I do know a thing or two about bookshops. I worked for Waterstones for a few years in the UK and I was the proud owner of The English Bookshop in Montolieu, the book village in the south of France. My shop was in the shadow of the village’s 13th century church and the small bookshop across the narrow street was actually built against the church walls. I know a bit about churches too. I’ve seen lots of bookshops, I’ve seen lots of churches and I’ve seen bookshops near to churches but I’d never seen a bookshop in a church – little chapels perhaps – but never a church of cathedral-like proportions in the centre of a city. Boekhandel Dominicanen in Maastricht is certainly the most spectacular bookshop in The Netherlands and must rank fairly highly on any international list as well. The only thing I don’t understand is why I didn’t know about it until I discovered it by accident on a recent visit to the city en route to Germany,
In December 2006 a bookstore was established for the first time in Maastricht’s 13th century Dominican Church, right in the centre of town. After the intensive restoration of the monument, architectural firm Merkx & Girod designed the interior of the bookstore with 1200m2 of retail space – in spite of the fact that there was only 850m2 of floor space available.
The architects wanted to emphasize the height and space of Gothic architecture. They saw the solution for this in a monumental walk-in bookcase with multiple floors, placed asymmetrically in the church. This means that the full height of the church remains intact on the left, while on the right visitors are led to the top floor of this ‘steel book flat’. Climbing has been turned into an experience and voyage of discovery. When the bookstore opened it was as part of Boekhandelsgroep Nederland under the name Selexyz Dominicanen and later Polare.
After Polare went bankrupt the bookstore was re-launched as the independent Boekhandel Dominicanen in March 2014. There you will find a beautiful range of books, from children’s to art, from literature to Limburgensia and from law to travel. There is a very large and comprehensive English language section. In 2015 a fully-fledged music department was added on the first floor with an extensive range of CDs and vinyl.
Blanche Dael Coffeelovers, a coffee bar/café was established in the former choir of the church and this area also serves as the cultural hub of the bookstore. Signings, debates, lectures, interviews and musical performances take place there on a weekly basis.
The Dominican Church in Maastricht, the first Gothic church in the Low Countries, is a special building, not only because of its colourful and varied history, but also because of the exceptional ceiling and wall paintings which are of great importance to art historians.
In 1261, the Dominicans were given permission to found a monastery in Maastricht. It stood there for five hundred years on the site where the Entre Deux shopping mall now stands. On 4th November 1794, the French army conquered the city, and in the following years it was incorporated into the French Republic. This put an end to the history of this religious mendicant order in Maastricht and the church was used as stables by the French cavalry.
In the two centuries that followed, the building served as a depot for the city, a concert hall (MSO), slaughterhouse, snake house, boxing temple (Bep van Klaveren), bicycle shed and (children’s) carnival temple. Many Maastricht residents remember this as the place where they first ‘gepuund’ (kissed).
The ceiling vaults of the church contain centuries-old, but also heavily damaged, frescoes. The restorers of the Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL) paid a lot of attention to the consolidation and restoration of the paintings, doing everything possible to preserve them for future generations. The ceiling paintings are of exceptional quality for this part of Europe. Most of the paintings are by Jan Vassens and were painted around 1619.
There is a wall painting with an image of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), painted in 1337. This is not only the oldest church wall painting in the Netherlands but also the oldest image of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Europe. It is also the oldest painting in which a realistic, three-dimensional space (perspective) is suggested, using pictorial means. In the Low Countries not a single mural or panel painting of comparable style and refined quality has been preserved from this early period.
For centuries this painting had been covered with layers of white lime. In the 19th century, Victor de Stuers, as a young man of twenty-two, retrieved the painting by removing the lime layers with great care. He documented his ‘discovery’ and recorded it through drawing and painting, so that we still have access to what he saw then.
Boekhandel Dominicanen is a truly magnificent establishment. It is a unique and very special book store in a unique and very special building. If, like me, you didn’t know about it, you do now. The combination of the store and the fine city of Maastricht make a visit of a couple of days a no-brainer. I certainly intend going back there. Michael Hasted September 2023
Photo by and © Michael Hasted 2023