Since the end of the Roman persecutions in the 4th century AD, the open practice of the Christian faith has rarely, if ever, been a problem. This has especially been true for the Catholic Church, which has dominated Christianity for well over a thousand years, especially in the west. However, there have been times when the practice of Catholicism has been forced underground. Such was the case of the Netherlands in the 17th century, when clandestine Catholic churches were erected throughout Northern Europe. The most famous surviving example of such a secret place of prayer is the Church of Our Lord in the Attic in Amsterdam. Although it no longer is in active use, it is maintained as the Roman Catholic Museum, one of the oldest museums in the city.
The country now known as the Netherlands was at center stage during the early years of the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. For long a possession of the Hapsburg Empire, the Dutch provinces in Northern Europe stood at the crossroads of Catholic and Protestant Europe. The Dutch revolt, which pitted rebellious Protestants against the Catholic establishment, was one of the early major religious clashes that ultimately culminated in the disastrous Thirty Year’s War.
In the aftermath of the Dutch Revolt, the Netherlands found itself an effectively independent nation, with large numbers of Catholics and Protestants. Instead of devolving into another round of bloodshed, the practical Dutch instead initiated what was effectively the first true freedom of religion in Europe. Although those who were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church were forced to practice their faith in private, the Netherlands otherwise became a haven for all, and everyone from Spanish Jews to English Puritans came seeking religious sanctuary.
This was especially true in wealthy and liberal Amsterdam, which was the financial capital of the world at the time. In particular, the city was home to a large Catholic population. While they were allowed to continue practicing their faith, the Catholics were forced to conform to religious ordinances; specifically that they remain out of sight. The Dutch Catholics responded by building openly clandestine churches throughout the city. The most famous of these was the Church of Our Lord in the Attic.
Our Lord in the Attic was originally constructed as a canal house in the early 17th century. During the 1660s, the top three floors were converted into a church which for use by the city’s Catholics. By the 19th century, the Netherlands abandoned its former stance, and all religions were allowed to practice openly. A massive new cathedral was constructed in the heart of the city, and the Church of Our Lord in the Attic was decommissioned. In 1888, it was restored for use as a museum, and is the now the most popular Catholic historic site in the country.
The Church of Our Lord in the Attic was designed to avoid undo attention from Amsterdam’s dominant Protestant population. The building was originally constructed as a canal house, one of many of the row houses built along the Oudezijds Voorburgwal Canal in the 16th century. It maintains its original exterior construction to the present day: a narrow, six-story, gray brick structure elegantly trimmed in white. To the average passerby it is utterly indistinguished from the other houses in the neighborhood.
The interior is another matter entirely. Taking up the entire three top floors of the building, the small space is a model of architectural efficiency, with virtually every square inch put to use. Two beautiful wooden balconies which run the length of the church help to make up for the minimal seating available on the limited floorspace. Several prominent 17th century Flemish artists contributed to the décor of the church. The church and its ancillary rooms now house exhibits related to the history of the building and the community that once worshipped here in secret.
The Church of Our Lord in the Attic is ironically located in the middle of the red light district in the heart of Amsterdam’s old city. It has been operated as a museum since the late 19th century. As of this writing it was undergoing substantial renovations. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00am-5:00pm; and Sundays 1:00pm-5:00pm. The cost of admission is E8.00. Web: www.opsolder.nl (official website)
Although Amsterdam has its share of wonderful churches, they are for the most part not Catholic institutions. However, there are a few worth noting. The 14th century Old Church dates from pre-Protestant times. The 19th century Church of St. Nicholas, constructed after the end of Catholic segregation, is one of the most spectacular and elegant buildings in Amsterdam.