Why a church in Amsterdam’s Red Light District was hidden even as Jewry flourished

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AMSTERDAM — When diminishing ticket sales threatened to shutter Amsterdam’s second oldest museum in 2020, preservation activists came to the rescue.

Opened in 1888, “Our Lord in the Attic” (in Dutch, Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder) is the most famous remaining “house” church in the Netherlands, evoking an era when Catholics were forced to worship behind closed doors. In more than two centuries of operation, the museum has been rescued from oblivion on several occasions.

“The museum is so valuable to Amsterdam that we cannot let it go,” said deputy mayor Touria Meliani, who overruled a decision by the Amsterdam Art Fund to defund the plucky museum.

In March, “Our Lord in the Attic” was nominated for the European Heritage Label, granted by the European Commission to sites with important symbolic value for the continent. So far, only three Dutch sites have received the label, including the Holocaust transit camp Westerbork.

At the edge of the seedy Red Light District, the concealed church fills the attics of three buildings purchased by wealthy Catholic merchant Jan Hartman. Prior to the pandemic, the museum — which includes Hartman’s restored Golden Age home and the large muti-attic church — underwent six years of renovations for $12 million.

“[Our Lord in the Attic] fits the image we like to have of Amsterdam as an open and tolerant city,” said Meliani after receiving a petition with 16,000 signatures in support of rescuing the museum.

At left, ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ canal house and concealed church, with modern museum building at right. (Rebeka Mell/Our Lord in the Attic)

During the late seventeenth century, Amsterdam’s Calvinist municipal council banned public demonstrations of the Catholic faith. This spurred the creation of concealed “house” churches in the city, a process mirrored elsewhere in the Netherlands.

A decade after Hartman completed the hidden church, Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish community built the world’s largest synagogue in 1675

“These gathering places were not identifiable from the street as houses of worship, but everyone knew of their existence,” wrote Dutch historian Pieter Vlaardingerbroek.

Built to accommodate 150 worshippers, Hartman’s concealed church includes a small “Lady Chapel” and confessional booths. In 1794, the church was fitted with an organ by Hendrik Meyer.

Church of ‘Our Lord in the Attic.’ (Rebeka Mell/Our Lord in the Attic)

Across the sanctuary from the organ, the altar is flanked by wooden columns painted to resemble marble. A large oil painting called “The Baptism of Christ,” by Jacob de Wit, was placed above the altar. To this day, Catholic mass is held in Dutch during certain times of the year.

A decade after Hartman completed the hidden church, Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish community built the world’s largest synagogue in 1675. A fifteen-minute walk from “Het Hart,” the lavish Esnoga’s Sephardic congregants did not have to conceal their religious activities from public view.

‘Wealth and success’

When German-born Hartman bought a house on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal in 1661, he also snatched up two adjacent houses in the alley behind. The entire transaction cost 16,000 guilders, or more than $500,000 today.

The living room in Jan Hartman’s canal house, which concealed a church in the attic, December 2022. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

After his purchase on the edge of the Red Light District, Hartman began renovations across the three structures. With a grand salon to receive guests, the main house boasted canal views, white marble tiling, and black flagstone from Belgium.

“Wealth and success are what Hartman wanted to exude,” according to the museum.

“To emphasize his status, Hartman and his wife decorate the mantlepiece with their heraldic crest. Not that they have an aristocratic pedigree. The design combines a resting deer and a compass. The deer refers to Hartman’s name, and the compass refers to his wife, whose father was a compass maker,” according to the museum.

The family crest designed by Hatman and his wife. (Courtesy: Our Lord in the Attic)

The key renovation was Hartman connecting the top floors of all three houses to form a church, which came to be called “Het Hart,” in honor of the merchant who funded its construction. (Most of Amsterdam’s hidden churches had nicknames, including “The Parrot,” which is also open to the public.)

Churchgoers entered “Het Hart” through an alley, after which they climbed three flights of stairs to the attic. Before entering, congregants dipped their fingers in a basin with holy water and made the sign of the cross.

Sadly, Hartman died in 1668, not long after the church was completed. He left behind large debts, forcing the family to sell the house. As the generations passed, the building fell into disrepair.

