International Seminar on Movable Religious Heritage

Utrecht, 4-5 November 2013

Religious heritage buildings, as well as their movable religious heritage is under threat across Europe. Secularization of societies, lack of knowledge about conserving the buildings and the treasures held within them and financial distress all contribute to the impeding loss of a substantial collection of testaments to European history and intangible heritage.

The official logo of FRHThe official logo of FRHFuture for Religious Heritage (FRH) was established in 2009 and registered in 2011 as a non-governmental, not for profit organization with the intention to protect Europe’s rich religious heritage. The Hungarian Renaissance Foundation (MRA) is one of the founding members of FRH. The European organisation has members in more than 30 countries, among which there are charities, governmental, religious and university departments that work to protect tanglible and intangible religious heritage across Europe. FRH’s aims are also to create a platform of communication for those working in the heritage sector, to raise awareness of the factors threatening religious heritage, to protect and promote Europe’s rich religious heritage, to share experience and expertise on common challenges and to identify areas where a Europe-wide response is appropriate. FRH, in order to achieve its aims, is trying to influence European policy-makers, as well.

Supporters of the seminarSupporters of the seminar

The first 2-day seminar of FRH took place in Utrecht and Amsterdam (NL) on 4 and 5 November 2013 where 130 heritage experts from 17 countries were present. The seminar’s central theme was the protection of movable religious heritage in Europe. The following topics were discussed:

  • Re-use and deaccessioning of religious objects
  • The relationship between building and interior, the importance of consistency in maintaining and protecting important movable and immovable heritage
  • Assessing the cultural value of movable religious heritage, tools and methods
  • Legal protection for interiors

The event was hosted by Museum Catherijneconvent, the national museum for Christian art and culture in the Netherlands. The museum building was transformed from a monastery and opened as a museum in 1979.

On the first day, speeches were delivered and mini presentations were held in 3 sessions: Theft and Protection, Raising Awareness/Interpretation, Conservation of the Fabric/Collection Management. There are several countries which provide examples of church closings, a symptom typical in Europe these days. While in the Netherlands, one church closes down a week, and - in an ideal case- receives a new function, in the capital of Denmark, in Copenhagen, eight churches were to shut their doors in 2013.

Hungary was represented at the conference by MRA and by Gábor Takács monument inspector from the Gyula Forster National Centre for Cultural Heritage Management (Forster Centre). Mr. Takács provided an overview about the protection of religious movable heritage in Hungary and talked about the work of the Inspectorate of Cultural Goods at Forster Centre. The Inspectorate acts as a state authority responsible for declaring objects protected or lifting their protection and as a partner to police/customs authorities in issues related to artworks.

FAK BB received the prize soon after the confereceFAK BB received the prize soon after the conferece

A presentation about its programme entitled ‘Open Churches’ was delivered by Bernd Janowski from the Förderkreis Alte Kirchen Berlin-Brandenburg e.V. (FAK BB). The German association was awarded the ‘Deutsches Nationalkomitee für Denkmalschutz (DNK) prize for the protection of historic monuments’ for its more than 500 initiatives aimed at protecting the built religious heritage of Brandenburg. The volunteers of FAK BB are organizing successful fundraising campaigns, working with and forming a link between other organisations of the sector and make churches accessible that are not open for visitors around the year. ’In fact to the major part of the inhabitants they {church buildings} have already lost their established function as places of worship. A now practically in the third generation existing secularization of the population has resulted in a lack of elementary knowledge about Christian practice and the function and structure of a church building.’ Bernd Janowski, FAK BB

Upon the initiative of Museum Catherijneconvent, in close co-operation with the Dutch churches and the National Heritage Agency, in 2012, a guide was devised entitled Guidelines on ways of dealing with religious objects. This booklet in fact serves as a practical guide which enriches the international ‘toolbar’ of the heritage sector. It provides owners of religious heritage buildings with advice about the reuse of a building and about the assessment of the cultural value of objects.
Simon Kadijk, the director of Donatus Insurances, an insurance company specialized in movable religious heritage, has emphasized that insurance does not replace the prevention against theft.

Following the panel debate which summarized the most important findings of the first day, dinner was served at the Paushuize in Utrecht. Latter used to be the home of Adrianus VI., who was the only Dutch pope in the 16th century. The building has several cultural functions nowadays.

