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Schuilkerken (hidden churches) in the Time of Vermeer

in collaboration with Adelheid Rech

Whenever we read about Vermeer's life and the specific circumstances of his marriage, we must remember that many open questions remain. One of the most intriguing concerns the painter's presumed conversion to Roman Catholicism.

This hypothesis relies largely on circumstantial evidence related to his marriage to Catharina Bolnes although it is also supported by other facts that occurred in later years of the artist's family life. Some historians conjecture that Vermeer embraced his new faith with enthusiasm, and that this reflects itself in his painting while most take a more cautious position. Such intimate interpretation of Vermeer's unobtrusive compositions proves tricky at best. While it is true that the Allegory of Faith is an allegory of the true and heretical faith; this does not mean the subject was Vermeer's own choice. The work could have easily been commissioned. In any case, to the best of our knowledge, Vermeer seemed to have guided his new family life in the context of Catholicism, or at the very least, he did not place any obstacles in the way of those who wished to do so.

Vermeer's Marriage

We know for certain that Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, came from a wealthy patrician family of Gouda, deeply devoted to the Roman Catholic faith. Her mother, Maria Thins, had close connections to the Jesuit order in particular. Today, following the suppositions by John Michael Montias, all parties agree that Vermeer's marriage ceremony with Catharina Bolnes ( April 20, 1653) took place in Schipluy (today: Schipluiden), a village southwest of Delft, on the River Gaag. But not a single shred of evidence has surfaced which might suggest where this ceremony took place.

Indeed, a Catholic parish in Schipluiden was first mentioned on May 12, 1294. But after the Reformation had swept the Netherlands in the middle of the sixteenth century, it was handed over to the Calvinistic Reformed Church, known as Gereformeerde Kerk until 1816 when it became Hervormde Kerk, which had become the official church in the Netherlands. Catholics no longer were allowed to celebrate the Holy Mass, baptisms, marriages or burials in public. Nevertheless, the Catholic faith, as in other cities in the Netherlands, continued to be tolerated by Schipluiden public officials. One of the town's aldermen remained true to the old faith.

In which church did Johannes Vermeer and Catharina Bolnes marry, if in 1653 Schipluiden's only church had been Reformed for a hundred years and continues to be so? This study attempts to find answers to these questions.


Schipluiden was constituted by several small villages with farmsteads and small workshops. These were Dorp, Saint Maartensrecht, 't Woudt, Groeneveld, Hof van Delft, Hodenpijl and Zouteveen. Each had their own board and justice, tax rules and local culture. Such rural dominions (heerlijkheden) were more or less independent from the other. Usually they belonged to the estate of a local count. In a document of 1083, signed by a Count Dirk V, the name "Schipleda" was mentioned for the first time. The name probably meant the canal "Sciplede" for the regulation of the flow of water, indispensable during periods of flooding. In a letter of 1450 by Duke Philip of Burgundy to the city of Delft, the name "Schipluyden" appears, quite similar to the present-day spelling. It could be translated as "ship [bell's] ringing," perhaps deriving from the ships which signaled their passage through the area's water gates.

emblem of Schipluiden
One of the oldest representations of the emblem of Schipluiden can be found in the local Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, at an arched brass grid from 1702 over the baptismal font, as well as on one of the consoles in the church. It shows a ship
from the seventeenth century, in full sail, like it was used for the major voyages to East India.

As mentioned, after the Reformation in the Netherlands, the Catholic parish of Schipluiden had been confiscated by the official Calvinistic Reformed Church, and Roman Catholics were no longer allowed to hold any sort of service within an official building. The grounds of the local church, the oldest building in Schipluiden, still incorporates bricks from the earlier and smaller church, probably those of a cloister.

Nevertheless, Schipluiden became a center for the Catholic faith for those peasants in the area who refused to give up their old faith. This may have been owed to the missionary work by the Jesuit Cornelis Jacobs. Dust, who in 1592 resided in the Bagijnhof in Delft where he founded the first Jesuit mission.


