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Stone Tablets in Amsterdam

In old cities, streets had no names and numbers. If you needed to find someone, you had to know the name of the house. In Amsterdam, many houses had special signs: decorative plaques on which the sculptor could show what he was worth. This picture shows you how one of these tablets was included in the façade of a house (corner of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Spinhuisstraat). Map
It is impossible to translate the Dutch word gevelstenen, just like apartheid and gezelligheid. The catalogue of the Rijksmuseum says 'stone tablets', and it sometimes adds 'from a façade'. Perhaps 'wall stone' is a better translation, although it is still not perfect. But whatever the translations, these stones are nice works of art, which are ignored in the books of art history, although they deserve a chapter.

Many gevelstenen indicate the profession of the occupant of the house. The house called IN D' TURFDRAGER in the Kerkstraat 76 shows a peat carrier.

The barrels on this simple gable stone on the house at the Nieuwe Leliestraat 84 suggest that it was built by cooper or, less likely, a brewer.
This elaborate tablet shows a paper mill. It is now at the corner of the Keizersgracht and the Leliegracht, but used to be at the Damrak 98, which was built in 1649 for a paper merchant named Pieter Haack.
The man represented on the sign of the house IN DEN ANSPREKER, "the undertaker's man", can be identified with Hendrick Pieters, who lived in the Bloemstraat 12 after 1640. He must have been employed by the Westerkerk (West Church), which is not far from his house.
This lovely wetnurse, DE MIN, can be found in the Nieuwe Leliestraat 82. This street is in the quarter of Amsterdam called Jordaan, where many poor people used to live. Wetnurses were often from the lower classes, earning money to rise their own children. The lady on this tablet is shown with two children: at her breast is the child for which she has been paid, at her feet we can see her own daughter. It is not known why she was depicted; it is unlikely that she could afford a stone-cutter herself, so someone else must have ordered this tablet to be made.

A bakery in the Eerste Tuindwarsstraat 19. To the right, the baker puts a bread into the oven; to the left, an assistant is preparing the loafs on a table, on which we can also see the scales.
Almost the same design, but more elaborated, was used for the tablet of a bakery named De gekroonde rode oven ('the crowned red oven'); that slab can be seen in the garden of the Rijksmuseum.
A lamb and a cow have been butchered; the meat will be salted. Two 8-shaped sausages are hanging on the roof. The three men, however, are not butchers: they are vinders, inspectors. This plaque, from 1644, can be seen at the corner of the Nes and the Sint-Pieterspoortsteeg, where the butchers' inspectors had their office, called DIE VINDERSKAMER, as you can read below this sign.
Farmers like this one did, of course, not live in the city, and in fact this gevelsteen does not inform us about the profession of the people who lived in the house at the Reestraat 19. NIET SONDER ARBEID means 'not without labor' and illustrates the Dutch "embarrassment of riches" (as Simon Schama calls it).
A close up of the house shown on the first picture (corner of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Spinhuisstraat). The sign is a rebus, although not a difficult one, and besides, the solution is written below the picture. The rebus reads House + Man, and the solution is HUYS MAN, which is the name of an independent farmer who who owns his own house and land.
DE EEUWIGE GAPER, 'the eternal gaper', can be seen at the Gelderse Kade 84. Chemists and drugstores used to have representations of gaping men (example), often Moorish men wearing a turban and generally depicted with a pill on their tong, as a 'street sign' outside their shops. They are unique for the Netherlands; about 150 of them are kept at the Dutch Drugstore Museum in Maarssen. This modern gable stone, made by Hans 't Mannetje, is clearly inspired by this type.
Other stone tablets showed saints. Here we see the evangelist Luke as a painter, together with a bull, his iconographic symbol. This plaque was made in c.1600, and can be found at the Bethaniënstraat 16. It is known that John (with eagle) and Matthew (angel) were in the neighborhood. The iconography of these tablets is, essentially, Roman Catholic; Amsterdam was a Protestant city, but people belonging to other religions were usually left in peace.
The fourth evangelist is Mark, who is usually depicted with a lion. This plaque is a bit harder to find as it is much higher than is usual. This makes it unlikely that it really served to help postmen find a house, and one wonders who was supposed to see this decorative slab. It is at the Bethaniënstraat 14.
The theme of the four evangelists was not uncommon. Here they are sitting at the Kolksteeg 1: Luke, a beardless John, Matthew (with some money; he was a publican), and Mark. The crown on top of them is a common motif on these tablets. The house was called D' 4 GEKROONDE EVANGELISTEN and you don't need to learn Dutch to be able to translate that.
This Renaissance Annunciation is lovely, found on the outer entrance of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin in the Old Church, is just lovely. To the left we see the angel Gabriel (with the attributes of the pagan god Hermes, the messenger of the gods), who tells Mary that she will be mother of a son, Jesus. The father is the Holy Spirit, shown, as always, as a dove. This is my favorite.
Ornamental plaque, Dam Square, Amsterdam, showing an unusual beardless Sinterklaas. Photo Jona Lendering. The gilded composition dates back to 1555 and may have inspired the Annunciation by the German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872). The year was cut on another slab and has nothing to do with it.

An early seventeenth-century sign shows Saint Nicholas (Dam 2), the patron of Amsterdam. The representation is unusual because the venerable man is shown without beard. Next to him is a tub in which we can see three children. According to a late medieval legend, the bishop of Myra had learned about an inn where the cook killed children and offered them for dinner. Nicholas discovered a tub with the pickled bodies of three boys. One episcopal blessing was sufficient to restore them to life.

This is one of two keys that used to be part of the Sint-Pietersgasthuis ('Saint Peter's Hospital'). The key was the common attribute of this saint, because Jesus had given him 'the keys of heaven', a line in the gospel of Matthew that has been taken as a claim that Peter was the first pope (hence the keys as the pope's heraldic symbol). This plaque and its twin can be seen opposite café De Brakke Grond in Nes 43, at the entrance of some sort of tunnel in a modern building. The architect included this modern gate as reminder of the old Sint-Pieterspoort ('Gate of Saint Peter'); many architects in Amsterdam try to incorporate elements from the past in their works.
Plaque from a house in Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering. The hand of God, appearing from a cloud, writes a text, i.e., creates the world. (The imagine of the creation as a book can be found as early as the father of the church Augustine of Hippo.) This can be seen on the house in the Egelantiersstraat 52. A similar stone can be found around the corner at the EersteTuindwarsstraat 21 ...
... God as craftsman. The theological expression, coined by Plato but also used by Augustine, is demiurg. One wonders why the owner of these houses had to show off his theological knowledge.

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© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 30 April 2013
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