One of the artefacts of the Saint Augustine church © ÁSzOne of the artefacts of the Saint Augustine church © ÁSzA group of participant testing the guidelines © ÁSzA group of participant testing the guidelines © ÁSz

On the second day, in the framework of sight visits, participants got the chance to visit churches in Amsterdam. Firstly, we visited the Saint Augustine church, where participants attempted to assess the cultural value of the church’s artefacts-with the help of the ‘Guidelines on Ways of Dealing with Religious Objects’ booklet.

The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world-one of the altar decorations of the The Dove church © ÁSzThe lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world-one of the altar decorations of the The Dove church © ÁSzAmstelkerk / Amstel church © ÁSzAmstelkerk / Amstel church © ÁSz

The organization Stadsherstel Amsterdam is specialized in the sustainable protection of the Dutch capital’s built heritage. They renew monument buildings and other ones that have outstanding value. In many cases, the monument they manage receives a new function, as well.  The participants visited two churches which are maintained by the organization.

First the group visited De Duif / The Dove church which is used by an ecumenical congregation. Beside the Sunday church services, the church is also used as a conference venue that can be hired. Thus, the building houses dance performances, concerts and symposiums.

The Calvinist Amstel church, built in the 17th century, has been managed by Stadsherstel since 1980s. After a large-scale reconstruction, Stadsherstel’s offices moved into the building in 1990. Part of it is used as a restaurant, while its central space serves as a concert hall and exhibition venue which can host congresses, church services and weddings, as well.

Participants of the two-day conference also visited the Bible museum. The Bible is the most important, sacred book and orientation point of the Christian and Jewish church which was inspired by God. According to the Holy Scripture, the extended use and re-use of religious heritage buildings is strictly prohibited. The Biblie warns us that a church is a holy place, the ’house of prayer’, which cannot be used for secular purposes. (cf. Isaiah 56,6-7; Jeremiah 7,11;  Matthew 21,13; Mark 11,15-19; Luke 19,45-46; John 2,14-25)

Portuguese Synagogue  © ÁSzPortuguese Synagogue © ÁSz

The experts present at the seminar later visited the Portuguese synagogue / Esnoga and the museum ‘Our Lord in the Attic’. The Portuguese synagogue is still used as a place of worship. Construction works of the building finished in 1675. It was rebuilt several times and completely restored in 1992-1993. The strip floor inside is still covered by sand in accordance with old Dutch tradition. The synagogue rests on wooden piles. The building of the synagogue is surrounded by annex buildings, housing offices and archives, the winter synagogue, the rabbinate and the mikwe (ritual bath). The world-famous, oldest Jewish 'Ets Haim' library is also accomodated in one of these buildings as well as an exhibition showing the art treasures of the synagogue.

One of the oldest museums of Amsterdam is hidden behind a typical Dutch facade. The house originally was used as a block of flats and a church was hidden in it, as well.  The church was built by Catholics at the time of the Reformation when it was forbidden for them to practie their religion. The church Our Lord in the Attic has been used as a museum since 1888.

The detailed programme and FRH's report of the seminar are both available on their website.

The presentations of the seminar were delivered by:

  • -       Justin Kroesen The Netherlands - Assistent Professor Art History of Christianity, University of Groningen
  • -       Oddbjørn Sørmoen Norway - Director of the Department for Church Buildings and Heritage Administration
  • -       Gábor Takács Hungary - Inspectorate of Cultural Goods at the Gyula Forster National Centre for Cultural Heritage Management
  • -       Edwina Proudfoot Scotland - Chairman at the Scottish Church Heritage Research
  • -       Albert Reinstra The Netherlands - Specialist Church Architecture at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands
  • -       Lasse Jonas Bendtsen Denmark - Curator at the National Museum of Denmark
  • -       Giovanna Rech Italy - PhD in Sociology and philosophy of knowledge at the University of Trento
  • -       Ruth Dowson UK - Senior Lecturer at the UK Centre for Events Management, Leeds Metropolitan University
  • -       Jose Antonio Falcao Portugal - Director of the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Diocese of Beja
  • -       Simon Kadijk The Netherlands - Director Donatus Insurances
  • -       Peter Aiers UK - Director, South East, The Churches Conservation Trust
  • -       Bernd Janowski Germany - Förderkreis Alte Kirchen Berlin
  • -       Eloy Koldeweij The Netherlands - Interior Specialist at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands
  • -       Valeria Minucciani Italy - Assistant Professor at the Polytechnic of Torino
  • -       René Hoppenbrouwers The Netherlands - Director Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL)
  • -       Joakim Hansson Sweden - Associate professor, Uppsala University
  • -       Jacques des Rochers Canada - Curator of Quebec and Canadian Art Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal
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    Ágnes Szekeres