The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in .

Religion & Science

St Peter’s Church in Leiden

St Peter’s Church — Pieterskerk in Dutch — is the oldest church in Leiden. The choir was built between 1390 & 1415, the nave during the fifteen years that followed. The church was further expanded between 1465 & 1565, when transepts & double aisles were added. (The last building phase took longer than expected because of the collapse of the tower in 1512.) After all these years of construction, the congregation had just one year to enjoy the completed church before the Iconoclastic Fury took place in 1566, when Lucas van Leyden’s splendid altarpiece The Last Judgement, now at Museum De Lakenhal, had to be removed to safeguard it from angry mobs of Protestants. Things got worse in 1572, when St Peter’s became a reformed church & all things worth looking at disappeared, except for the stained-glass windows, which were subsequently blown out in 1807 when a ship laden with gunpowder exploded nearby.

St Peter’s Church in Leiden
An upward-looking view of St Peter’s main organ

Protestantism in Leiden didn’t stick, and in AD 1971 St Peter’s was deconsecrated. The church continues to serve Leiden University as its auditorium maximum for large gatherings, and as mausoleum academicum for its most illustrious 17th- & 18th-century brainiacs, such as Carolus Clusius, Joseph Scaliger, and Herman Boerhaave. Among the other notable dead are Pilgrim Father John Robinson, Johan van Kerckhoven, son of Polyander the Divine, best known for the posh tomb that sculptor Rombout Verhulst made for him, and painter Jan Steen. Every year on 3 October, the townspeople of Leiden flock to St Peter’s to offer thanks to God for the relief of their city in 1574, guzzling herring, white bread & large quantities of beer afterwards. The concerts that take place throughout the year are surprisingly less popular, but the Van Hagerbeer organ (1643) & the Thomas Hill organ (1883) are well worth listening to.

Reader comments


According to Jan Jansz. Orlers in his book Beschrijvinge der Stad Leyden (1614), the original Church of St Peter, a chapel dedicated to Sts Peter & Paul at the time, was consecrated by Bishop Godebald of Utrecht on Sunday 11 September 1121. Today, little is known about this chapel, and less is to be seen.


On Pieter Bast’s map of Lugduni Batavor, i.e. ‘Leyden in Hollant’, from 1600, we can see a belfry standing on the square in front of St Peter’s Church. This belfry was built in 1512, after the church tower collapsed, but it no longer exists, having been demolished in 1745.


The most recent epitaph in St Peter’s Church, the one for Ludolph van Ceulen (1540–1610), is just twenty years old. Van Ceulen was the first to not only calculate the number π to 35 digits but also to communicate his scientific findings by means of his tombstone. This stone was lost between 1780 & 1864, but its inscription found its way back to the church on the epitaph that was unveiled in the year 2000, after the original text was found in a travel report from 1663, An Account of a Journey Made thro’ Part of the Low-Countries, Germany, Italy, and France by Philip Skippon, published in 1732 as part of A Collection of Voyages and Travels (p. 398). A translation of the text on Van Ceulen’s tombstone into Latin, published in 1712 in Les délices de Leide, une des célèbres villes de l’Europe (p. 67), was used to correct some minor errors in Skippon’s transcription of the Dutch text.


Ludolph van Ceulen’s book Van den circkel, in which he calculated the upper & lower bounds of pi to 20 digits (ch. XI, f. 11r–14r), was published in 1596. A Latin translation by Willebrordus Snellius, De circulo & adscriptis liber, became available in 1619, nine years after Van Ceulen died. The first time Van Ceulen’s 35 digits appeared in print was in 1621, in Snellius’ book Cyclometricus (p. 55).


The philologist & historian Joseph Scaliger may be considered one of the greatest scholars of the Renaissance, but he was not a great mathematician. In Cyclometrica elementa duo (1594) he proposed a false quadrature of the circle (prop. II & XVII, p. 72–78 & 107–112); in Van den circkel (1596) Van Ceulen proved him wrong (ch. XXI, f. 61r–66v). He didn’t mention Scaliger — who was much higher on the social ladder — by name, but referred to him as ‘a highly learned man’ (f. 63r) instead.


Enough now about this π business, folks.


There is one stained-glass window in St Peter’s Church, dedicated to Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde, dating from 1940. A better place to see stained glass is at St John’s Church in Gouda, which displays the best of European glass painting, and no less than 72 windows — № 25 depicting the Relief of Leiden in 1574.

Comments on this topic are now closed.