Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Delft: The Old Church and the New Church

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now we’re in Holland.

We didn’t eat very much in Delft. 
            Delft is picture-book pretty, with a very quiet center  - no cars, just bicycles, and the canals there are not working canals, but filled up with duckweed, water-birds, lost bicycles and small children shouting and paddling inflatable rafts.  

Delft certainly caters to the tourist economy – the town square is rimmed with shops selling delft-ware and painted wooden tulips, and there is a fair sprinkling of really great chocolate shops about the old town (which the townspeople must be really bent out of shape about), but we felt like visitors there, rather than a horde.

And there are two lovely churches.  The Old Church, and the New Church. 
            In the year 1351, a parish beggar named Symon became plagued by visions of the Virgin Mary. She had appeared to him, he said, and while she wasn't terribly specific, it seemed clear – to Symon at least – that she was asking for a church to be built right there on the very spot where she stood in the town square.  Delft already had a church – a modern and up-to-date church, less than a century old, expensively turned out, patronized by the very best people and only three streets away – did the city really need another one?
            “Marsh gas.” The best people insisted, and they did their best to turn their backs on Symon, but there turned out to have been a witness – one Jan Cole, who claimed to have Been There and Seen It  All Himself.  And when Symon died, the visions transferred to Jan Cole.  He became quite a local celebrity, with people travelling from cities miles away to see the man who had Been Right There. The New Church project became a trendy sort of project, and in 1381, Delft began to build.  
            Feelings were bent in the hearts of the people in the parish of the other church –  and they remained that way for quite some time. Feelings were still bent in 1609 when Prince William of Orange, the great hero of the liberation of the Netherlands, was laid to rest in crypt of the New Church, with a socking great monumental sepulcher right above.  With this royal burial,  the crypt of the New Church became the official funerary vessel of the Dutch Royal Family, and there there didn’t seem to be any real point continuing the grudge.  Today both churches are administered by the same conservation board, and everything is happy tea and crumpets (or almond bread and stroepwaffels) but one is tempted to wonder...
            They are both beautiful churches.  Dutch ecclesiastical architecture has a spare, serene grace, and mostly, there's an entirely un-roman absence of frippery and do-dads to hide the building's beautiful bones.  For this you can thank the iconoclasm of the sixteenth century religious reformation, where protestant mobs tore through the churches of Holland, ripping out any decoration that smacked of extravagance or popery. (At the time of the Reformation, the Church Interior was a popular artistic genre – period paintings show how the churches had been emptied out and left clean-lined and almost austere.)
            This part of Holland is sand-dune, not stone country.  Church walls are built of brick, and only the columns are built of stone, and today the contrast of those two elements lends the churches an elegance that appears peculiarly modern.  

Ceiling of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam

Of course, in Delft, the spare reformation-styling of the Old and New Church has undergone a few alterations since the day.  Things seem to happen in Delft.

Nave of the Pieterkerk in Leiden

There was the fifteenth century fire that wiped out two thirds of the town and a large percentage of the brand new New Church.  Then there was that unfortunate incident in 1654 – the Delft Thunderclap – when the keeper of Holland’s gunpowder magazine, all of which was stored in the same cellar, went on a tour of inspection and wasn't quite careful enough with his torch, and 68,134 pounds of gunpowder went off at once and flattened a fair bit of the town and took out a large part of the re-built re-built New Church.

Nave of the New Church in Delft

There was also the year where the New Church was hit by lightning and lost its steeple, and the year when the really cold winter exploded the stained glass windows and.....
You may be getting the picture.
Perhaps it really was marsh gas after all.

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