Food, Days Out and Travel stories from Brighton, London and the Rest of the World


Days Away - Remarkable Women of Amsterdam

A golden beam of light shines once a year on the spot where the wife and muse of Rembrandt was buried; an arched doorway, one woman's private entrance to the old church has her name inscribed above it; a portrait of three regentesses hangs over a grand mantelpiece and an exclusive women-only square from the middle ages that offers a tranquil sanctuary for single women to this day.

As I explored the city of Amsterdam these stories and a few more revised my impression of the city's history.

Before my visit, all I'd known were the stories of the busy, bustling burgomasters. The ones that had built the big houses on the Herengracht and were painted by the Dutch Masters in large groups. Even today they still seem ready to jostle and talk, as they stand in their group portraits at the Rijksmuseum and Hermitage. The portraits are so alive they look like photos, individual likenesses captured, full of vitality and energy, but women they are not.

Women have a habit of getting pushed out of history. Recently I heard it said that women of the Obama administration noticed that their ideas were being taken over by men, so they came up with a plan to support each other in order to be heard, known as the amplification strategy. It makes me wonder how much more difficult it must have been in the past.

For this reason I'd like to dedicate this blog post to women of Amsterdam who have managed to leave their mark.

Remarkable Women of Amsterdam - Art installation in Oude Kerk, by Marinus Boezem using broken mirrors to reflect the ceiling above in shattered fragments, modernbricabrac, Sarah Agnew photos

A little arched doorway still exists in the main part of Oude Kerk (the Old Church) that leads directly into a private home. This is where Barendina Maria Bijtelaar lived until she died in 1978. She had dedicated her life to researching the lives of the people who had been buried in Amsterdam's oldest church. The church floor is covered with 2,000 gravestones, marking the spot where 12,000 people were buried from the middle ages until 1866 when the practice was stopped. Although privileged to access the church by her own private entrance and have her name inscribed above the door she was not given permission to be buried in her beloved church.

Days Away - Remarkable Women of Amsterdam photo by modern bric a brac

Saskia - Wife and Muse of Rembrandt

Discovered by Barendina, mentioned above, Saskia van Uylenburgh was the first wife and muse of Rembrandt van Rijn. She died at the young age of 29 years and Rembrandt had her buried in the Old Church. The whereabouts of her grave was lost to history for hundreds of years until Barendina Maria Bijtelaar discovered where she had been buried. Every year at exactly 8:38 am on March 9 a golden beam of morning light falls on this spot and touches her grave. In commemoration of the lives of Saskia and Rembrandt a celebration of music and talks are held annually on this day. In 2016 Art Dealer and Historian Jan Six discussed the relationship between Rembrandt's family and his works, specifically the portrait of Saskia which now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Kassel.

Days Away - Remarkable Women of Amsterdam photo by modern bric a brac

The Begijnhof and the Medieval Sanctuary

Oh! Would I love to show you pictures of this peaceful place. I took quite a few. In the centre of Amsterdam you can access this courtyard through an archway from a pedestrianised square. Once in the square the houses mirror the ones along the main canals. A hotchpotch of heights, with ornamental gables, white window frames and brick houses. In the centre is a small lawned area with a path all the way around. On two sides there is a barrier that restricts access to only those that live there. As I stood looking at the scene I noticed a couple of times a solitary lady would enter the square before quietly disappearing into one of the houses. I was so intrigued. Then as we were leaving we came across a notice that explained a bit about its history. Originally set up by a group of pious Catholic single women who performed good works without taking monastic orders, the square was lived in by Beguines until the last died in 1971. Since then the Begijnhof Foundation has ensured it remains exclusive to 93 women. Underneath this notice was a request to refrain from taking photos.

Days Away - Remarkable Women of Amsterdam photo by modern bric a brac

Clara, Agatha and Elisabeth - The Three Regentesses

Follow me next to the Rijksmuseum where I found a portrait of three ladies that stood out to me because of the unusual nature of the painting. Given a prominent position above a marble mantlepiece this portrait of three women from the seventeenth century sit in positions of authority just like their male counterparts. Normally portraits of women from this period are companion pieces to portraits of husbands or they are depicted in morality pictures as drunk with their boobs hanging out or looking meek as industrious house maids and mothers. None of these are positions of authority in their own right. The three regentesses, however, did hold positions of authority, as governors to an asylum that cared for lepers and other poorly afflicted. Painted by Ferdinand Bol in 1668, they confidently look out to meet our gaze.

Days Away - Remarkable Women of Amsterdam photo by modern bric a brac

She Story at De Bijenkorf

In the windows of the very posh department store De Bijenkorf that sells Hermes, Cartier and Tiffany, a short video on a loop shows women of different ages in the act of self-expression. Stuck to the glass were the words She Story and in the other windows mannequins and photos showed stylishly dressed women. I looked at this and wondered what was its point. Were they showing how women are portrayed today? So I looked it up online and discovered it's part of a campaign to support women entrepreneurs. They want to provide a platform for women and their talents. Women who make products that deserve more attention and to offer ambitious local women entrepreneurs in Holland a chance to make their dreams come true. The winners will have their products temporarily sold in a De Bijenkorf store with publicity through their website, social media and in store.

Days Away - Remarkable Women of Amsterdam photo by modern bric a brac

The final female story I saw was less than heart warming. Outside the Oude Kerk, situated on the edge of the red light district were the windows where women stand to make a living. Looking in I noticed the fresh face of a young girl, maybe in her late teens. She looked out at the street, framed by her soft black hair, she looked expectant, apprehensive, vulnerable. How could she not? This was the second time I saw a notice asking visitors not to take photos. This time I hadn't even tried.

Days Away - Remarkable Women of Amsterdam photo by modern bric a brac

Places Visited

Oude Kerk, Oudekerksplein (de wallen), Amsterdam
Marinus Boezem art exhibition runs to 26 March 2017, Price  €10 

Begijnhof 29, 1012 WT Amsterdam

Rijksmueum, Museumstraat 1 Amsterdam, Price  € 17.50

De Bijenkorf, Dam 1, 1012JS Amsterdam
She Story registration has ended. From Friday, March 31 films of all winners will go live.

Come back next week to find out about another remarkable woman, Dorothea Lange at Tate Modern plus a blog post with some great eats in Amsterdam.

Best wishes

Sarah xx

Sarah Agnew
Blogger, Modern Bric a Brac

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