“As the heart pants after the fountains of water; so my soul pants after thee, O God.”
By Elizabeth Wise
Catholic persecution in the 17th century Netherlands led many faithful Catholics to find secretive methods of worship to escape political and religious scrutiny.
In 1661, Catholic businessman, Jan Hartman, had the brilliant plan to build a hidden chapel in his home. His success trading linen and selling local wines enabled him to purchase adjacent properties to build his secret chapel. He acquired one canal house along the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, as well as two additional properties in the connected alley. After these three acquisitions, Hartman immediately began major work on the buildings.
His idea was to merge the attics of the three properties to create a Catholic church. The finished attic chapel was small enough to be undetectable from the façade of the house along the canal, yet large enough for as many as 150 Catholics to receive the sacraments without fear.
As tribute to Hartman’s ingenuity and for additional security during the time of persecution, the chapel became known by the code name “the hart” after its owner. Later, locals began referring to the chapel as “Our Dear Lord in the Attic.”
Of course there is the connection between “hart” and “heart” that is obvious to the English reader but to the dutch “hart” has its own hidden symbolism. It reflects the symbolism of Christ in form of a stag. A hart is an archaic term to refer to a male deer over 5 years of age. In the Christian imagination, the deer is a symbol of piety, devotion and of God taking care of his children, and even emerges as a symbol of Christ himself in the story of St. Eustace.
Eustace, originally known as Placidus, was an early Roman martyr in the 2nd century. According to legend, the Roman general was out hunting a stag when an image of Jesus on the cross appeared between the animal's antlers, inspiring him to convert to Christianity and take the name Eustace. He was martyred by the Romans when he refused to worship pagan gods and is the patron saint of hunters. The image of the cross between antlers may be familiar to some; it is the symbol on the label of the liquor “Jagermeister,” meaning “master of the hunt.” The story of St. Eustace shows that Our Lord takes the form of the hart not to be hunted, but to hunt for wandering souls and bring them closer to Him.
“The Hart” Chapel remains in Amsterdam to this day, and the area surrounding the chapel is under a siege of a different kind: The Red Light. The attic chapel still brings solace to the faithful, with neighboring locales such as the Erotic Museum and the Red Light Secrets museum just a short walk away from Our Dear Lord in the Attic.
Today, “The Hart” stands as a symbol of sanctuary for Catholics and attracts both the faithful and history enthusiasts to its hidden location. In the 19th century the building was refurbished to match its original design. Locals and tourists alike may still attend weekly Masses at the chapel, which has been an ongoing tradition since Jan Hartman first hatched his plan to hide Our Dear Lord in the attic.
The address to visit the canal house with The Hart is Oudezijds Voorburgwal 38/40, 1012 GD Amsterdam, De Wallen. The chapel museum operates Monday through Saturday from 10am - 6pm, and Sunday from 1pm - 6pm. Group tours and audio tours are available.