More than 200 years later, in 1888, an association of Catholic citizens — “De Amstelkring” — saved the structure from demolition. Roof problems and cracked walls were fixed, allowing the house and its concealed church to become Amsterdam’s second museum, after the legendary Rijksmuseum.

‘Our Lord in the Attic symbolizes the vigorous survival of Catholics, who resisted inequality and discrimination’

On the eve of World War II, the museum was in a perilous situation that echoed the Hartman family’s financial crisis following the death of its patriarch. Benefactors stepped up to rescue the building, which included installing electricity and central heating.

Confessionals at ‘Our Lord in the Attic,’ December 2022. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Financial troubles resumed a few years after Liberation from Nazi occupation, and museum officials considered selling off the collection and converting the museum into a monastery for nuns. Once again, however, “Our Lord in the Attic” was given a new lease on life.

Lore surrounding the museum continues to accumulate, including when discoveries are made during renovations or construction.

During renovations several years ago, a pair of leather shoes were found under the floor of the anteroom. The practice of “concealed shoes” is most common in England, but the dusty footwear might have served a similar function.

“The hidden shoes would offer magical protection against evil spirits and other disasters,” said curator Theo Tienhooven, adding the shoes were found near a fireplace.

Concealed shoes discovered during renovations of the museum ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ in Amsterdam. (Courtesy)

“Sometimes it was residents who wanted to exorcise something in this way, sometimes it was construction workers who left shoes behind, because they were afraid that their work would disturb the spirits in the house,” said Tienhooven.

‘Remarkable resilience’

The museum “Our Lord in the Attic” represents “the deprivation of rights in the public sphere for Catholics and other dissenters in the Dutch Republic, letting us know that the so-called ‘Dutch Golden Age’ entailed discrimination against non-Reformed people,” historian Genji Yasuhira told The Times of Israel.

A senior lecturer at Kyoto University and expert on early modern Dutch religious-social history, Yasuhira authored the book, “Catholic Survival in the Dutch Republic: Agency in Coexistence and the Public Sphere in Utrecht, 1620–1672.”

“Our Lord in the Attic,” said Yasuhira, symbolizes “the vigorous survival of Catholics, who resisted inequality and discrimination.”

The church in ‘Our Lord in the Attic,’ Amsterdam. (Courtesy)

The response of Dutch Catholics to Golden Age-era restrictions was not limited to the construction of concealed house churches, said Yasuhira, who lived in the Netherlands for more than five years and visited the museum on multiple occasions.

Dutch Catholics, said Yasuhira, “mobilized the urban architectural setting, by, for instance, living together in certain districts, especially around people of elevated socio-economic status, that is, those who could open their private houses for clandestine/house churches,” he said.

Additionally, religious restrictions prompted Catholics to begin “installing special doors and entrances or exits connecting their houses and public streets for easy escape from judicial officers, posting sentries on public streets, and the like,” said Yasuhira.

“Dutch Catholics showed remarkable resilience through spatial practices, transforming the urban space into the early modern multi-religious space,” said Yasuhira.

Ad for opening of the museum ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ in 1888. (Courtesy)

From the windows of “Our Lord in the Attic,” said Yasuhira, the history of religion in the Netherlands is imprinted on the urban landscape.

“From the window of the southwest side, we see the Old Church, the oldest church of Amsterdam dedicated to St. Nicholas, where medieval Catholics celebrated the Mass but early modern Catholics were purged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Dutch Revolt against the Habsburg monarchy,” said Yasuhira.

“From the northeast side, we see the Basilica of St. Nicholas, the Roman Catholic church, which was erected in the late nineteenth century after the so-called Catholic emancipation in the mid-century, when Roman Catholics were allowed to restore the official episcopal hierarchy in the Netherlands for the first time in more than 250 years,” said Yasuhira.

‘Our Lord in the Attic’ museum in Amsterdam, December 2022 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Even if “Our Lord in the Attic” does not receive the European Heritage Label this fall, the Dutch public was clear about protesting plans to defund the museum in 2020: the Red Light District may go dim in the near future, but the lights must stay on inside Amsterdam’s second oldest museum.

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