Who runs the world? Girls.
At least, they run the Begijnhof.
So who are these girls who have managed to create, and retain, a garden of sanctity in the midst of the bustling city of Amsterdam?
The Beguines of the Begijnhof
The lady immortalised in stone in the photograph above is a traditional Beguine, sculpted by Dutch artist Margaretha de Goede-Taal. Presented to the Begijnhof in 1974, the sculpture stands in honour of the community of single women who lived lives of abstinence and devotion to their faith within the walls of the courtyard.
Agatha Kaptein, better known as Sister Antonia, was the last Beguine of the Begijnhof. On 23 May 1971, Sister Antonia’s death at the age of 84 ended over 800 years of Beguine tradition in Amsterdam, but the sanctity of the secret garden remains to this day.
A few facts about the Beguines:
- A religious community of single women, the Beguines lived as nuns to the extent that they did not marry and lived in chastity. However, if they chose to leave the Beguinage (in this case, the Begijnhof) they were free to marry and continue a ‘regular’ life outside of its walls
- The term ‘Beguine’ is first recorded as being used in 1307, but estimates of the origins of the community date back as far as 1150 when a group of religious women united to care for the sick and the poor in the ‘Low Countries’, now known as the Netherlands and Belgium
- Whilst Sister Antonia was the last Beguine in Amsterdam, she was outlived by Sister Marcella Pattyn. The last Beguine in the world died on 14 April 2013, ending a beautiful tradition that had scarcely changed since the Middle Ages
Serenity in the face of division
Visitors to the Begijnhof are asked to respect the residents that live there by keeping noise to a minimum, and strolling past the hushed tones of inspired tourists and sightseers is an odd experience after the hustle of the Spui.
Such serenity is best personified in the existence of two churches standing directly across from one another. One is Catholic, and the other Protestant, and they are separated only by a small path that flows between.
The church above began as a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now known as the ‘English Church’, it has held Protestant services ever since the 17th Century when it was taken over by English Presbyterians. In 1682, the Catholic ‘Hidden Church’ was erected within two joined houses across from the entrance to the English Church.
The construction of the Hidden Church was allowed by the authorities as long as it didn’t resemble a church from the outside, and to this day both Catholic and Protestant devotees visit the Begijnhof to worship at their respective alters, at peace with one another.
Het Houten Huys: Amsterdam’s oldest house?
The development of two opposing Churches wasn’t the only dramatic change to the Begijnhof in the 17th Century. Following a series of destructive fires in the city, the authorities outlawed the building of houses with timber, and so house number 34 in the Begijnhof is one of the few remaining wooden structures in the city, and until recently was considered the oldest house in Amsterdam.
In case you are curious, the oldest building in Amsterdam is the Oude Kerk which you can find tucked away in the Red Light District.
Tips for visiting the Begijnhof
- The garden is open daily from 09:00 – 17:00 and entrance is free
- It is free to visit, but you are asked to respect the sanctity of the garden by keeping silent when passing through
- If you’re travelling around the city via tram, trams 1, 2 and 5 all stop at Spui
- The entrance is through a doorway passage on the Spui, just a few doors to the right of the American Book Center
- The Sandemans New Europe Amsterdam free walking tour passes through the Begijnhof and can give you a great history on the garden and it’s inhabitants. However I still highly suggest returning after the tour and taking some time to enjoy the calm atmosphere by yourself
The Begijnhof really is one of Amsterdam’s little secrets, and I often walk through for a calm five or ten minutes if I’m passing the area. For busy travellers – this is the kind of serenity you will really appreciate!
Lots of love,