On what the Dutch call a hoogland – a ‘highland’ in the form of a heightened sand bed on the spot of the confluence of the Old and the New Rhine, coming together almost in the middle of the old university town of Leyden – these good people started to build the Hooglandse Kerk.
In our Low Lands this seems a clever move. After all, even a mole hill here counts as a mountain. Thus, true believers sought to protect the building against possible high waters of the swollen rivers, perhaps having Noah’s Ark in mind.
However, I am quite sure that not merely utilitarian considerations were at work in their minds. The effect of this immensely elevated cathedral, as it stands on its elevated spot in our flat territory, is also aesthetically sublime.
High as it is already by itself, the building rises even further from the depth of the terra firma supporting her, aspiring as it were to what the faithful followers consider Heaven. For the unbelieving Thomasses of this world this magnificent church itself is of course already heaven on earth. One cannot but look up against it.
As the original chapel was dedicated to Saint Pancratius, who in 289 was born in Phrygian Synnada and who died in Rome on the 12th of May 304, I am also quite sure that there must have been statues of this holy man not only inside but also outside the church. That is, when it was still part of the Church of Rome.
Pancras, as he is called in The Netherlands, was a principled man who refused to make sacrifices to Rome’s gods and was consequently executed by the Emperor who at the time had not yet become a Christian. However, followers of Calvin, who like that Roman Emperor simply could not accept this version of religion, tried to efface his memory by cutting away all sculpture and all painting from the Hooglandse Kerk.
From the perspective of Modernist Architecture, the interior looks like a grand, abstract, clean and sober building. It might have been designed somewhere in the 60’s. Compared with this view, Saenredam’s rich church interiors seem of a Bernini like baroque… The exterior, however, is like it was when it was built, excepting the few visible signs of Calvinist vandalism which are the true index of the fanatic religious history in the Netherlands.
Visible here is an absence. No bold imagination is needed to envision the pedestal that once supported a statue of – why not! – Saint Pancras. Proudly, he must have stood there, inviting his flock to the services held inside, in what was once a colourful scene of devotion, with other sculptures, with the Stations of the Cross and with more colourful paintings depicting the grand scenes in the history of the Great Faith.
This little hollow, covered by a neat quarter dome of Dutch brick, also seems to harbour a dark shadow. Calvin’s ghost perhaps, the man who is still lurking in every corner of Dutch society, coming alive when a New Puritanism seems to be needed, or the stern admonition of those who want to behave in what is considered an un-Dutch manner.
Sierksma February 2018