During and after the Iconoclasms of the 16th century church buildings were often kept intact, as the protestants also needed a place to worship. Quite a few of these churches in the north were built on so-called “terps”, mounds built against the unpredictable sea. Frisians eked out a living in an environment prone to floods and these terps were already built in times long gone, so to many Frisians they were a common and precious feature in their landscape. They were places of safety and salvation. Churches were built on top of them. Originally they were of course built with clay and wood.
But the local monks fostered new technologies for agriculture and for building. Around the year 1000 and afterwards many stone churches were built, like in the rest of western Europe. The international style then was the Romanesque with its sturdy, robust walls and small round-arched windows. There were of course no rocks in Friesland to hew stones from, and the technique of making bricks was lost centuries ago, so building stones had to be shipped from as far afield as the Eifel in Germany. The oldest churches still have masonry with these stones. Good examples amongst the six churches we visited are the ones in Genum/Ginnum and especially the very old one in Hogebeintum/Hegebeintum.
When brick making was reintroduced in the Low Countries at the beginning of the 13th century, the Gothic style had already replaced the Romanesque in more southern parts of Europe from the middle of the 12th century onwards. The Gothic had bigger, pointed-arched windows and more refined and elegant building techniques and as such it was more able to represent the glory of the creed (and those in power). For that last aspect there was probably not much interest amongst the Frisians in the countryside. The Gothic became only fashionable up north in the 13th century. It was used in a very practical way to allow more daylight in the church, to make some new architectural decorations and to enlarge the existing smallish and dark Romanesque buildings.
Characteristic of the village churches in the two northern provinces throughout the ages are the gable roofs (instead of pointed spires) on the bell towers. It gives them a particularly robust character that didn’t really fit in very well with the Gothic or any other later style. Of the six churches we visited, only one – St Martin’s in Hallum – has a pointed spire, which is an early 19th century replacement of a once gable-roofed bell tower. And there is of course the small church at Janum/Jannum which has no bell tower at all, but a hanging belfry with one bell. It was interesting – just as interesting as any big Gothic cathedral – to see these old structures in their modern day context; sometimes on terps and surrounded by houses and trees they stand out as landmarks in the very flat and agricultural Frisian landscape. Which makes a trip to that part of the province all the more worth it.
Bertus Pieters once made art, looks at art, writes about art, talks about art and about other important things; was born in 1958 in Amsterdam; lives in The Hague; graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 1982; has had a career in the refugee branch in between; studied Art History / Art & Culture at Leiden University (bachelor 2014; master 2018); contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bertuspieters Albertus Pieters (Villa La Repubblica). Have fun!
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