Although William the Silent, the founding father of the United Provinces, had championed religious and cultural tolerance, in practice, Calvinists were openly hostile towards people of different faiths and attitudes. Only foreigners, like Jews who had emigrated from other countries, were able to practice their religion freely, without significant restrictions. But Catholics, Remonstrants and Mennonites were explicitly forbidden to practice their faith in public spaces. They were violently deprived of their churches, cloisters, grounds, and were forced to take refuge within domestic walls, warehouses, cellars, attic,s and even barns. These environments were then rebuilt and decorated for the purposes of celebrating the Holy Masses, and holding other religious meetings, evolving, into so-called schuilkerken (hidden churches). In the rural areas they were called schuilkerken ("schuil" in Dutch means hidden, not "churl") since barns were frequently used for the purpose. Initially, Calvinistic authorities reacted harshly against these hidden churches. In Zwolle, for instance, Catholic families were forbidden to live in houses side by side in order to impede them from tearing down the walls to create a room large enough for a church.

But over course time, the schuilkerken gradually became tolerated by officials. However, it was strictly prohibited that their entrances be accessible directly from the street and no sign (crucifixes or other Christian symbols) could be placed above the entrances. Even bell towers and Bell-ringing were banned because they could have pointed to the existence of a religious building other than that of the Reformed Church the Reformed one. Furthermore, no congregational singing was permitted to be heard from outside. Nevertheless, hidden churches quickly spread all over the country, particularly in the Protestant Seven United Provinces.The most famous of these schuilkerken is certainly the so-called "Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder" ("Our Lord in the Attic"), a comparatively large, splendidly furnished church-room comprising the entire attic of a prestigious property bought in 1661 by the wealthy merchant Jan Hartman in Amsterdam with the aim to offer the Catholics in the city center a secret room to celebrate the Holy Mass, which then served as a parish church for over two hundred years. After thorough research and restoration the house has become in 1888 the present Amstelkring-Museum with highly interesting insights into seventeenth-century life and faith. After the Rijksmuseum it is Amsterdam's oldest museum.

The schuilkerken in Hodenpijl

hidden church in Schipluiden
The location of the schuilkerk in Hodenpijl
(probably the single house above) in a drawing by Johann van Beest, 1634.

Since Catholics who resided in the countryside did not generally inhabit the central areas of the villages, but rather in the small peasant areas around them, the members of the Roman-Catholic parish of Schipluiden found it necessary to select for a suitable worship space. It had to be within easy reach from Maasland, Maasluis, Den Hoorn, Abtswoude, De Lier and t Woudt, mainly accessible by boat in this case. Hodenpijl, between Schipluiden and Den Hoorn, directly by the river Gaag, at the "smalle kant" ("small side," now known as Tamae) was chosen.

With the aid of a donation by a wealthy Catholic woman, a barn was constructed and furnished for the religious practices and meetings of the faithful. This first schuilkerk (or better, schuilkerken) was dedicated to Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. It became the center of the Catholic faith in Schipluiden and the surrounding area.Information from a book about churches in the area of Schipluiden, available in the present cultural center for Midden- Delfland "Op Hodenpij. See in the history of the Roman-Catholic church in Hodenpijl (Dutch only). Jacques Moerman, "Historische Vereniging Oud-Schipluiden", September 2004. As mentioned earlier, it was always tolerated by the local officials, since some of them remained true to their old faith despite the rule that everyone who held public office were required to convert to the Reformed faith.

The hidden church in Hodenpijl was mentioned for the first time was mentioned for the first time in 1657, four years after Vermeer's marriage with Catharina Bolnes, and it was the place where they were married, even though it was nothing more than a barn. Twenty-one years later, in June 1674, the eldest daughter the eldest daughter of Johannes and Catharina, Maria Vermeer, was also married in Schipluiden—certainly in the same little schuilkerkje in Hodenpijl, where she married the Catholic silk salesman, (zijdekoopman) Johannes Gilleszn. Cramer, from Delft.

In 1722, a fire caused severe damage to both the church and to the nearby cottage where the priest lived. The church was restored, and a new residence for the priest was provided in a building called "De Herdershof" on the opposite side of the Gaag, the the "brede kant"(broad side, now known as Rijksstraatweg).

