inside the church in 1886, when it was finally determined the practice was unhygienic.
Visitors to the Old Church will marvel at its cavernous, oak-timbered ceiling and carved 15th century choir stalls. It has four organs, including one built in 1724, and there are carillon concerts. You can climb to the top of the bell tower for views of the city.
Services are held every Sunday at 11 a.m., and the church is also a wedding venue. Art and photography exhibitions and other special events draw the biggest crowds.
The Jewish Cultural Quarter, once the home of a big Jewish community, also sheds light on Amsterdam’s religious heritage. The Jewish Historical Museum, with several locations in this part of town, is headquartered in a complex of four Ashkenazic synagogues from the 17th and 18th centuries. An excellent audio tour takes you through exhibits on Jewish ceremonial rituals and life in Amsterdam’s old Jewish Quarter. Of special interest are videos in the exhibition History of the Jews in the Netherlands—1900-Present Day, which focuses on life during and after World War II, when over 100,000 Dutch Jews were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
A block from the Jewish Historical Museum proper stands the imposing brick Portuguese Synagogue, still used by the Portuguese-Jewish community, which today numbers 600. The largest synagogue in Europe when built in 1675 by descendants of immigrants from Spain and Portugal, the well-preserved house of worship has tall windows that let in sunlight and two dozen chandeliers that are lit with 1,000 candles during holidays. The building has no heat or electricity.
Exhibits in the Portuguese Synagogue explain ritual objects and how services are conducted. Interactive stations feature interviews with Dutch Jews (English subtitles) who speak of their traditions. Visitors are free to climb the stairs to the women’s gallery, which overlooks the main floor.
In a separate building on the synagogue grounds, visitors can view ceremonial objects in the Treasure Chambers and a multimedia presentation showing archival photos of the history of Jews in Amsterdam. You also see the Winter Synagogue, a former seminary classroom where services are held in the colder months. The Portuguese Synagogue is included in the Jewish Historical Museum admission ticket.
This ticket also gets you into the National Holocaust Memorial, housed in the shell of the Hollandsche Showbourg (Dutch Theater). A short walk from the synagogues, the location has deep meaning for Jews because it was used by the Nazis in 1942-1943 as a deportation center. In filthy, crowded conditions, families awaited their fate for hours, days or even weeks before being sent to Dutch transit camps Westerbork or Vught and then to their last stop—extermination camps in Germany and Poland.
The façade is about all that remains of the original theater, where, under German occupation, only Jewish actors were allowed to perform for a strictly Jewish audience. Off the lobby is seating for a film on the theater’s wartime significance, plus a memorial wall with names of 6,700 families murdered. An outdoor monument, flanked by the brick shell of the stage wings, stands in the barren courtyard.
These churches and museums are among the many attractions covered by the I amsterdam City Card, a sightseeing pass good for 24, 48 or 72 hours (priced at 49, 59 and 69 euros). The card also grants unlimited rides on city buses and trams.
On my recent trip to Amsterdam, I stayed at Shelter Jordan, a hostel run by a Dutch Christian organization in the Jordaan, a former working-class neighborhood that today buzzes with shops, galleries and cafes. The three-story hostel, a former school, has men’s and women’s floors with an 18-bed dormitory (about $35 a night, breakfast included), plus four-, five-, six- and eight-bedded rooms at slightly higher rates. Clean, modern and well-run, Shelter Jordan welcomes guests of all ages, though most are in their 20s. Bible studies are offered, drugs and alcohol forbidden. The same Christian organization operates Shelter City, a hostel close to Our Lord of the Attic, but its Red Light District location makes Shelter Jordan the better choice. (shelter.nl)
For complete information on religious and other tourist sites in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, visit holland.com.
By Randy Mink