History of the building
More than three centuries had passed before the 'Oude Kerk" the earliest
parish church Amsterdam attained its present form. The church has almost as
many chapels as there have been building phases. The earliest building phase
however is lost in the mist of time. Archaeologists think that the
'Amstelledammers, founded their first church at the turn of the 13th and
14th century. As site they chose a "terp" (artifcial mound) which served as
a cemetery on the east bank of the Amstel. The church was built in the form
of a basilica. The building was 40 m. long but in 30 Years time the size
wasn't sufficient any more. Evidently neither the diocese nor the
authorities had taken into account that municipal rights had been granted to
the town in 1300 by the Count of Holland. This resulted in a dynamic proces
of economic development which tempted many merchants and countrypeople to
come to the to the budding town.
The building-plan was ambitious: a 'hall-church' with a nave and two aisles, which were exactly alike. In the extension of the nave a long choir was built. The church was dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen and curiously enough later also of bakers. This building-plan was finished in several phases. After half a century the church had to be adapted once more. An obvious solution was chosen: lengthering the aisles and wrapping them around the choir in a half-circle. This extension to the east had as a consequence that the altar had to be moved to the choir-screen. In order to give the church somewhat the form of a cross, transepts were gradually added. Around 1380 the north-transept was built, in 1412 the crossing with the aisles, and ordy in 1460 the southtransept was added. These interruptions in the building process were probably due to the enormous fires of 1421 and 1452 when great parts of the town, with its wooden houses, were reduced to ashes. The church however was miraculously saved. Another reason for the delay was the building of the 'Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) on the Dam. This church turned out to be a rival in the competition for financial means. The 'Oude Kerk' now also came into conflict with the already existing planning of the area around the church. Great extensions in the width were not possible anymore and the development of the building came to an end. The limits of the expansion had been reached: about 70 by 60 by 20 m. Fortunately the existing transepts still made it possible to build sidechapels on the north and south side at the beginning of the 16th century. Nave, crossing and choir were heightened by clerestories. Perhaps unconsclously the architect had returned to the model of the original church on the banks of the Amstel.
1370: small choir replaced by a larger multiple-sided choir.
1390: Entire nave replaced by a nave and two aisles, all three of equal width and length. This made it a hall church, possibly the first hall church in the Netherlands.
ca. 1460: The transepts were extended eastward and the choir received an ambulatory – a unique feature for a hall church. A chapel was built on the south side.
Between 1485 and 1517, side chapels were built on the north and south sides of the nave and an extended transept. The portals and other additional rooms such as the Iron Chapel (that housed the city’s archives) and the Holy Sepulchre on the north side.
Around 1510, the nave was heightened and clerestories were added.
Between 1550 and 1560, the Maria Chapel was added to the north side of the choir and its crossing and choir were heightened.
After the Reformation
The 'Oude Kerk' suffered from the iconoclastic fury in 1566 which left a trail of destruction throughout the Netherlands. The church was violently looted and the images were destroyed. The victory of the Calvinists in 1578 made this violation complete. Images of saints and altars had disappeared from the church and only because the wallpainting's in the vaults were difficult to reach, were they saved for posterity, although painted over many times.
Before 'the Alteration' as this reformation is called, the 'Oude Kerk' literally was used as a 'living room' of the city. In the same way as now tramps seek shelter in the Central Station, beggars and wanderers slept in the church and pedlars displayed their goods in the building. To the followers of Calvin this of course was unacceptable, as we can read on the choir-Sate at the side of the nave. These Augian stables were thoroughly cleaned and in the 17th century the attention of the church authorities focused on the interior. i.e. pulpits, monuments and memorial stones. In the same period the two organs were placed in the church and one of them is the well-known Vater-Müller organ (1724). The church became a true copy of the bourgeois society, respectably decorated with the furniture of those days. But the adaptation to the taste of that time was not limited to the interior only. In the 18th century the last external building-activities were effected: the addition of a variety of small houses leaning against the church.
Parts of the oak vaults were renewed which meant irreplaceable damage to the wallpaintings. In 1755 the entire vault was painted Prussian blue. Under this coat of painting, the decay continued however and in the beginning of the 20th eentury this became clearly visible. From 1912 till 1914 some emergency restaurations were done, which however proved not to be satisfactory.
As a result the 'Oude Kerk' had to close its doors in 1951 because of the danger of collapsing. In order to save the monument the 'Stichting de Oude Kerk' was founded on the 25th of May 1955. The foundation had two aims: conservation of the building and opening it to the public with a variety of activities in the social and cultural fields. In 1955 the total restauration was started and 24 years later the immense job was completed. The restauration had cost 26.5 million Dutch guilders and on the 14th of March 1979 the impressive building was opened to the public.
In 1571, seven years before the church began serving as a Protestant church, the meeting room for the Guild of Our Lady was built next to the Maria Chapel.