The Oude Kerk in Hodenpijl

Saint Jacobus ("Oude Kerk") in Hodenpijl

With the relaxation of the strict regulations for Catholics during the Napoleonic occupation and the short period of the Kingdom of Holland (1806–1810) Catholic parishes acquired the right to rebuild and extend places of worship or even to build new ones. The parish of Schipluiden raised a tower housing one bell above its little church, and attached stable side walls with real church windows. But with the increasing population it became too small, and in 1839 the parish council decided to build a larger church on the opposite side of the Gaag, where the "Herdershof" was originally situated. Soon after, on October 13, 1840, the new church could be dedicated to Saint Jacobus. It was built as a so-called "waterstaatskerk" (derived from the "Ministerie van Waterstaat" which had to approve for the building) in Classical style. The facade was given the typical shape of an ancient Greek temple, since the culture of the Greek antiquity was highly esteemed in the nineteenth century. Some time after dedication of the new Saint Jacobus church, the little old schuilkerkje was demolished.

The church was in use until 1963. But after the Second World War, the number of the regular followers of the Masses in Hodenpijl declined. In addition, Den Hoorn raised its own Catholic church in 1917 in order to provide a more comfortable solution for its inhabitants. The Catholics of Schipluiden desired a new church as well. So the last Holy Mass in the "Oude Kerk" in Hodenpijl (related now to the new one in Schipluiden), the predecessor of that little schuilkerkje Vermeer had been married three hundred years ago, took place on 15th December 1963. The building was sold to a company in The Hague.

Since 2004 the church, together with the parsonage "De Herdershof," and the garden is a part of a private estate whose aim is to create a cultural center for the region Midden-Delfland (the fusion of Schipluiden and Maasland in 2004).

Private efforts provided enormous help for the extensive restoration of both the church and the parsonage with its lovely garden, until the new center "Op Hodenpijl" opened its doors on 17th May 2007 (Ascension Day). The new church became a meeting point for the local inhabitants, providing a convenient environment for lectures and discussions about the region and its specialties, concerts or local feasts. Contemporarily, it offers an excellent chance for foreigners to discover this area immersed in the polders, its cultivation and the special techniques of water regulation, and last but not least, it is a lovely point both for relaxing and discovering the poetic landscape near Delft.

The Museum Het Prinsenhof in Delft, established in 1911, offers a unique journey through the history of the Netherlands, the city of Delft, and the renowned Delftware. This museum is ensconced in a structure of monumental historical significance, a backdrop to some of the most pivotal events in Dutch history. Formerly the court of William of Orange, known as the Father of the Dutch Nation, the building's walls bear witness to the nation's storied past. Visitors can explore the significant role that Delft's citizens played in Dutch history and the evolution of Delftware into the globally recognized brand it is today. Originally erected as a monastery in the Middle Ages, the edifice later became the residence of William the Silent. His assassination at the Prinsenhof in 1584 is etched into history, with bullet holes from the tragic event still visible on the main staircase.

address: Sint Agathaplein 1, 2611 HR Delft

opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

during school holidays:
Monday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
closed on Christmas Day (27 April), Christmas Day and New Year's Day

The Vermeer Centrum Delft, a volunteer-run organization, offers insights into the life and work of Johannes Vermeer, showcasing his painting techniques and displaying reproductions of his masterpieces. In addition to educational exhibits, the center features a shop with an array of Vermeer-inspired merchandise. More than eighty passionate volunteers operate the center, which stands on the historic site of the former Guild of Saint Luke, once presided over by Vermeer himself as the head painter.

Voldersgracht 21, Delft

openings times:
opened daily from 10 a.m. to 5 pm.
open on 24 and 31 December from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
open on 26 December and 1 January from 12 a.m. to 5 p.m.
closed on 25 December

Free guided tours on Friday and Sunday
Friday at 11:30 a.m. (Dutch)
Sunday at 10:30 a.m. (English)
Sunday 12 a.m. (Dutch)

The shop and Café Mechelen have the same opening times.

For information on opening time and tickets, click here.

Delft's main market, known locally as "de Markt," attracts visitors from afar as well as from neighboring cities such as The Hague and Rotterdam. Situated between City Hall and the magnificent Nieuwe Kerk, the market opens every Thursday. Here, a bustling array of over 150 stalls offer a variety of items including cheese, fish, vegetables, bread, nuts, and other foodstuffs, alongside clothing, bicycle accessories, and electronic gadgets. Encircling the market, a selection of pubs and open-air terraces provide idyllic spots to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee.

