St. Bavochurch in Haarlem

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The Grote Kerk or St.-Bavokerk is a Protestant church and former Catholic cathedral located on the central market square in the Dutch city of Haarlem. Another Haarlem church called the Cathedral of Saint Bavo now serves as the main cathedral for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam.


This church is an important landmark for the city of Haarlem and has dominated the city skyline for centuries. It is built in the Gothic style of architecture, and it became the main church of Haarlem after renovations in the 15th century made it significantly larger than the Janskerk (Haarlem). The term "Catholic" was never really associated with this church, since it was only consecrated as a cathedral in 1559, which was already in the middle of the period known as the Protestant Reformation. The church was confiscated only 19 years later during the Haarlemse noon in 1578, when it was converted to Protestantism. It was dedicated to Saint Bavo at some time before 1500, though there exists a curious painting in the collection of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Bavo illustrating the miracle of St. Bavo saving Haarlem from the Kennemers in a scene from the 13th century. This painting was painted a century after the Catholics were banned from "their" church, and may have been a commemorative painting referring to the defense of the Church and the Catholic faith as well as the defense of the city.

Christianity in Haarlem

Haarlem has had a Christian parish church since the 9th century. This first church was a "daughter church" of Velsen, which itself was founded in 695 by St. Willibrord. This early first church was a wooden church on the same site of the current Sint-Bavokerk. Extensions and expansions over the centuries led to its formal consecration in 1559 when the first bishop Nicolaas van Nieuwland was appointed. Only 19 years later, after the Spanish occupation ended (they won the Siege of Haarlem) and Haarlem reverted to the Protestant House of Orange, the church was confiscated during the episode known as the Haarlemse noon and converted to Protestantism as part of the Protestant Reformation.

At this time most of the art and silver artefacts were also seized and what was not sold or destroyed has survived in the Haarlem municipal collection, which is now in the collection of the Frans Hals Museum. The Haarlem Catholics took what they could carry with them and went underground, meeting thereafter in various schuilkerken, the most prominent ones known as the St. Franciscus statie and the St. Josephs statie. Eventually, the St. Josephstatie built a new church across from the Janskerk called the St. Josephkerk, and this church, after growing and becoming a cathedral again, built a new cathedral on the Leidsevaart in the 19th century. Since the building of this new Cathedral of St. Bavo, there has been lots of confusion about the name of the Bavochurch, since as a Protestant church it is not even dedicated to Saint Bavo. For this reason it is officially called Grote Kerk, which just means "High Church".


On May 22, 1801 there was a fire caused when lightning struck the tower. A disaster was prevented by Martijn Hendrik Kretschman, the guard of the tower, and three other men. In 1839, one of those men, Jan Drost, committed suicide in the tower after he was fired (he worked for the church). He had tried to set fire to the organ by throwing hot coals on top of it, but he missed and another disaster was prevented.

In the renovation of the 1930s an automatic sprinkler system was installed in the tower, that could extinguish a fire up to an elevation in the tower of 70 meters.


Though the exterior of the church seems timeless, it changed twice in the past 500 years; once when all statuary was removed from the outer niches during the Haarlemse Noon, and the second time in the late 19th century when a "more Gothic look" was given to the church by adding some fake ramparts to the roof edge. This can be seen easily when comparing pictures made before and afterwards.


The interior of the church has also changed little over the years, though it the inner chapels suffered greatly during the Beeldenstorm, and many stained-glass windows have been lost to neglect. Fortunately, the interior has been painted many times by local painters, most notably by Pieter Jansz Saenredam and the Berckheyde brothers. Based on these paintings, work has been done to reconstruct the interior so various items such as rouwborden or "mourning shields" hang again today in their "proper" place.

