Westertoren

In the diary of her life during the Second World War, Anne Frank wrote that she could hear the bells of the Westerkerk.

Indeed, the Anne Frank House is just a stone’s throw away from Amsterdam’s — no, Holland’s — most famous church.

The Westerkerk, and specifically its tower, occupies a unique place in the hearts of true Amsterdammers. It is much sung about, especially by the locals in the Jordaan district, who claim it as their Westertoren.

Westertoren in Amsterdam

The Westertoren in June 2004, with the old colors.

Strictly speaking the Westerkerk is just outside the Jordaan, as it is situated on the Eastern border of Prinsengracht, but its tower can be seen from many vantage points in the popular district.

Westerkerk and Westertoren

You’ll note that we talk about the Westerkerk, the church, and the Westertoren, the tower.

That is because they are two separate entities. When, during Holland’s French period, in 1795 the separation between church and state was realized, the church building became the property of the then Dutch Reformed Church. The tower, however, remained the property of the municipality of Amsterdam.

The Westerkerk was built between 1620 and 1631. At its completion the was the largest Protestant church in the world.

But the 85-meter (278 feet) tower — the tallest church tower in Amsterdam — was not finished until 1638. Some say it was finished a year earlier, since the Roman numerals above the city emblem translate to 1637. However, it was common in that time to apply a date before the work was actually completed.

Café Chris in the Jordaan district

Legend has it that the workmen who build the Westertoren were paid in this nearby café

Incidentally, many guidebooks and website say the tower is 87 meters tall, but that includes the weather vane.

And since we’re talking numbers: yes, the tower leans. It is about 85 centimeters out of plumb.

The Crown

The Westertoren bears the symbol of the imperial crown of Maximilian of Austria, which was his gift to the city in gratitude for support given tot the Austro-Burgundian princes during the Hook and Cod wars1 [See also: Amsterdam’s Emblem]

Originally the crown of the Westertoren was blue in color. For some reason, in the ‘Rembrandt Year’ of 1906 it was painted yellow. During the most recent renovations, completed in April 2007, the crown and the city emblem — regained their original colors.

Carillon

The carillon, or set of tuned bells, was cast by François Hemony in 1658. He and his brother Pierre were the first in the world to produce a perfectly-tuned set of bells.

Nowadays only the 14 heaviest original bells are still in use. 18 smaller bells were replaced in 1959. Since then the carillon has been restored and expanded several times — most recently in 2006. It now consists of 51 bells.

The bells play a short tune every 15 minutes, day and night.

Every Tuesday from 12 to 1 o’clock the carillon is played live by carilloneur Boudewijn Zwart.

Boudewijn Zwart, Carillonneur for the city of Amsterdam, even plays ‘heavy metal’

The Pearl of the Jordaan

The Jordaan district — across the canal from the Westerkerk — was created in the first half of the 17th century to accommodate the influx of workers and craftsmen in the rapidly expanding city.

The Noorderkerk, some 700 meters north of the Westerkerk, was built in — and for — this working class neighborhood.

The Westerkerk, just outside the Jordaan, was to serve the wealthy merchants within the city’s so-called ‘belt of canals‘ (grachtengordel).

But Jordaners were quick to claim the Westerkerk as theirs. Crooners like Johnny Jordaan and Willy Alberti sang about the Westertoren as the ‘pearl of the Jordaan,’ and about having been born ‘at the foot of the old Wester.’

After all, the locals jokingly referred to the Prinsengracht in Biblical terms as ‘the river Jordan,’ with the ‘promised land’ just across the canal.

De Straatzangers (Street singers), Max van Praag and Willy Alberti, sing about the Westertoren

The lyrics, in part:

I was born there as a child
I romped and played there
I lost my heart there
And I shared many sorrows there

Where ever I am on the earth
Though it is far away from here
I always will tell you
About that beautiful, wonderful Jordaan.

Refrain: At the foot of the beautiful Wester
I often reflected
I frequently dreamed
Of that beautiful, wonderful Jordaan

Rembrandt van Rijn

Until his death, the now famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn lived in a rented house at Rozengracht 184, where he died as a pauper.

At the time it was common practice to bury people in the nearest church, and for Rembrandt that was the Westerkerk. On October 8th, 1669 he was buried in a rented grave inside the church. While a record of his burial exists, the location of his grave was not identied.

The Westertoren in September 2007.

The Westertoren in September 2007.


It is speculated that he shares a grave with his son, Titus, who died a year earlier.

Architecture

Hendrick de Keyser, the city architect, built the church in Dutch Renaissane style, which is characterized by a combination of brick and stone. The long vertical lines are reminiscent of the Gothic style. The building is in the shape of a rectangle. Two rows of triplet-pillars support a clerestory in the form of a Greek cross. The church is 29 metres wide, 28 metres high, and has 36 windows. The nave is covered by a wooden barrel vault, of the type used extensively in coastal regions of the low countries, where the soft soil did not allow heavy vaulting. From 1985-1990 the church was completely restored. The electric chandeliers were then replaced by 12 replicas of the original chandeliers.

In the medieval tradition the tower, more than 85 metres high, stands projecting from the centre of the west facade. It was completed in 1638. The base of the tower, up to the first gallery, is of brick, while the sections above this is constructed mainly of wood with a facing of sandstone. The uppermost sections are also of wood, with an outer covering of lead.
Bells

The hour bell is the heaviest in Amsterdam and weighs more than 7.500 kilograms; its hammer 200 kilograms.
– Source: Westerkerk

It’s worth climbing to the top of the tower (186 steps to the sixth floor) for a superb view of the city. However, currently the tower is closed to the public due to restoration work until some time in 2017.

The Historic Church Towers of Amsterdam

The historic towers of Amsterdam from David Slingerland on Vimeo.

Church Services

The Westerkerk is one of the local parishes of the Dutch Reformed (Presbyterian) Church. On account of the ecumenical character of its services, every Sunday a great many churchgoers from all over Amsterdam and from outside the city worship here.

Services are held from 10:30 am to 12 noon, in the Dutch language.

Address

Westertoren
Prinsengracht 281
1016 GW Amsterdam

Notes:

  1. The Hook and Cod wars (Dutch: Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten) comprise a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490. Most of these wars were fought over the title of count of Holland.
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This post was last updated: Dec. 1, 2015    

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