Church bells ringing out on a frosty day are one of the signature sounds of Christmas in Groningen. City Central recommends taking a trip through time this holiday season by visiting any of the nearly 100 medieval churches and synagogues in the province, and admiring some of the world’s most beautiful Baroque organs right here in Groningen, the “organ garden” of Europe.
Make a day of it and cycle or drive through the countryside from one house of worship to the next, each with its own unique history, character and architectural details. You can also find other cycling routes past the province’s monasteries and estate homes at Routes in Groningen.
Spending time inside these historic buildings is social distancing friendly: while the churches are open to visitors between April and October, many of the houses of worship will remain accessible for individual visits with key access this during the winter months.
The majority can only be accessed by picking up a key from a nearby neighbour. You can find more information about the history of each church and the addresses where you can retrieve the keys at the Groninger Kerken website – and you can even visit some of them virtually thanks to 360 videos online.
From Adorp to Zuurdijk
There are nearly 100 medieval houses of worship within the province of Groningen – practically every village has at least one, from Adorp to Zuurdijk, so you are spoiled for choice. Around half are open to the public: you can explore the most beautiful ones by following the Pronkjewail path (“jewels” in Gronings). The synagogues in Appingedam and Groningen are also part of the Groninger Kerken network.
The first thing you may notice about these ancient churches is that many are located on manmade hills, known as wierden: these earthen mounds were built to protect settlements from floodwater. This artificial high ground was created around 500 BC, which predates the dykes and the churches themselves, the oldest of which were built in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Churches across the Netherlands were stripped of any ornamentation and art during the Reformation in the 1500s, but a number of them have been at least partially restored to their former glory either through the careful removal of paint and chalk layers or by artists who have recreated the decorative ceilings and walls. The 13th century Sebastiaan church in the village of Bierum has some stunning murals of Christ and Mary, which were hidden for years, and an unusual buttress and Romanesque exterior. Click here to view a 360 panorama of the church's interior. The video below shows the restoration of wall frescoes (generate automatic English subtitles by clicking on the video setting).
The oldest houses of worship that have remained more or less unchanged over the years are the Walfridus churches in Bedum and Hellum (named after a 10th century man from Bedum who brought Christianity to the village), the churches in Holweirde and Zuidwolde, and the Donatus church in Leermens, all of which were built during or prior to the 11th century.
Some of the most beautiful churches in the province stand out because they embody specific architectural and artistic styles, such as the 15th
century late gothic Hippolytus church in Middelstum, the frescos depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments inside the 14th century church in Noordbroek, and the 17th
century wood carvings at the Pieterburen church.
Organ garden of Europe
Dozens of churches across the province are also home to spectacular organs, many of which were the creations of a 17th century organ builder from northern Germany named Arp Schnitger. He was famed across Europe for his instruments with commissions from Russia to Spain, and Schnitger is the designer behind no fewer than 14 organs in Dutch churches, mostly in the north.
Uithuizen, Nieuw-Scheemda, Eenum, Godlinze and Noordbroek’s churches all have instruments built by the German master, each with an ornate façade in keeping with the Baroque compositions they were designed to play. In the city, the pipes in the Martinikerk, the Pelstergasthuiskerk and Aa Kerk were all built by Schnitger.
His organs aren’t the only game in town, though: Groningen has earned the title of the “organ garden of Europe” because of the eight massive instruments located across the city, built as far back as 1627 (Pelstergashuiskerk) and as recently as 1979 (Oosterpoort).
The history of the organs are intertwined with the churches that housed them, and catastrophe struck the Aa Kerk and its organs not once but twice barely 40 years apart. In 1671, the church’s wooden tower was hit by lightning, caught fire and disintegrated, destroying the 15th century organ inside. Schnitger was commissioned to build a new instrument, which was completed in 1697 – only to be ruined when the re-built church tower once again collapsed in 1710.
More than a century later, when the former church at the Broerstraat became Catholic in 1815, its Schnitger organ was moved to the Aa Kerk, where it is still located today. You can hear a sample of what the instrument sounds like in the video below:
The Martinikerk actually has two organs: the primary organ, designed by Schnitger in 1692, and the choir organ, so named because of its location in the “choir” section of the church, which was created in 1742 by Belgian organ builder Jean-Baptiste Le Picard. The Schnitger organ in the Martinikerk, which has 53 “stops”, is one of the most famous Baroque organs in the world.
Even during the Coronavirus lockdown, organ performances with limited seating are being held in Groningen’s churches this winter: on 31 December, two traditional New Year’s Eve concerts are scheduled to be held in the Luterse Kerk. Visit the Binnenstadskerken
(city centre churches) website for the latest information and, hopefully, more classical concerts in the coming months.