The Churches Influence In Amsterdam

Amsterdam de Nieuwe Kerk, The New Church

The Catholic and Protestant churches each have long histories of influence throughout European history. While the decimation of the Second World War depleted entire cities, including all constructs of religious sanctimony, Amsterdam is one of the few cities within Europe that was spared. The architectural archive, withstanding today, offers insight and a historic construct in which modern Amsterdam has been centered around and built upon. Not only has religion, specifically the church, influenced Amsterdam’s architecture throughout history, but it has also informed the relationship between internal structures within the city to external features within nature––surrounding the city. Additionally, as with many Western societies, Amsterdam’s religious––Catholic and Protestant––history has impacted the social and mental framework of the Dutch people, in regards to how they view and interact with their surroundings––whether consciously or not.

The basis of Amsterdam’s architectural composition is laid within the religious cornerstone of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, spanning back to the 13th century. While ecological factors and geographic features undoubtedly formed the structural functionality and purposes of the city, the architectural formation and design is very much derived from the church’s historical influence. This is seen in the placements of the “old church,” Oude Kerk (13th century), and the “new church,” Nieuwe Kerk (15th century), each opposing one another on parallel sides of the city’s dam. Amsterdam’s history, like much of Europe, is elapsed with political, social and religious waves of events, continually forming and reforming the culture of the city. Though the originating religious order of the state is contrary to its modern secular standing, the essence of Amsterdam’s religious construct is still displayed in the narrative of its architecture.

The inheritance left by the once highly devout Catholic city is displayed in its withstanding construct. The essence of the city’s past is told through the architecture. As seen throughout history, the architecture of Amsterdam is not stagnant, but parallels the political climate and change in time. From the origins of Catholicism to the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish government and resulting ‘Dutch Republic,’ to religious tolerance and economic affluence during the “Golden Age,” each period and event influenced how cultural history grew the city’s design––not just geographic and environmental features, or operational necessity. While much of Europe was decimated during the Second World War, Amsterdam was left unmarred, retaining the deep history within its buildings’ walls.

The hierarchy of the church first influenced Amsterdam’s structural layout. Much of the original architecture, therefore, was centered on the religious order and stylized by the church. The architectural implications of Catholicism were such that the structural layout of the Church building itself was in the form of a crucifix cross. Within this layout was also specific positioning of religious apparatus, such as the placement of the pulpit. Catholicism not only influenced layout and design within the church building but, on a larger scale, within the city as a whole. The positioning of the Catholic Church anchored the city of Amsterdam; as previously relayed, the old and new churches were each planted on opposite sides of the city’s dam. Similar to how venerated structures––such as national monuments and memorials––are intentionally placed in specific locations within most cities, the placement of the Catholic Church within Amsterdam was intended with the same kind of sanctification. The shift in style parallels the shift from a religious hierarchy to a cultural one.

Huge socio-cultural changes impacted the city, not just in government and politics, but also style and design. A new religion meant new stylized architectural design. As the Catholic Church was mapped out in the shape of a crucifix cross, Protestant churches were built in the shape of the Greek cross––like a plus sign. As Joppe, a Dutch Architectural Historian, notes: this shift meant not only architectural differences, but was also operationally intentional––like the placement of the pulpit––within religious traditions. While geographic and economic aspects certainly impacted the structure of the city, much of Amsterdam’s design can be attributed to its social and cultural history. A shift in period and culture meant an evolution of architecture: from the Catholic Church, to the golden age, to Dutch classicism of the City Hall. 

For the first time, in the mid-to-late 17th century, Amsterdam’s City Hall was constructed and came to represent an institution “even higher” than the church (Joppe). The rise in style of Dutch Classicism parallels the transition from a religious based nation––first Catholic, then reformed Protestantism––to religious freedom. As the Netherlands became less centered around the church and more centered around secular thought, the city’s design gravitated toward an array of neo-styles, inspired from other European nations––such as England’s Gothic Revival, and France’s Neoclassicism. Although Amsterdam’s architecture is aesthetically appealing to many tourists today, the beauty of its design is not just a work of art but also a story of the city’s history. In its architecture, one can see the remnants of a once devout Catholic nation, transition to an expansive world of religious freedom and secular thought. 

Catholicism is not only ingrained in Amsterdam’s history, but can be exhibited in the social mindset. Since Amsterdam’s inception in the 12th century––primarily associated with Catholicism––till the Protestant Reformation in the 1600s, the city had embraced the Church. Not until the second half of the 20th century did the Netherlands become one of the most secular countries in the Western World. An example of this adherence to God, even from a secular perspective, is poetically oriented in Nescio’s Young Titans. As a band of childhood friends in Amsterdam wrestle their internal groanings of adulthood, a despair––or betrayal––of God conflicts their unbelief. Interwoven in their internal debates for fulfillment and purpose, an admiration of natural beauty counters their view of Amsterdam’s urban design. 

