Here, the sound of crying babies could often be heard. During the Catholic era (until 1573) countless children have been baptized in this spot. Baptism was an important ritual: if you’re baptized, you’re part of a community.
The old baptistery isn’t visible anymore. Hidden behind the partition is a decorative rood screen with the inscription “Dat rijck Gods is nu come, beke(e)rt u en gelooft de evangelio” (“The Kingdom of God has now come, convert and give credence to the evangel”). There is also a cabinet, used for baptism attributes, and in a niche in the wall there’s a small water basin.
It’s no coincidence that the baptistery is at the west side of the church. During the Catholic era, the entrance of the church was here, under the main organ. That is why it fits to have the “commencement ritual” here.
In this church, we walk on a floor made of gravestones. Thousands of deceased were buried here. To make sure there was space for all of these graves, some have been placed on top of each other, sometimes up to eight. It was expensive to be buried in the church: only wealthy citizens could afford it. Their names and coats of arms are on the covers, as well as other symbols that refer to their occupation or religion. The oldest grave is from the Middle Ages; the most recent one is from 1830. After that, burying in the church became prohibited.
The organ: a masterpiece of sound and craftsmanship
This organ is a world-famous masterpiece. Many esteemed artists and craftsmen have contributed its creation. The Hagerbeer family started building the organ in 1638; renowned architect Jacob van Campen designed the front. Caesar van Everdingen, the city’s most famous artist, painted the biblical story of King Saul after the victory over David and Goliath on the shutters. And that’s not all: there’s even a painting above the organ. Romeyn de Hooghe depicted the conflict between good and evil. Frans Caspar Schnitger modernised the organ in 1722.
Would you like to hear the stunning sounds of this instrument? There are often concerts in the church.
A personal chapel
Statues, banners, altars and colourfully painted walls: it might be hard to imagine now, but during the Catholic era there were twelve lavishly decorated chapels on the side walls of the building. They were private: with a personal chapel, often including a private crypt, prominent inhabitants of Alkmaar could demonstrate their power and prestige.
Following The Reformation (after 1573), a church had to project solemnity and simplicity. Many decorations were removed, but the family chapels remained in the church for a long time. In the French era after 1795, all coats of arms had to go; all social classes had to become equal, so every sign of differentiation was prohibited.
Laurentius is the patron of the church. The metal grid – his standard attribute – reminds us of his death as a martyr. Laurentius didn’t want to give emperor Valerianus the church silver and the holy books: he provoked Valerianus by giving all of this to the poor. As a retribution, he was tortured on a metal grid above a fire. After his death, he was canonized.
Laurentius as a patron
Laurentius is a patron now, but that hasn’t always been the case. He lived in Rome, in the third century, and took care of the poor on behalf of the church. He was also responsible for the holy books and the church silver. Emperor Valerianus made it illegal for Christians to profess their beliefs. The pope didn’t keep to this law and was sentenced to death. The same fate awaited Laurentius.
But first, Laurentius had to hand over all valuables to Valerianus. A great opportunity to do a last good deed! Laurentius thus divided the money between the poor and organized a procession to the emperor. “Look, the treasures of the church”, he said, while pointing to the poor.
This act of bravery had its costs. He was tortured on a metal grid above a fire. After his death he was canonized. Laurentius carries the grid on which he is mistreated with him, as befits a true saint.
Caesar van Everdingen, Jacob van Oostsanen, Romeyn de Hooghe: famous artists created masterpieces of and for the church. Nevertheless, we’re still missing two other big names: Maarten van Heemskerck and the “Master of Alkmaar”. There was a time when their works also adorned the interior of the church. However, both these works of art have been sold – this is why two great masterpieces were lost. A life-sized print of Maarten van Heemskerck’s triptych was placed in the church in the nineteen-nineties. When its quality deteriorated, artist Pauline Bakker created a new triptych.
Maarten van Heemskerck
Eight meters of length and five meters high: the immense triptych of master painter Maarten van Heemskerck used to be on display at the high altar. It was made in 1538, with the crucifixion of Christ and Laurentius’ life as its main themes. The showpiece survived the Iconoclastic Fury, but didn’t fit the religious convictions of the protestants, who gained ownership of the church. It was sold to Sweden as early as 1581, where it’s still on display in the Linköping Cathedral. The loss wasn’t made up for until four hundred years later, in the nineteen-nineties. Then, a life-sized print was placed in the original spot at the high altar. When the print’s quality deteriorated, artist Pauline Bakker was allocated the task to create a new triptych.