Stained glass windows

The stained glass windows of the Bavo have suffered through the years from neglect. It is hard to imagine that Haarlem was an important center for stained glass art in the 16th century, since so little evidence of it still exists in Haarlem. After the Reformation, Haarlem promoted the story of the Wapenvermeerdering and produced many windows with this central story, which it presented as a gift to other churches and town halls. Today the original Haarlem gift by Willem Thibaut still hangs in the Janskerk (Gouda) as designed. That window gives an impression of the type of window that once hung in the Western wall. When the famous Muller organ was installed, the glass on the west side of the church (now only known to us from the painting by the local painter Job Berckheyde) with the Wapenvermeerdering, was dismantled and bricked up. The sketches for this glass have survived and are in the possession of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and were drawn by Barend van Orley.

In the church today, the lack of historic colorful windows has been made up for by installing windows from other, demolished or defunct churches, while modern artists have created new themes. A beautiful large blue window hanging on the northern side greets the visitor who enters through the double doors on the Groenmarkt. This window was made to personify peace and harmony, and was made by the local glass artist Michel van Overbeeke, who received a local prize of culture for this in 2009 (De Olifant).


The organ of the Sint-Bavo church (the Christiaan Müller organ) is one of the world's great organs. It was built by Christian Müller and Jan van Logteren, from Amsterdam, between 1735 and 1738; upon completion it was the largest organ in the world with 60 voices and 32-feet pedal-towers. In Moby-Dick (1851), Herman Melville describes the inside of a whale's mouth:

"Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?"

Many famous people used this organ, including Mendelssohn, Händel and the 10-year old Mozart who played it in 1766. The organ was modified a number of times in the 19th and 20th century. These changes were undone in the renovation between 1959 and 1961. Between 1987 and 2000 work was performed on the voicing of the organ. Today concerts are regularly held in the church, and all through the year special opening times are organized so the public can walk in free of charge to listen to this famous organ in action.

A local story goes to say that the bass of the organ was so low, the mortar in between the brimstones started to brittle to nothing.


Until 1831 graves were allowed in the church, and many illustrious Haarlemmers through the centuries are buried there. Often people were buried under family gravestones, and the family shields of illustrious families are mounted on diamond shaped "plaques" hanging on the walls. Other illustrious Haarlemmers were buried in individual graves such as the rich Pieter Teyler van der Hulst and Willem van Heythuisen. The painters Maarten van Heemskerck (as a former church koster, he is buried in the kerstkapel), Frans Hals (who was buried in his first wife's grandfather's grave, Nicolaes Ghyblant, but who received his own gravestone in 1962), Saenredam himself (in the South choir way near the entrance), and Jacob van Ruysdael and Salomon van Ruysdael. The two circus curiosities, the giant Daniel Cajanus with his midget friend Jan Paap, are buriied there. The last burial there was for Willem Bilderdijk.

A local story is that under stone number 7 near the choir gate, there is a grave of a man who used to hit his mother as a child. After a time his hand started growing above his grave, and a copper plate had to be installed on the grave to stop the hand from growing.<ref name=Friends />


According to the local legend known as the Wapenvermeerdering, or "Legend of the Haarlem shield", the two upper bells in the tower were taken from Damiette (Damiate in Dutch) during the Fifth Crusade by Haarlem knights and were placed in the tower. In reality, they were a gift by Johannes Dircks, a bell-maker from Aalst to Nicolaas van Nieuwland, the bishop of Haarlem, in 1562. Since then the two bells were rung every evening between 21:00 and 21:30 o'clock, to signal the closing of the city gates for the night. In 1732 the bells were restored, and two new upper bells were installed, created by Jan Albert de Grave. Since Haarlem was no longer a vesting stad or walled city, the tradition of the bells continued, to commemorate the conquest of Damiette on August 25, 1219.

The city carillon is in the bell tower, and the bell that rings the hour is called the Roelant, and was made in 1503 by the klokkengieter or bell maker, Gerrit van Wou of Kampen. During the summer season from May–October, the bells of the whole carillon are rung on Tuesday evenings, often by guest carillon players.<ref name=Friends /> In 1932 the clock on the tower was upgraded with electrical lights.

Some Pictures

External links

  • [1] - More information on the Müller Organ.