Westerkerk & Westertoren
The Westerkerk (Western Church), right at the edge of the Jordaan neighborhood, is a Protestant church on the Westermarkt, official address Prinsengracht 279. Designed by Hendrick de Keyser in Renaissance style in the form of two interconnected Greek crosses, it was built between 1620 and 1631, commissioned by the Amsterdam city council. It was finished by the architect’s son Pieter de Keyser (1595-1676). The church is 58 m (190 ft) long and 29 m (95 ft) wide. It can be visited all year round, except on Sundays.
After the 1930s the church became more derelict over time. In 1981 it closed to fix the most urgent issues. The church was extensively restored from 1984 until 1991.
Architect Hendrick de Keyser
Architect and sculptor Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621) designed quite a few Dutch historic buildings: in Amsterdam the Rasphuis Gate (Rasphuispoort), the East India House (Oost-Indisch Huis), the top part of the Mount Albans Tower (Montelbaanstoren), the third Haarlem Gate (Derde Haarlemmerpoort), the old Amsterdam Exchange (Beurs van Hendrick de Keyser), the top of the Mint Tower (Munttoren), the Northern Church (Noorderkerk), House Bartolotti and the House with the Heads (Huis met de Hoofden).
He was appointed Amsterdam city architect in 1595. He lies buried in the Zuiderkerk which he designed. Vereniging Hendrick de Keyser, an association for the conservation of historical buildings, established in 1918, was named after him.
The church was in use in 1631, but the tower was only finished in 1638. Amsterdam’s soft, residing soil made it impossible to build the tower completely in stone, so it was decided to do the lower part in brick, the first top half in sandstone, the upper part in wood covered with lead. It differed from Hendrick’s original plans: in 1620 the city decided to place the tower on the Prinsengracht side instead of on the side of the Keizersgracht. Son Pieter also changed the original octagonal tower into a square more classicist one. The Westerkerk was the city’s showpiece, hence all city seals and the Imperial crown on top of the tower.
The Westertoren is 85 m high (278 ft) and is the highest church tower in the inner city. The upper part with the emperor’s crown dates from 1637 and holds a carillon (set of bells) from 1658, made by famous bronze bell casters, the Hemony brothers. Amsterdam has four Hemony carillons: in the towers of the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church), the Munttoren (Mint Tower) and in the Westertoren. Anne Frank mentioned several times in her diary how the sound of the chimes soothed her.
In 1906 the imperial crown had been painted gold yellow, but during a restoration in 2006 the original blue color was restored. During the French period in 1795 church and state were separated: the church building thus became property of the Dutch Reformed Church, but the tower stayed property of the Amsterdam municipality. From 1909 until 1938 the Westertoren was the fixed reference point for Amsterdam Time (Amsterdamse Tijd), then the official time in the Netherlands.
The Wester in Songs
Left of the Westerkerk entry is a plaque in memory of Willy Alberti (1926-1985, real name Carel Verbrugge), “our Neapolitan singer”. Amsterdammers in the Jordaan lovingly call the tower Ouwe Wester (Old Wester) — it features in many a famous Jordaan song. The well known song “At the Base of the Old Wester” (Aan de voet van die oude Wester) in the video is performed by two famous Amsterdam singers — Johnny Jordaan (Johannes Hendricus van Musscher, 1924-1989) and Willy Alberti — during the soccer World Championship 1974 in Germany, for the Dutch national soccer team and coach Rinus Michels.
Climbing the Tower
One of the best panoramas of central Amsterdam used to be from the tower during the summer months, after climbing the spiralled stairway (only with guide). The viewing platform at 40 m (131 ft) high offers a great view. Unfortunately, the Westertoren is currently closed, undergoing a long term restoration (the tower is maintained by the city every 20 years).
The Sound of the Bells
Imported new inhabitants of the Jordaan area regularly complain to the city about the bells of the Westerkerk, which toll — even during the night time — on the half and whole hour. The carillon sounds every 15 minutes. And it has done this for the last 400 years.