Master of Alkmaar
Feeding the poor, visiting prisoners or taking care of the ill: these are three of the “Seven Works of Mercy”, moral deeds for good Christians to help their fellow human beings. The “Master of Alkmaar” paints these seven panels in 1504. It’s his most famous work and an exceptional example of early Dutch painting. The message is clear: those who do good, will be rewarded forever. For the same reason, there was a little box hanging near the painting, where churchgoers could leave some money. At the moment, it’s on display at the Rijksmuseum, which bought the work in 1918. With the revenue, the church – which was in financial distress at the time – has been renovated.
The church: 500 years in Alkmaar
This church has been the focal point in the daily lives of many inhabitants of Alkmaar for more than a thousand years. The church has been a place to celebrate, to mourn, to play, to say one’s prayers, and to come together and meet each other. This is a pivotal place. The tombstones, the pulpit, the carvings made by pilgrims in one of the pillars: there are traces of history throughout the church. Marks of people who have visited as well as signs of tempestuous events can be found anywhere. Superior examples of religious artworks, such as the magnificent organ and the ceiling painting, call attention to prosperous times. Not all of it has stood the test of time, but the stories remain alive and relevant. Discover more than ten centuries of history and unearth the church’s hidden treasures and fascinating chronicles.
Worship and devotion
This is a Catholic church until 1573. During this period, there is no separation of church and state yet, which makes the city council responsible for the church. The bigger and higher the church, the higher the regard for the city. The worship of God and His saints requires a lavishly decorated church, with altar pieces, statues of saints, murals, and colourful windows. In the Catholic era, the high altar is the most important place in the church: that is the place where the high mass is officiated. The high altar is at the east side of the church, where the sun rises: a symbol for the light of Christ.
At the service of the word
After The Reformation, Protestantism becomes the state religion. In 1573, the church becomes protestant. The Bible is central to Protestantism, and all manifestations of worship become unwanted. Instead, the church becomes increasingly sparsely decorated.
In some cities, the Iconoclastic Fury takes place – however, Alkmaar remains relatively quiet. Very gradually, the statues of saints and altars are removed. In this period, the city council remains responsible for the upkeep of the church. The church is the focal point of Alkmaar’s protestant elite.
After 1795, freedom of religion as well as the separation of church and state are introduced. The municipal government stops contributing to the maintenance of the church, which quickly leads to a shortage of funds. Out of sheer necessity some valuable works are sold.
Culture and connection
The church stopped having a religious function in 1996: its ownership and maintenance are now in the hands of two foundations. Restorations and maintenance are paid for through subsidies and donations.
The church used to be a shelter where citizens of Alkmaar could practice their religion and come together, and where children could play safely. To this day it remains possible to enjoy this magnificent monument, where one can now visit concerts or expositions, get married, or celebrate other festivities. Coming together continues to be fundamental to the Great Saint Laurence Church.
This organ has been played upon for five centuries. It’s the oldest still playable organ in The Netherlands, built by Jan van Covelens in 1511. It’s a miracle it still exists, because the pipes were supposed to be used for the construction of the main organ in 1638. Fortunately, there were enough means to pay for new organ pipes, so that this small organ could be preserved. It functioned as a backup instrument for moments the grand organ wasn’t available. Except for a few minor adjustments, much of the organ is still in its original state.
This is where the famous Floris V was buried. Or at least, that is what the name of this casket suggests: “The tomb of Floris V”. The reality is different: when Floris was killed in 1296, his body was laid out here in Alkmaar. He was buried in Rijnsburg, but the citizens of Alkmaar kept his intestines behind. This was not unusual in the Middle Ages, when it came to monarchs: their body, heart and intestines were often kept in different places.
In the fifteenth century a tombstone was placed, with the text that Floris’ intestines are buried here. This wooden casket was made a century later. As a result of the painting, the casket seems to be made out of marble and natural stone; suitable for a sovereign.
Floris V was an important count. He left his mark on Dutch history by getting political matters in order. He defeated uprisings, built citadels and reorganized the government. As a peacemaker, he acquired the nickname “the common man’s God”.
Photo credit: Regionaal Archief Alkmaar
For years, this room was a kind of prison. People who had been “unruly” were given the choice: either they had to stay the night here, or they had to pay a fine of three guilders. Later, the space was renovated and decorated; it became a presentable meeting room for the church elders.
Jacob Cornelisz (War) van Oostsanen is the earliest Amsterdam artist known by name.
He was born around 1470 in Oostzaan and moved to Amsterdam around 1500, where he settled as a painter and printmaking artist. He bought a house annex studio in Amsterdam, Kalverstraat 62, a property which now houses a clothing store. In 1520 he also bought the adjacent property.
The vault paintings were visible to all churchgoers, as opposed to many altar pieces in chapels or choirs, which were not accessible to everyone. What was depicted was sometimes complicated, but the story and the message of The Last Judgement would be generally known. One is constantly reminded of what is to be expected at the end of time. Make sure you live rightly, for if you don’t...
