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Religious History and Heritage

This research group has a multi-pronged approach to its core mission: understanding the manifestations of varieties of religion and religious expression in the past and what this multi-layered and complicated past means for the present. Our approach includes the study of material and immaterial religious culture from multiple perspectives. One of our core questions is how religious narratives of the past have been and are currently put to use for the purposes of individual and group identity formation?

To answer this question, our group delves into a variety of sources, tangible and intangible: traditional archival sources from religious groups and institutions, local, provincial, and national government entities, charitable organizations and institutions, and the like. Naturally, material culture (think clothing, ritual objects, everyday items) is also one of our source bases. In addition, our group explores sites of cultural and landscape heritage such as buildings, parks, and other spaces and places for what they might tell us about expressions of religion, religiosity, and identity in the past as well as in contemporary society.

Our group contributes to myriad debates: preservation; heritage, migration, and the shifting place of religion in contemporary society. We also participate in debates around the care for, and relevance of, religious heritage. We help other scholars, students, religious leaders, policy makers, and people in the cultural sector in forming their views on the changing role of religion in today's society. The research team explores present-day social issues and the direct and indirect ties to religion.

  • Mission

    Our group contributes to myriad debates: preservation; sustainability, impact, identity formation, diversity, critical heritage, migration, and the shifting place of religion in contemporary society. The research team explores present-day social issues and the direct and indirect ties to religion.

  • Team


    • Dr. Leo van Santen
    • Dr. Martin van Wijngaarden
  • Possible Thesis Topics and Internships

    The research team supervises projects in the field of religious and cultural history in the broadest sense. Students have a great deal of leeway to develop their own projects. A few examples would be:  studying religious locations and objects in Amsterdam; contributing to the research project Mapping Religious Heritage in Amsterdam (located in Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, Amsterdam); studying rare books and objects in the Mennonite historical Library at the Allard Pierson Museum, Hebrew, Portuguese, and/or Yiddish manuscripts at the Ets Haim Library (Jewish Cultural Quarter) or at Special Collections VU; contributing to the ongoing research project on religious migration in Amsterdam; and working on the religious aspect of (Dutch) colonialism, including slavery and emancipation.

    Possible topics are:

    “Pre-Modern” Religious Worlds

    • The fight over identity in early Christianity
    • Contesting narratives of Christianity in the Middle Ages
    • Nominalism and its influence on modern thinking
    • Iconoclasm (8th and 9th century)
    • Creation of dogmatic thinking in the Fathers of the Church

    Early Modern Religious Worlds

    • Dutch colonialism and its religious aspects
    • Slavery and religion in the colonial world
    • Jewish diaspora
    • The Atlantic world and religious intersections
    • Jewish migration and religious developments
    • Jews in Amsterdam (Sephardi and Ashkenazi)
    • Jews in the Dutch Republic
    • The Sephardim
    • Religion on polemic prints in the early modern period
    • Theology and spirituality in Early Modern Europe
    • Huguenots in Amsterdam
    • Devotional writings and their circulation

    Reformation and its afterlives

    • Women and leadership in the 16th century
    • Letters of John Calvin to the refugee churches
    • The mystery of the first reformed synod: the Convent of Wesel?
    • Religious debates between anabaptists and reformed
    • Religious difference and the materiality of the church
    • Pietist networks in early modern Europe
    • John Bunyan and the metaphor of the pilgrimage

    Texts, Material Culture, Landscape, and preservation

    • Narratives behind religious objects in museums
    • Curating religious objects in contemporary museums
    • Religious imagery and the art market
    • Religion on polemic prints in the early modern period (see also “Early Modern Religious Worlds”)
    • The functions of religious buildings in public space
    • Art and belief in the early Renaissance
    • Autobiography from Augustine to the 16th century

    Dynamics of Religious Majority and Minority

    • Religious presence of Islam in Amsterdam
    • Mennonite constructions of the narratives of non-violence
    • Jewish communities in the Americas
    • Ethnicity, entanglement, and religion in the Caribbean
  • Possible PhD Topics

    The research team supervises projects in the broad field of religious cultural, intellectual, and social history. The expertise of the team extends through a long chronology beginning in the Early Church and reaches into contemporary issues of religious heritage, material, and visual religious culture. Many topics can and do fall under this research group, with a particular emphasis on religious migration; Jewish history from the early modern period to the present, the interplay of religious minorities and majorities; the formation of (religious) identities in Europe; religious locations and objects in Amsterdam, the correlation between religion creating groups and groups creating religions, and Reformation Christianity (see above).

  • Connection with Education

    The group offers classes at BA and MA levels. Especially linked to our research focus is the minor in religious heritage in Amsterdam and the Master’s trajectory The Future of Religious Heritage. The group meets every two months for a doctoral research colloquium and once every two years there is a masterclass for doctoral candidates. The research group offers possibilities for internships and thesis supervision (BA, MA, PhD).    

  • Connections with Centres/Institutes

    • Amsterdam Centre for the History and Heritage of Protestantism (ACHHP)
    • Augustinian Historical Instiute (Louvain)
    • École Practique des Hautes Études (Paris)
    • Mennonite Seminary/Doopsgezind Seminarium (Amsterdam)
    • Research Center Puritanism and Piety (ReCePP)
    • Menasseh ben Israel Institute for Jewish Studies (Amsterdam)
    • Mongui Maduro Library and Museum (Curaçao)
    • Cooperation with heritage institutes and the cultural heritage sector, such as: Museum Our Lord in the Attic (Ons’Lieve Heer op Solder), Amsterdam; Luther Museum Amsterdam; the Allard Pierson (Museum and Special Collections); Special Collections Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Ets Haim Library, Amsterdam; Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam; Cooperation with other educational institutes, such as the Reinwardt Akademie, Amsterdam.
  • Research Agenda 2022/2024

    The research team makes strides forward in research on religious history and cultural heritage in Europe. In the coming years there are four central themes that will guide research: the changing place of religion and religious history, including its tangible and intangibles heritage in an increasingly secularized social sphere; the role of religious traditions in the processes of colonialization and decolonialization; the successes and failures of religious coexistence in Europe; (religious) migration and the experiences of both exclusion and inclusion of diverse groups as newcomers in the Netherlands.