While the urbanization of Amsterdam has a theatrical and transformative past, the natural beauty that counters the man-made stone structures, also holds a realm of supreme beauty. There’s something about nature that has the intuitive ability to direct us to God––or at least toward a creator behind creation. Be it the expansiveness, splendor, or beauty, nature’s majestic surface beckons a sort of yearning for a majestic being behind it all. Like Nescio’s Young Titans who, like nature, are disconnected yet adjoined to the manmade structure of the city, an admiration of Amsterdam’s natural composition strikes a chord within them. As they sit on the dike, at the outer edge of the city, and reminisce on the past, nature’s constant backdrop is the canvas for their memories of childhood bliss. While a direct appeal to God may not be intended, a connection to God, evoked through nature, is certainly ingrained within them––whether from their past, or mere cultural upbringing.

While Western nations across the globe have increasingly become more secular, opposing the institutive churches they were founded upon, the morals ingrained within these Western cultures are still present and informed by their doctrinal principles. An example of this religious complex is exhibited in Young Titans. Similar to America’s Southern churchgoer tradition, or the United Kingdom’s Church of England, the historical religious practices within the Netherlands are presented in Nescio’s constant referral to God. The boys, in Young Titans, speak of God as someone who has let them down. Though they talk of making it on their own, “we had to take care of it ourselves” (Nescio, 42), they still have so much reliance on, or yearning for, God. 

Young Titans was written in the early 20th century, preceding both World Wars. While the boys in Nescio’s story do not address Dutch Jews, or Judaism in Amsterdam, the absence and lack of acknowledgement of any religious institution goes to show the decline in religious affiliation (or awareness), and the drift away from Christianity, within the city, even at the beginning of the 1900s. 

By examining many Western cultures today, we can see a clear drop in adherence to religious tradition, and a spike in atheism and secular thought. While it’s clear that the Catholic and Protestant churches have impacted these nations’ histories abundantly more than any other continent on the globe, a modern allegiance to these inherited faiths does not correspond. However, despite a shift in contemporary thought, the church’s past and present impact on these nations, as exemplified with Amsterdam, continues to impact the basis of Western and European constructs: both physically, as with Amsterdam’s architectural design, and socially, within the mindset and upbringing of the people.

Citations

Nescio, “Young Titans,” 1914 in Dutch; transl. in Amsterdam Stories (New York Review of Books, 2012), 35-62.

Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, video lecture #1 and  #2, Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020.

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3 thoughts on “The Churches Influence In Amsterdam

  1. Having come from a country where I did not get the chance to further explore new religions I definitely gravitated toward you particular piece. On through our the readings I was always fascinated by the influence the church and religion had on Amsterdam throughout history, only recently learning about the golden age and the shift to Calvinsim. Your piece truly broke down in an effective manner, even for someone like myself who also struggles in the subject of theology, of how exactly it started shifted and prospered, Alongside how the city was in reaction to that.

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  2. The Netherlands has always had an interesting relationship with the Church. After the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism and Protestantism – specifically the branch of Protestantism known as Calvinism – were constantly at odds with each other in the Netherlands. Religion was always heavily ingrained in Dutch culture, but where it was once a force of unity, the advent of Protestantism had turned it into a source of conflict. From this competition came the many socio-cultural changes you discussed – innovations in architecture and new political orders. Yet, Amsterdam’s integration with and reverence for the natural world remained a constant. The most important point you make, in my opinion, is that while the Netherlands has secularized significantly in the past several centuries, the legacy of Christianity lives on through Dutch architectural traditions, morality, and love of nature. The main purpose of religion is to lead people towards a certain way of life, especially a certain set of values, and Christianity – regardless if you view it through the Catholic or Protestant lens – has succeeded in instilling that way of life in the Dutch people.

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  3. Your point about the impact of transformation of churches or religions on Amsterdam is very insightful. It is always fascinating to see how religion influence the planning and design of a city. In a nation that endorsed Catholicism and later Protestantism, the churches in its city will always be its central architectures. They have to be built on an important spot like the old and new churches in Amsterdam. Even after secularization of many nations, religious buildings within those nations, including churches, temples, and mosques, maintained their status and became monumental architectures of the city. They continued to serve their local or even international community as time progressed.

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