Holidays in Friesland. 6 Medieval Frisian churches. Part 1

Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk. 13th century nave, 14th century bell tower with 17th century gable roof and sheathing, 19th century apse.

THIS IS PART 1 OF 2 ABOUT SIX FRISIAN MEDIEVAL CHURCHES SEEN DURING MY HOLIDAYS. CLICK HERE TO SEE PART 2.

As some readers may know i have a keen interest in European art and architecture made and built before 1600. Especially the so-called Middle Ages are interesting. They are dated usually from about 500 to 1500, but for the Low Countries it would be stylistically more appropriate to let the Middle Ages end in 1566 with the Iconoclasm starting that year. That definitely brought a radical end to Gothic art (which was already being replaced by the more fashionable Renaissance style in the cities). Church interiors old and new were torn down, sculptures and paintings were destroyed, frescos were covered with whitewash, and later on abbeys were confiscated and torn down, erasing a long social, aesthetic and religious history.

Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk.
Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk. South façade. Originally the church had a transept of which you can still see traces in the south and north walls of the nave. The apse (on the right) was partly rebuilt with original bricks.
Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk. Steeple.
Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk. West façade, with 17th century restorations.
Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk. South façade.
Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk. With traces of the north transept and a Romanesque window.
Mariakerk (St Mary’s Church), Oenkerk/Oentsjerk. From the north.

In fact this was the end of a long development starting with legalising Christianity and incorporating it into the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great in the 4th century. After that the Roman Catholic Church became powerful and even omnipotent in Western Europe, with the Popes in Rome becoming princes as powerful, greedy and corrupt as any other secular king. Conservatism, oppression, corruption and religious opportunism led to social and political unrest, and in the end it led to the Protestant Reformation of which the Dutch Iconoclasm was a result. In spite of that devastating Iconoclasm there are still tangible remnants of the Middle Ages in what is now called the Netherlands. The Dutch Middle Ages are of particular interest because the country as a political entity didn’t yet exist.

Church, Janum/Jannum. Romano-Gothic church, late 13th / early 14th century, choir 13th century, roof and belfry16th century. It was built on a pre-historic terp (a man made mound built to keep dry feet during floods) which was partly dug down in the 19th century. Today it houses a small museum (which we couldn’t visit because of the Covid lockdown).
Church, Janum/Jannum. Western façade with belfry, and nave.
Church, Janum/Jannum. Belfry with church bell made in 1489
Church, Janum/Jannum. Western façade. The bead profiles of the windows are characteristic of the 13th century Romano-Gothic in northern churches.
Church, Janum/Jannum. Nave, north façade.
Church, Janum/Jannum. Choir. Before WWII the church was in a very bad state. During the War it was restored, which gave the workers the advantage of not being deported to Germany for compulsory labour. Although the restoration work was obviously carried out quite meticulously, the masonry of the choir looks almost new.
Church, Janum/Jannum. The nave from the south.
Church, Janum/Jannum.

In medieval times the Low Countries were a collection of dukedoms, counties and bishoprics, spreading from modern day northern France to the North Sea, trading with each other as often as fighting with each other, often at war with or taken over by more powerful neighbours, but generally behaving quite independently. The present day Dutch are only interested in their Medieval heritage because it is all very old and still there, but they cannot take pride in it because there is no national Dutch heroism in it. Generally there is the idea that Medieval society was barbaric and intolerant. That ignores the fact that the Middle Ages were a long development of civilisation with both its shiny pages of enlightenment and its dark pages of barbarism, traces of which are still visible in the present. Amongst the oldest architectural remnants in the present day Netherlands are village churches in the two northern provinces Groningen and Friesland.

Church, Genum/Ginnum. From the south. Romanesque church, partly 12th century, enlarged 13th century, bell tower and apse 15th century. It was built on an Iron Age terp. Today it is used as artist’s studios.
Church, Genum/Ginnum.
Church, Genum/Ginnum.
Church, Genum/Ginnum. The northern part of the nave is the oldest part of the church. It has Romanesque decorations built in grey tuff. Tuff, a kind of volcanic stone, was imported from Germany. The technique of making bricks was lost since the Romans left the Low Countries, and it was only re-invented by the beginning of the 13th century. Although Frisian monks already knew in the 12th century how to make bricks, through their contacts with Italian abbeys, the Frisian sea clay was very difficult to work with and imported tuff was still preferred. So, even in Friesland and Groningen the use of bricks gives an indication of the time a church was built.
Church, Genum/Ginnum. Detail of the decoration. Traces of what was probably the entrance to a sacristy can still be seen.
Church, Genum/Ginnum. Detail of the decoration.
Church, Genum/Ginnum. North façade with a clear difference between the tuff masonry (left) and the later clay brick masonry (right).
Church, Genum/Ginnum. Western Romano-Gothic window.
Church, Genum/Ginnum. Bell tower.

During the week before Christmas i was on a family visit in a village northeast of the Frisian capital Leeuwarden/Ljouwert. It was a much wished for relaxed and worry-free holiday with loved ones i only see a very few times a year (or hardly at all under corona circumstances). The new Covid lockdown barred us from any visit to a museum, but then the Frisian countryside is as much an open air museum as any place could be. It is a museum of the present, of modernism, of nature, of agriculture, of geography and….. of Medieval times. So we took the opportunity to see some of these old Medieval churches.

Church, Genum/Ginnum. From the northwest.

THIS IS WHERE PART 1 OF 2 ENDS. CLICK HERE TO SEE PART 2

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Contents of all photographs courtesy to my sister and brother in law, who made this trip possible

Bertus Pieters

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