Any visit to the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular offers plenty of evidence that tolerance — you might even call it an intolerance of intolerance — is part of the national character, from the famous smoke shops to the Red Light District. Those two examples, mind you, are not quite as “out there” as they once were, but even so, you will not confuse live-and-let-live Amsterdam with Salt Lake City — or even with London or Berlin.
This tolerance has long extended to religion, too — which I was reminded of on a visit to a quirky museum that’s one of Amsterdam’s oldest. Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord of the Attic) has an offbeat history that evokes this country’s live-and-let-live ethic even in a stormy time in its history: It’s a 17th-century merchant’s house that once doubled as a “secret” Roman Catholic church.
Hartman's Hidden Church
In the 1500s, you see, the Netherlands was ruled by Catholic Spain, and the Duke of Alba took it upon himself to crush the Protestant Reformation in the Low Countries, an effort that did not endear the locals to Catholicism. Dutch Calvinists fought back, declared their independence, and — tit for tat — prohibited Catholic worship.
Enter Jan Hartman, a Catholic merchant. In 1661 he bought a canal house with two rear buildings, joined its attic with that of the other buildings, and created a “clandestine” Roman Catholic church. Except here’s how clandestine that church was:
Dozens of workmen—and prodigious quantities of materials—went into building and furnishing it.
Up to 150 worshippers would troop in and out of masses every weekend.
Eventually, the church even added a pipe organ—not the least assertive of musical instruments.
Now, didn’t any of those workmen snitch, or get loose-lipped over a glass of gin in some pub? Didn’t the neighbors—or the authorities–ever notice scores of families entering Hartman’s home every Sunday morning? Can we believe that no neighbors or passersby ever heard a peep from that mighty Wurlitzer?
For that matter, what had made Hartman so sure that Catholics could get away with this? I think the example of 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese Jews finding a refuge in the Netherlands didn’t hurt. Dissidents from England had fled to Holland for religious freedom, too. Americans know them as the Pilgrims, and one of the primary reasons they moved on to North America was not Dutch discrimination, but lack thereof — a fear that their children were (understandably) becoming too attracted to the tolerant local ways.
Amsterdam's Second Oldest Museum
In any case, the “hidden” church lasted for 200 years. Catholicism may have been illegal, but the Dutch, characteristically, were loath to pursue the issue.
In 1887 a Roman Catholic church opened at street level, and Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder upstairs soon became but a curiosity, and then, a year later, it became a museum -- Amsterdam’s oldest museum after the Rijksmuseum. In 2008 it purchased an adjoining canal house to accommodate temporary exhibitions, and now the original living and worshipping spaces are being restored. (The restoration is scheduled to be completed in 2013.)
“The museum will remain open during all the works,” museum spokesman Hans Gramberg assured me. Thus, even when there are restorations going on, folks can still visit this immense “secret” space and smile over the fact that such an imposing thing could ever have been considered “hidden.”
Admission is 7€ (US$10.40/£6.30), but free to holders of the Amsterdam Pass. For more information, visit the church museum's web site.