Monday, July 4, 2016

The Living Tradition of the Church of St. Nicholas

The Church of St. Nicholas
(Photo by Monique Raassen)
From the late 1500s to the late 1700s, Catholicism was banned in Holland, meaning that Catholics could not build churches or openly worship. In 1796, the National Council of the Batavian Republic lifted this ban, and, following this annulment, three churches—one of them the Church of St. Nicholas—were built with St. Nicholas as their patron saint. The Church of St. Nicholas, built from 1884 to 1887, is a Renaissance and Baroque style Catholic Church located on modern day Prins Hendrikkade in Amsterdam. The basilica was built to serve as a place of Catholic worship and a monument to honor St. Nicholas. The church also offers spiritual support of seamen through a neon lit cross—a beacon to sailors. [1] Historically with a more traditional congregation and character, the church primarily focuses its attention on the celebration of the liturgy, while maintaining the simplicity and style of the community’s history. 

Interior view of the altar
(Photo by Monique Raassen)
            Built in 1884, (which is considered recent relative to the timeline of the Catholic community in the region and Amsterdam architecture and structures), the Church of St. Nicholas appears older, due to architect Adrianus Cyriacus Bleijs’s stylistic choices. The church was constructed during the Gothic Revival, yet Bleijs’s design for the church was selected over one in the more popular gothic style of the times. Although it is unknown why Bleijs’ design was chosen, the design’s neoclassical and baroque elements reflect the congregation’s desire for tradition and renewal. The baroque features of the structure, such as the ornamental details, the style of the spires, and theatric pediments, express the Church’s celebration of being free to worship openly again after their period of religious oppression. Meanwhile, the neoclassical elements maintain tradition and the monumental presentation of the basilica, conveyed through the semicircular arches, coffered ceilings, and columns with Corinthian capitals. The architectural styles of the building together contribute to the continuation of the tradition in the Catholic Church by acting as a memorial to the past and a celebration of the future. 

            The structural elements of the Church of St. Nicholas play a large role in the emphasis on the liturgy and simple and pure devotion to Catholicism through the presence of light in the church. All light comes into the structure through the windows in the nave, so the overall atmosphere of the interior is fairly dark. The natural light is focused on the center axis, extending back into the church towards the altar and leading the eye to a large stained glass window in the apse. The stained glass
Stained glass in the apse (Photo by Monique Raassen)
depicts the birth of Christ, the Crucifixion, and the Last Supper. The progression of light leaves the altar space the brightest and presumably most holy. The light symbolizes God entering the space, allowing the visitors to witness the presence of God, the center of Catholic purpose. The darkness throughout the rest of the church creates a more intimate and transcendent ambiance. Through this holy experience and the composition of light in the space, the focus of the church remains on the celebration of the liturgy in the style of the past, articulated by the architecture.

The First Station of the Cross by Jan Dunselman (Photo by
Monique Raassen)
            The paintings on the walls of the church pay tribute to the history of Christianity in the region and the Catholic congregation in Amsterdam. Close examination reveals that Jan Dunselman’s painting style altered over the years he painted the church. Paintings of the life of St. Nicholas, patron saint of both the church and the city of Amsterdam, decorate the walls of the nave with realistic figures in a historical representative setting. In contrast with the architectural style of the church, the paintings are Gothic in style. As Dunselman continued to paint the basilica, his style became livelier and more historically realistic. The left transept illustrates the story of the Amsterdam Miracle of the Sacrament, a story that confirms the greatness and strength of God and recalls Catholicism’s beginnings in Amsterdam. The paintings in the right transept depict the Martyrs of Gorcum, who remained true to their faith through extreme oppression during the suppression of Catholicism from the late 16th through late 18th centuries. Dunselman’s paintings, although they illustrate important narratives and appeal to the congregation, do not necessarily reflect the tradition and simplicity of the liturgy’s style. However, they certainly illustrate strong values of Catholicism and the congregation in Amsterdam.

Today, the Church of St. Nicholas outwardly functions as a tourist destination, so the traditions of the congregation may not seem as important today as in years past. But aside from being a historic place of worship steeped in tradition and architectural significance, the church still offers the contemporary worshipper a space to have a spiritual experience through the presence of God. Through the impact of the building on its visitors, it retains the ability to serve its liturgical purpose—albeit in a more modern way than in the past—even while its doors are open to tourists on any given day. Although it is non-traditional in this sense, the services held for Catholic members of the Parish still remain classical in style, and the building as a whole conveys an appropriate sense of Catholic tradition and history.

[1] “The Church of St. Nicholas” by Peter van Dael (2006)

No comments:

Post a Comment