In Rembrandt’s footsteps

The Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Amsterdam dates back to 1250. In later years it was enlarged and dedicated to Saint Nicholas, patron saint of seamen and – oddly – of bakers. It is one of a few places in Amsterdam where one can trace the footsteps of the great painter Rembrandt van Rijn.

From the late Middle Ages the Oude Kerk served as a kind of agora or public square with a roof. In fact it is still a relatively open space, quite unlike other churches of its size. In medieval times, locals gathered there to gossip, peddlers to sell their goods, fishermen to repair their sails and beggars to find shelter. Before the Reformation of 1578, the Oude Kerk was Roman Catholic, but following William the Silent’s defeat of the Spanish, it was taken over by the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. In 1681 a brass screen was erected to close off the choir with a text that reads, “The false practices gradually introduced into God’s church were here undone again in the year seventy eight.”

During the 16th century the church was often been looted and defaced, no more so than during the Beeldenstorm of 1566 (a wave of iconoclastic vandalism), when a mob destroyed much of its art and fittings, including an altarpiece whose side-panels had been painted by Maarten van Heemskerck – famous for having added Rome’s Colosseum to his engravings of the seven (now eight) wonders of the world.

The organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) spent a lifetime playing in the church. At the age of fifteen he succeeded his father as the Oude Kerk’s organist and went on to write music for all 150 psalms and to become Holland’s leading composer. He is buried in the church.

In 1578 the Oude Kerk became the repository of Amsterdam’s archives. The most important documents were locked in a chest covered with iron plates and painted with the city’s coat of arms. The church also became the city’s registry of marriages. On 5 June 1633 Rembrandt went to the Oude Kerk to record his engagement to Saskia van Ulenborch, whom he married one year later. The betrothal ceremony required Rembrandt to walk through a red door into a special room where marriage licences were signed. Today’s visitor can literally walk in his footsteps.

Saskia became Rembrandt’s muse and he included her in many paintings, drawings and etchings. But just eight years later, on 14 June 1642, she died, probably from tuberculosis. Rembrandt bought a tomb in the floor of the Old Church where her body was laid, but in 1662, in severe financial difficulties, Rembrandt apparently sold the tomb and she may no longer be there. Rembrandt definitely is not – except for his ghostly presence in the marriage registry. He died on 4 October 1669 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk, which was his local parish church.

The following year Rembrandt made a beautiful posthumous portrait of Saskia – as though to obliterate the memory of her suffering and his own – and he used the most precious surface he could find: a rare and costly mahogany panel.

Rembrandt’s House (1978) by Anthony Bailey is as excellent a biography of the artist as one could hope to read. Bailey writes that “Rembrandt’s life is… not a portrait done in vivid light and dark, like his own early chiaroscuro, but full of subtle harmonies, half-tones, deeper ambiguities and mysteries.” Somewhat akin to the Old Church itself, whose half-light and echoing silence obscure the footsteps of old.

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One comment on “In Rembrandt’s footsteps

  1. Kristine Greenaway says:

    Dear Philip, This is beautifully written. Thank you. It’s a cold night in Geneva with the “bise” howling outside. This entry warmed my heart.

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