Like Anne Frank, many old Jordaan inhabitants find the regular sound of the bells soothing and reassuring. But the growing number of expats and imports may change this cherished tradition around yet. Let’s hope they don’t win. Each Tuesday from noon until 1 P.M. there’s a carillon concert on the tower’s 50 bronze bells, played by hand, often with popular and sometimes modern songs.
Inside the Church
The strict geometric design and high open space of the church fits the Calvinist sobriety well. Inside the church is a big organ from 1686, the shutters painted by Flemish painter Gerard de Lairesse (1640-1711), representing scenes from the Bible: King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant and the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. The organ was restored to its original state in 1992.
The pulpit and carved inner portals date from 1630. In 1830 the original copper chandeliers were sold, so the ones in the church are now replicas. They have the Amsterdam seal on them, which also shows above the main entrance, held by two putti.
Buried in the Westerkerk
- Jan Bicker (1591-1653), shipbuilder and merchant (Bickers Island was named after him).
- Joan Blaeu (1596-1673), printer, publisher and famous cartographer.
- Govert Flinck (1615-1660), painter.
- Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). At the end of his life he lived at nearby Rozengracht 184. When he died he was so poor that he was buried in an unmarked rented grave, so the exact location is unknown. A commemorative plaque was placed inside the church later in 1906.
- Titus van Rijn (1641-1668), Rembrandt’s son.
- Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-1663), Rembrandt’s maid and later lover.
- Thomas Hope (1704-1779), merchant and banker, his wife Margaretha Marcelis (1705-1758) and their son John Hope (1737-1790).
- Lucas Bols (1652-1719), famous distiller. In 2015 a new grave stone was placed when the company he founded had their 440th anniversary.
The Westermarkt (Western Market) is the space around the church (not to be confused with the market on Westerstraat, which is sometimes wrongly called Westermarkt). Although it doesn’t these days, this square had various markets over time. From 1669 there was a large vegetable market on both sides of the Prinsengracht (between Egelantiersgracht and Looiersgracht), which continued on the Westermarkt. There was a bread market twice a week here as well. In 1755 a part of the square had a market for umbrellas, parasols and fans. Later there was also a basket market three times a week here, but only for the members of the basket makers guild.
From 1616 until 1631 this square between Raadhuisstraat and Rozengracht was called Keizersmarkt (Emperor’s Market). From 1619 the side on the Keizersgracht was the location of the Westerhal, a weigh house and meat market, demolished in 1857. In 1908 there was a small brick police station in front of the church on the southern side.
Statue of Anne Frank
On the Westermarkt, in front of the church, is a bronze statue of Anne Frank (created by Mari Andriessen). It was placed there in 1977, in the presence of Anne’s father Otto Frank, who had survived Auschwitz. The family’s safe house is on the other side of the church, at Prinsengracht 263. Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.
The Homo-monument, designed by Karin Daan, was placed next to the Westerkerk in 1987 on the side of the Keizersgracht. It consists of 3 pink granite triangles with 10 m (33 ft) long sides, together forming a large triangle with 36 m (118 ft) long sides. Homosexual men had been forced to wear pink triangles on their clothes in the concentration camps during the Second World War — in the 1960s the symbol was adopted as a badge of honor by the gay rights movement. The triangle at street level has a line from a poem by Jacob Israël de Haan: “Such an immense longing for friendship”. The original pink granite slabs had been too thin and fractured easily. They were replaced in 2003 by thicker ones.
From January 2023 until around half 2024 the Westertoren will be covered in scaffolding for extensive maintenance, the first time since 2001. Both the outside and the inside of the tower will be tackled, as well as the bells and carillion.
Website Westerkerk: https://www.westerkerk.nl/english
Website Westertoren: https://westertorenamsterdam.nl/?lang=en
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