Our Lord in the Attic Museum is a wonderful place, hidden in the heart of Amsterdam’s city centre: a centuries-old house on the canal with a complete church in its attic. This amazingly well preserved building reverberates with the stories of merchants and priests and reveals how they live and work and practise their faith in the seventeenth century and after.
Freedom of Conscious
The church in the attic has a unique history. The owner of the house is a Catholic: Jan Hartman. He builds the church at a time when the city has forbidden any public forms of Catholic worship. Catholic mass has been banned from public churches since Protestant burghers wrest control of Amsterdam from the Catholic burgomasters in 1578; since then, all the city’s churches are Protestant. Yet Catholics continue to celebrate mass in their homes. While the Protestant city fathers are aware that private churches exist, they accept and tolerate them. The Dutch Republic is founded on principles of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Behind the front door, everyone is allowed to think and believe whatever they want. The hidden church at Our Lord in the Attic Museum shows how the city enabled different denominations to coexist in the seventeenth century. The church is a result of William the Silent’s declaration that everyone in the Netherlands is free to think what they think and believe what they believe. Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are a palpable reality in Our Lord in the Attic Museum.
Jan Hartman (1619-1668), a wealthy Catholic merchant, buys the house on Oudezijds Voorburgwal on 10 May 1661, together with the two adjacent houses in the alley behind. The transaction costs him 16,000 guilders. Originally from Germany, Hartman takes up residence with his wife Elisabeth and their children.
Soon after the purchase, Hartman begins a major rebuilding project incorporating all three houses. On the canal front he plans a day room. This room, with its fine view of Oudezijds Voorburgwal, is the Hartman family’s livingroom during the day. At night, it serves as a bedroom, with an inbuilt bedstead that is closed off in the day.
The grand salon, or Sael, is the proud centrepiece of the house. Here the Hartmans receive their guests, who are doubtless impressed by their hosts lavish wealth; the chimney breast with its twisted columns, the burlwood cupboard, the white marble tiling, alternating with black flagstones from Belgium. At least that is Hartman’s intention. He comes from the city of Coesfeld in Germany, and has risen from baker’s apprentice to entrepreneur in Amsterdam. Wealth and success are what he wants to project. To emphasize his status Hartman and his wife decorate the mantlepiece with their heraldic crest. Not that they have an aristocratic pedigree. The design combines a resting deer and a compass. The deer refers to Hartman’s name, and the compass refers to his wife, whose father was a compass maker.
Hartman breaks through the attics of the three houses, to open up a space for a private church. The church is named after the man who built it: Het Hart.
Jan Hartman does not have long to enjoy his new house and his attic church. He dies in April 1668, and is buried in Oude Kerk, the old church, on 25 April. His wife has the church bells ring for three hours. Hartman leaves his family with considerable debts. A few years on, the financial situation is so dire that the Hartmans are forced to sell the house.
Jan Hartman’s church occupies the attics of the house on the canal and the two adjacent houses in the alley behind. Combining these three attics creates an enormous space. The attic church can accommodate no less than a hundred and fifty people. Worshippers enter the church through a discrete doorway in the alley: Heintje Hoekssteeg. From there they climb the stairs to the church in the attic. A basin with holy water is placed for congregants to dip their fingers and cross themselves as they enter the church.
The Baroque altar is the jewel of the attic church. It is flanked by two marbled columns adorned with playful putti, each holding a lily. The eighteenth-century wooden carvings are actually candleholders. To save space, the pedestal of the left altar column serves a dual purpose: it folds out to reveal a mahogany pulpit.
The backdrop to the altar is an altarpiece by Jacob de Wit (1695-1754). The Amsterdam artist completes his ‘Baptism of Christ in the Jordan’ in 1716. The painting can be exchanged for other pictures as appropriate for the liturgical celebrations of the season of the year.
Jan Hartman rents the church and one of the alley houses to Petrus Parmentier. Parmentier (1601-1681) is from the Augustinian monastery of St Stephan’s in Ghent, which he enters at the age of twenty-one. A few years later, he is accepted into the priesthood. In April 1636, he arrives in Protestant Amsterdam: his instructions are to gather as many converts as possible to the Catholic faith.
Upon arriving in Amsterdam, Parmentier rents a room on Zeedijk. He soon starts celebrating mass in various Catholic homes. Parmentier is supported by a group of women known as spiritual daughters. They are among the over five thousand unmarried women in the Dutch Republic who dedicate their energy to the Church and live a life of prayer, chastity and good works. Maria van Eck (1608-1702) is one of the first spiritual daughters to connect with Parmentier. She actually lives with him on Zeedijk. Her successor is Margaretha van Loon (1632-1664). It’s through the wealthy cloth merchant Jacob van Loon, her father, that Parmentier meets the Hartman family. In 1662 Parmentier and his spiritual daughters move into the house on Heintje Hoekssteeg.
In 1664, Johannes van den Eeckhout is appointed to assist Parmentier. Under their guidance the community flourishes. In 1667, seventy children are baptized in one year and fourteen weddings are held in the attic church. In 1670, times change. With the Hartman family in financial trouble, Parmentier has to leave his residence and the attic church. The Van Loon family offer him assistance and he accepts the post of priest in their private church, De Ster.
When he dies in 1681, all of Catholic Amsterdam mourns Parmentier’s passing. Parmentier is buried in Nieuwe Kerk, in a grave owned by the Van Loon family.