The painting in the choir shows the date 1518. This was probably put there by a carpenter who had renewed some parts. A plank he replaced may have had a signature with this date. The painting was completed in 1519. Therefore the painting can be dated to 1516-1519.
Having your own crypt with a tombstone and a mourning plaque was a sign you were an esteemed citizen of Alkmaar. Carel de Dieu (1700-1789) was mayor of Alkmaar for years. He often underscored the fact that he was a descendant of a wealthy family. He bought the best-situated crypt of the church. On top of that, his own descendants had a mourning plaque made with a coat of arms: in exchange for a large sum of money, it was hung in the chancel. The tradition to hang mourning plaques in the church, ended abruptly in 1795, when the French ruler prohibited this practice. It didn’t fit the guiding principles of “equality, liberty, and fraternity”.
Photo credit: Regionaal Archief Alkmaar.
Taking a bit of the church with you on a pilgrimage; that would certainly protect you from all kinds of danger. That’s the reason why people have been carving a bit of grit out of this column for ages. And if it protects you from danger while traveling, why not use the “holy” material as a medicine? The citizens of Alkmaar used the fine powder in potions against the horrible plague, and farmers gave it to pigs that were suffering from dysentery.
The church was a place of pilgrimage as well. From all over the country, worshippers came to this church for the “Miracle of Holy Blood” (also known as the “Miracle of Alkmaar”), which was celebrated each year with a procession. The church was a station for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. These days, much of this history is gone: the relic of the Miracle of Holy Blood – a piece of cloth with sacred blood – is moved to the Catholic church at Verdronkenoord. Only the carvings in the column and the scallop, the symbol of the pilgrims on the outside of the church near the consistory, refer to the many pilgrims who have visited the church.
This room was built in the sixteenth century as a sacristy. This is where priests could change clothes and where they could prepare for the mass. There was a different chasuble for every occasion, which was why a lot of closet space was needed. The valuable liturgical vessels were kept here as well.
In the protestant era, the sacristy became the consistory. It was a place where the church council came together, where the silverware was kept and where the archive got a place as well. The coat of arms of Karel V – with the two-headed eagle and the shield of Holland – is painted in the barrel vault. The city emblem of Alkmaar as well as those of Delft and Oudewater can be seen there too.
The scallop on the outer side of the church (klopt het dat dit symbool te zien is op de buitenkant van de kerk?) is the only remaining pilgrimage symbol in this church. The church was a stopover for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. The scallop was the symbol for this pilgrimage. With the scallop on their hats or coats, travelers were protected from highwaymen, and were often offered a bed or a meal.
This oakwood screen is one of the church’s gems. The refined gothic carving was made five centuries ago. In the Catholic era, its function was to divide the churchgoers from the choir. In the protestant era the two doors were put together, to make sure the choir was more easily accessible for big groups during Communion and funeral services. The statues of saints were removed during the same period. The choir screen was renovated in 2012.
Photo credit: Regionaal Archief Alkmaar
White walls and a lot of space: a typical “Saenredam interior”. Pieter Janszoon Saenredam made a name for himself with paintings depicting these kinds of church interiors. The mourning plaques are characteristic for this period; many could be found in this church as well.
This is what the church looked like in the protestant era, starting in 1573. It’s almost unimaginable what the interior looked in the Catholic period, before 1573. The short film gives an impression. Colour was very important, and the church was replete with altars, paintings, candles and banners. The walls as well as the vaults were painted, and the stained glass windows displayed biblical stories. These days, there are still a few artworks that remind us of this period, such as the great organ, the vault paintings and the choir screen.
Pieter Janszoon Saenredam
Pieter Janszoon Saenredam was the first painter who took existing church interiors as the subject of his work, and presented them in a meticulous linear perspective. When Saenredam visited this church, he made two drawings: one of the interior, the other of the organ with open shutters, most likely studies for the painting. When he died, the work wasn’t finished yet, which could explain the absence of his signature. The people and the dog were added later as well.
The robust pulpit is a bit elevated so that everyone can see the pastor. In the protestant era (after 1573) this was the central place in the church. From this pulpit, the pastor proclaimed God’s Word every Sunday: always very thorough, and thus often quite long. During these services, a lot of children and some adults were baptized here. That is why this place in the church is called the “baptismal area”. The pastor sprinkled the person’s head with water from a baptismal font, while reciting the baptismal texts. From that moment on, he or she was part of the church community. The pulpit was made in the seventeenth century, just like the pews across from it. Those were reserved for Alkmaar’s elite and the church wardens.