A short five-minute stroll from the general market is the Brabantse Turfmarkt, home to the flower market. This vibrant segment of Delft is adorned with numerous flower merchants presenting an array of thousands of flowers. On Saturdays, this venue also hosts a smaller iteration of the general market, featuring around 50 stalls.

Equally captivating is the weekly art and antiques market, a haven for tourists seeking to absorb the city's charm and scour for unique finds. This market is available on Thursdays and Saturdays from April to October. On Thursdays, you can find it alongside the canal in Hippolytusbuurt street. Come Saturday, the market expands to include a book market and extends along the Voldersgracht as well as the canals within Hippolytusbuurt and Wijnhaven, creating a delightful maze of vintage and antique treasures.

A guided tour of Schipluiden-Hodenpijl

Schipluiden, Netherlands

The location of the schuilkerk in Hodenpijl
(probably the single house above) in a drawing by Johann van Beest, 1634.

Schipluiden, Netherlands

Birds-eye-view on Oude Kerk in Hodenpijl at the Gaag (left side) with the little iron-wrought bridge from 1859 for the churchgoers from the other side of the river. It leads to that place (right side) where the former schuilkerkje was situated. The image still shows the church without the tower which was pulled down in 1972. But thanks to the extensive restoration the church got back its tower in summer 2007.

Schipluiden, Netherlands

The approximate location, opposite to Oude Kerk (present Tramkade), of the former schuilkerkje where Vermeer had been married. No traces have been left, but the development from this little hidden church (with the only known picture of it, see above) to the former Oude Kerk can be followed in an exhibition in the church, and it is still mentioned in local publications.

Schipluiden, Netherlands

The Oude Kerk, now known as Rijksstraatweg (next to no. 18), after the extensive restoration 2004–2007. It was designed 1838 by architect A. Rodenburg (The Hague) as a so-called "waterstaatskerk," with the façade in the shape of an ancient Greek temple. In the 19th century the ancient Greek culture was held in great esteem also in the Netherlands. Since summer 2007 the church has regained its small tower with the typical rounded cupola.

Schipluiden, Netherlands

The former parsonage De Herdershof, next to Oude Kerk. The building as it appears today originates from 1872 and, together with the Oude Kerk, serves as a contemporary witness of the social and religious climate in the area especially in the period 1840–1870. It was the residence of the priest, together with additional rooms for daily Masses or meetings in a rather "private" circle. Today it is the location of the management of the foundation "Op Hodenpijl" and offers suitable rooms for activities of smaller groups. Both Oude Kerk and "De Herdershof" are surrounded by a lovely garden with traces from the former little cemetery of the parish.

Schipluiden, Netherlands

View towards the Oude Kerk in Hodenpijl from the opposite bank of the Gaag (Tramkade), when coming from Schipluiden.

Schipluiden, Netherlands

The interior of Oude Kerk. Thanks to the very cautious, sensitive restoration the room appears full of light floating through the decent stained-glass windows. The ceiling is tastefully decorated with frescoes, partly in trompe-l'œil-technique. Today the room serves for a variety of activities, like lectures (frequently with multi-media support), concerts, various local meetings or festivities, or merely as a place for some meditating and enjoying the silence.

Schipluiden, Netherlands

This image shows the iron-wrought bridge from 1859 which connects the place of the former schuilkerkje with its successor, the Oude Kerk. Between 1822 and 1883 the churchyard of the parish was still situated at the "smalle kant" (present Tramkade) near the schuilkerkje, and the priest, residing in "De Herdershof" at the opposite side, had always to take the boat to celebrate the Masses there or to visit the faithful living at the "smalle kant." With the building of the Oude Kerk the bridge served also as a more comfortable facility for the people from the opposite side to visit the church. The bridge is now a technical monument of the 19th century and still shows traces from the times of the trekschuiten, those small boats which Vermeer rendered so carefully in his magnificent View of Delft.

Schuilkerk in Hodenpijl as it appeared c. 1822

The only known image of the schuilkerk in Hodenpijl as it appeared c. 1822. In this year the Catholic parish Schipluiden got the permission to build a little tower (with one bell) and side walls with real church windows.

The former Oude Kerk in Hodenpijl at the east side of the Gaag

The former Oude Kerk in Hodenpijl at the east side of the Gaag (presently Rijksstraatweg). Watercolor, 1860.


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