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Visiting the Jozefkerk, Assen, The Netherlands: Neo-Classical lines and the complexities of 19th century state funding

Updated on May 10, 2013
Flag of The Netherlands
Flag of The Netherlands | Source
The Reformed Jozefkerk, Assen: view of tower with cupola.
The Reformed Jozefkerk, Assen: view of tower with cupola. | Source
The Reformed Jozefkerk, Assen: detail of tower with cupola. :
The Reformed Jozefkerk, Assen: detail of tower with cupola. : | Source
Map location of Assen, The Netherlands
Map location of Assen, The Netherlands | Source

A little Reformed history

This fine church building in Assen, in The Netherlands' Drenthe province, struck me as rather striking for its clean, Neo-Classical lines.

I thought to myself: this building doesn't look particularly like a Reformed church in terms of its design and obvious, 19th century origins: maybe it is Roman Catholic in affiliation.

Actually I was very wrong in my assumption. (More, anon.)

The building, the Jozefkerk, at Kerkplein 1, is noted for its strongly symmetrical design and its prominent tower with a very conspicuous cupola. Its architect was C J Spaan.

Something of a clue as to the backgound to the erecting of the Jozefkerk can be discovered when ascertaining just who Architect Spann was. He was chief engineer for the Dutch ministry of public works and water affairs (NB: the Dutch word waterschap in the former title of the ministry does not translate easily). Some readers might ask: Well, so what?

Therein lies a lot of Dutch history. Given that the fortunes of The Netherlands have been greatly tied with rivers and the sea, 'water affairs', as generally defined, have been part of the official functions of the ministry of public works for a very long time. (Viz, many Middle Eastern countries have a separate water resources ministry, albeit in a different context from that of The Netherlands.)

Another, strong leitmotif in Dutch history has been the existence, side by side, of the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions. During several decades of the 19th century, the state paid directly for the construction and repairs of some churches, and engineers from the ministry of public works and water affairs were responsible for this work. Those religious buildings which were built during this period were known as Waterstaatskerken. The Jozefkerk, Assen, is one such church building.

By way of background, this is how this state of affairs came about. At the Reformation, many Roman Catholic church buildings were taken over by the Dutch authorities and given to Protestants for their use. Gradually, some of them were returned to Roman Catholic congregations. Some such buildings were legally given over to the Roman Catholic authorities but the Reformed congregations which met in a number of them refused to vacate them, guessing correctly than in some cases the authorities under the Dutch Republic lacked the will to enforce these measures and bring about a confrontation with their strong, Reformed church supporters (1).

After The Netherlands became a kingdom in the early 19th century, the Dutch monarchs became rhetorically committed to the idea of national unity, amidst confessional variety. Thus from 1824 until 1875 the authorities devised a scheme whereby the building and upkeep of certain churches, especially in areas where there was an imbalance between congregants and available properties, became the responsibility of the ministry of public works and water affairs. Enter the redoutable Architect Spaan, and the designation Waterstaatskerk, which was applied to the Josefkerk, Assen.

Except that it wasn't the Josefkerk that was thus designated: until the second half of the 20th century the building was called the Grote Kerk (or Cathedral, although this being a Dutch Protestant matter, there would be those Dutch Reformed congregants — and especially their ministers — who would have difficulties with the idea of one parish's clergy being of a higher rank than another's: an implicit assumption in the used of the English term 'Cathedral'.)

The Josefkerk (albeit not called such) was inaugurated in 1848 (year given in Roman numbers in the prominent pediment. The current tower dates from 1911, the building's previous tower having burnt down in 1910. The edifice underwent a program of refurbishment in the late 20th century.

May 10, 2013


(1) The Dutch Republic was sometimes (only half-jokingly) referred to as a Republiek van dominees (Republic of Reverend Gentlemen), such was the influence of Reformed ministers in public affairs.

Also worth seeing

In Assen itself, other church buildings of note include the Kloosterkerk; there are various elegant townhouses.


How to get there: Airlines flying to Amsterdam-Schipol Airport from New York include Delta Airlines and KLM. The Dutch railroad company NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) maintains rail services between Amsterdam-Schipol and Assen. There is car rental availability at Amsterdam airport. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

For your visit, these items may be of interest


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