Rasphuispoort, Heiligeweg, Amsterdam

Rasphuis Gate at Heiligeweg

At Heilige­weg, across from the Voet­boog­straat, at the side entrance of the Kalver­passage shopping center, is a gate to what was once a correctional facility for men, the Rasp­huis (Grating House). The gate dates from 1603 and is a national monument. It was designed in Mannerism style by architect Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621). This was the outer gate of the facility, the inner gate has been lost. The statues on top were added late in the 17th century.

Rasphuispoort at the Heiligeweg, Amsterdam

Rasphuispoort at the Heilige­weg (December 2021).

Clarissenklooster (Convent of the Poor Clares)

Before the Protestant Alteration in 1578 this was the convent of the Poor Clares (a Franciscan order), one of the last convents to be added in Amsterdam. The lots were purchased in 1495, but Amsterdam, seeing no need for yet another convent in an already over­populated city, tried to block the build in 1498 and 1499 by prohibiting all guilds from accepting construction orders. But the sisters started anyway in some existing houses on the terrain. In 1509 the case was settled in court and in 1513 the sisters got an official OK to use 800 m² (956 yd²) with a maximum convent size of 30 nuns.

Clarissenklooster, Heiligeweg, Amsterdam, on an oil painting by Jan Micker from 1652

Under the lens the Poor Clares convent (Clarissen­klooster) main building and garden at Heilige­weg, depicted as it was in 1538. Left of it the old city wall (now Singel) with the Reguliers­poort (Regulars Gate), now Munt­toren (Mint Tower) on Munt­plein (Mint square). Just below the lens is the Kalvers­traat, under the lens right is the Heiligeweg with Spui further right. Detail of an oil painting by Jan Christiaensz Micker (1599 –1664) from 1652, after a map from 1544 by Cornelis Anthonisz (Amsterdam Museum).

After 1579, even though the convent had officially been terminated, some nuns remained, joined by nuns from other disbanded Catholic convents, for whom houses and streets were constructed in the convent garden. Many Clare nuns moved to Portugal, at the same time when many Portuguese Jewish refugees arrived in Amsterdam. The convent first served as a sick ward for soldiers, but it was evacuated in 1590. The main building of the convent was transformed into the Rasphuis.

Rasphuis (Grating House)

When in 1596 the convent became a correctional facility for men, it also marked a change in how people thought about crime and punishment, preferring to put young criminals to work instead of publicly flogging or executing them. Unfortunately the lofty ideal soon became a cruel system of forced labor for maximum profit. The men were put to work grating brazilwood (pernambuco), highly exhausting, as it is a very hard kind of wood. The gratings were used to extract red dye for the many textile dyers in town. The council even managed to get a monopoly on the fabrication of the brazilwood saw dust.

Courtyard of the Rasphuis at Heiligeweg, Amsterdam, engraving from 1612

The courtyard of the Rasp­huis at Heilige­weg, from a topo­graphical atlas, 1612. Note the family just right of the center: a visit to this kind of facility was considered a fine and fun educa­tional outing for the kids in those days (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

The regime was quite harsh and ever more prone to abuse, physical punishment was a daily occurrence. Also, as the profits from the forced labor grew, more adult men were convicted to work in the Rasphuis. There was also a secret department, where people could pay to have unruly or unwanted family members locked up for a few years for “re-education” — at least these prisoners were given better food.

View of the Rasphuis on Heiligeweg, Amsterdam, in 1663

View of the Rasphuis on Heilige­weg in 1663 (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

The Rasphuis was also one of the main (tourist) attractions in the city, which could be visited for a small fee, to show what happened if you didn’t behave — during fairs entrance to the facilities was free. The Rasphuis was dissolved in 1815, having lost the dye monopoly after the French occupation. In 1892 a new prison was opened on the Amstelveenseweg and institutions like the Rasphuis became obsolete.

The Rasphuis Gate

On top of the gate is the Latin word Castigatio (Punishment), below it a quote in Latin from the 1st century Roman moralist Seneca: Virtutis Est Domare Quae Cuncti Pavent (It’s virtuous to tame what instills fear). The relief above the gate shows a cart laden with brazil­wood, pulled by lions, a bear, a wolf and a wild boar. A waggoner with a whip keeps them in line.

Top part of the Rasphuis Gate, Heiligeweg, Amsterdam

Top part of the Rasphuis Gate (December 2021).

Initially there was a timpanum on top with the Amsterdam coat of arms and two lions. This was replaced around 1700 by the current statues, their design also attributed to De Keyser. They show the Amsterdam town patroness, a shield with the city coat of arms on her knee, a whip in her right hand. To her sides are two shackled nude men. Despite a contrary advice the city council allowed the 17th century brick sides connecting the gate to the surrounding walls to be demolished, to make the shopping center more visible. Commercial interests were given priority over historical conservation.

Rasphuis gate at Heiligeweg, Amsterdam, side entrance to the shopping mall

Rasphuis gate, side entrance to the shopping mall (December 2021).

Swimming Pool Heiligeweg

In 1896 the Rasphuis building was demolished and replaced with a city swimming pool, the Heiligewegbad (Holy Road Pool). It was build on the foundations of the convent and Rasphuis and existed for 91 years, from 1896 until 1987. The city took ownership of the pool in 1935, renovating it and adding a 25 meter competition pool. In the 1930s there were steam baths, Turkish baths and relaxation rooms below the pool as well.

Inside the Heiligeweg swimming pool, Amterdam, in 1960

Inside the Heiligeweg swimming pool, 1960 (Nationaal Archief).

Another renovation was done in 1960. Because of an enormous exploitation deficit, the council decided to close the pool in 1983. Private citizens created a non-profit foundation, which kept the pool open by adding a restaurant, gym and beauty salon. Nevertheless, the final curtain fell in 1987 when the foundation went bankrupt. After that the pool was still in use for theater productions. In 1991 the pool was demolished, to become a shopping mall in 1997.

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