Christ seems banned from seedy modern-day Amsterdam, with its red light districts and drug bars. But there was a time when he was literally banned here.
You see can see old Amsterdam longing for him in two faces tucked away in the renowned Rijksmuseum in the Dutch capital.
Here visitors may appreciate the works of the great Dutch masters, including Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer and others. One of the most admired masterpieces is Rembrandt's The Syndics, which he finished in 1662. It is a portrait of the officials, or warders, in the Drapers’ Guild of Amsterdam.
Two of these syndics, captured so-serious about their civic business in their drab Calvinist attire, held a deep and dangerous secret: Aernout van der Mye and Jacob van Loon owned houses that served as clandestine chapels for the celebration of the Catholic Mass.
The residents of Amsterdam today are proud of their religious and ethnic tolerance. Here people of different creeds and colors go on with their daily activities peacefully. In the 16th century, however, many of the Dutch in Holland's northern provinces became Calvinists and revolted against the rule of King Philip of Spain.
A long and brutal struggle ensued; atrocities were committed on both sides. These political and religious rivalries left a tradition of mistrust between the country's Catholic and Protestant communities.
A memorial to the Catholics who lived (and died) in that less tolerant era still exists in the center of Amsterdam. The Our Lord in the Attic Museum (Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder) is a secret chapel. It is in a canal-side house just west of the Damrak, the city's main thoroughfare.
In 1578, the Calvinists staged a coup, known as the Alteration, and seized control of Amsterdam. They closed the religious houses and took over the churches. The Calvinists also expelled the Catholic rulers and clergy. Councilors and priests were exiled from the city by ship. New legislation outlawed Catholic Mass and Lutheran and Mennonite services.
Catholics went underground. Young men crossed over into neighboring Flanders, then under Spanish control, and studied for the priest-hood at Holland's College in the University of Leuven (Louvain).
Then they returned incognito as priests to the Netherlands. Secretly they said Mass in the attics and back rooms of private homes. Then Catholics began to construct clandestine chapels inside their residences. Eventually there were scores of them in Amsterdam and throughout the country—including the homes of Rembrandt's syndics van Loon and van der Mye.
During the Napoleonic occupation of the Netherlands, religious toleration prevailed. Then, in 1848, a new Dutch constitution guaranteed freedom of religion. Many once-secret Catholic chapels remained in use for Mass until well into the 19th century. Eventually modern churches in neo-Gothic style replaced them.
Upstairs in Hartman's House
Our Lord in the Attic faces Oudezijds Voorburgwal, one of Amsterdam's most picturesque canals. To the rear are two smaller houses fronting on a side alley.
A citizen named Jan Hartman built these structures in the 1660s. He resided with his wife in the lower part of this canal-side house. Hartman and his associates built the connected attics of the three houses into one chapel. The congregation came in through a side door on the alley and then went upstairs to hear Mass. As restrictions against Catholics were lifted, the chapel was improved and beautified.
Visitors now enter the museum through a street door and move through the ground and first floors. Here are the chaplain's quarters and an elaborate parlor. In the rear are the old confessional, the curator's office and facilities for exhibitions.
On the second floor is the chapel with its altar and seats. Above on each side in place of what normally should be the next two floors are two seating galleries.
An interesting feature of the sanctuary is a revolving pulpit, placed within the altar and pulled out as needed. Above the altar is a painting, The Baptism of Christ, created for the chapel by Dutch artist Jacob de Wit in 1736.
Our Lord in the Attic served as the parish of St. Nicholas for Catholics in central Amsterdam for over two centuries. In 1887, a new church of St. Nicholas, near the Central Railway Station, opened to provide for the spiritual needs of the area's Catholics. Abandonment threatened Our Lord in the Attic. Fortunately a group of supporters bought the building and made it into a museum.
Today Catholic families of Amsterdam still use this former secret chapel for weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies on festive occasions. For them, it is a place that combines the inspiring heritage of the past with the bright hopes of the future. For the Catholic traveler from abroad, it is like a small jewel, re-discovered, whose radiance points to the creator of all things bright and beautiful.
John Carroll writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.