In a nation of painters—from Golden Age masters like Rembrandt to icons of the 19th century like Van Gogh—statues have taken a back seat. Indeed, after the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century, most Dutchies adopted Calvin’s views about the evils of idolatry: since flawed humans would inevitably worship manmade creations over their own creator, religious statues became blasphemous in one of society’s primary arbiters: church.
After the new Protestant Dutch government outlawed Catholicism in the 17th century, the only churches with statues were hidden ones like Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder in Amsterdam.
8 Iconic Dutch Statues & Monuments
Yet Calvinism did not prevent some inevitable hero-worship in the Netherlands. Nor did it extinguish national pride in revered artists, poets, writers, philosophers and anonymous underdogs—all highly esteemed in a culture that prioritizes the arts, public engagement and self-determination. By the mid-19th century, the Dutch began to honor some of their most beloved luminaries, as well as countless anonymous heroes, by putting them on pedestals in public spaces.
Among Dutch superstars represented on their own monuments in Amsterdam are cultural icons like poet Joost van den Vondel, philosopher Baruch Spinoza, writer Eduard Douwes Dekker (better known by his pen name, Multatuli), liberal politician Johan Rudolph Thorbecke, and Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. Also commemorated are anonymous soldiers and victims of conflict, as well as unsung heroes reflecting communal values. Some of the most significant are represented on these eight iconic statues and monuments in the Dutch capital.
Dutch Statues Honoring Cultural Icons
1. The Rembrandt Monument. It took an act across a new border to inspire the installation of Amsterdam’s oldest surviving statue in a public space. When Belgium celebrated its independence from the Netherlands in 1840 by unveiling a bronze statue of renowned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, Dutchies were not to be outdone. In 1852, a cast-iron statue of Rembrandt by Flemish sculptor Louis Royer debuted on a pedestal on the perimeter of what is now Rembrandtplein.
Set on a grey granite base with an engraved replica of the 17th-century master’s signature, the statue features a larger-than-life Rembrandt holding a stylus and painter’s palette. When it first appeared on the edge of the square, the statue looked down on merchants proffering butter and cheese on what was then known as the Botermarkt.
In 1876, the Rembrandt Monument was moved to the center of a bustling market. One of Amsterdam’s liveliest public squares was subsequently renamed Rembrandtplein.
2. The Vondel Monument. The same artist who created the Rembrandt Monument also crafted the 2.3-meter (7.5-foot) statue of 17th-century Dutch poet/playwright Joost van den Vondel in Vondelpark. Unveiled in 1867, Louis Royer’s bronze edifice depicts Vondel in a flowing cape, with a handlebar mustache, full mane of hair, and a quill pen in his right hand. Looking up, he seems to be pondering the words he’ll write in the book resting on his knee.
Taller and more elaborate than the statue itself is the pedestal on which it stands. A collaboration of Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who designed the base, and Jean Hubert Lauweriks, who sculpted the sandstone angels on the its corners, the edifice was funded through an aggressive grassroots campaign.
3. The Spinoza Monument. Overlooking the Amstel River near City Hall, this bronze sculpture honors the Dutch philosopher best known for his ideas about freedom of expression and religion. Considered one of the great rationalists of the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza was born nearby to Portuguese-Jewish immigrants. He became a leading figure of the Enlightenment during the Dutch Golden Age.
The 2008 work of Dutch sculptor Nicolas Dings depicts Spinoza on a terrazzo pedestal engraved with the philosopher’s name and the inscription, Het doel van de staat is de vrijheid (The goal of the state is freedom).
Next to a black polished granite shape, the philosopher stands tall in a medieval wig that curls to his shoulders, wearing a cape that extends to his toes.
A Dutch Memorial for Fallen Heroes
4. Dutch National Monument. One of the Netherlands’ most significant monuments rises like a giant ivory phallus on the eastern side of Dam Square. Designed by Dutch architect Jacobus Oud, it commemorates all who died in World World II. The Latin phrase, Hic ubi cor patriae monumentum cordibus intus quod gestant cives spectet ad astra dei (Here at the heart of the fatherland may this monument which citizens carry in their heart gaze at God’s stars) is engraved on the giant obelisk. It debuted on Amsterdam’s central public square in 1956.
White travertine stone covers the 22-meter (72-foot)-high pillar, which features a relief titled De Vrede (The Peace) on its base, with four chained male figures symbolizing the suffering endured during World War II. On either side, two male sculptures represent members of the Dutch resistance, the left symbolizing the intelligentsia, the right the working classes. Dogs at their feet hint at suffering and loyalty. Above the relief, a woman cradles a child amidst flying doves, representing peace, new life and liberation.
The monument is set on concentric rings that form steps leading up to its central pillar. Two lions symbolizing the Netherlands guard the massive edifice. At its rear, a semicircular wall contains 12 urns filled with soil from World War II execution grounds and war cemeteries in each of the Dutch provinces, as well as the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). In the late 1960s, the National Monument became a hotspot for hippies, who viewed it as a symbol of liberty. In 1970, the government banned sleeping on Dam Square, inciting rioting and military intervention. The hippies then relocated to Vondelpark.
Dutch Monuments for Anonymous Underdogs
5. The Homomonument. Three pink granite triangles are set into the ground to create a larger triangle, forming the world’s first monument commemorating gays and lesbians. In her stylized design, Dutch environmental artist Karin Daan uses the shape homosexuals were forced to wear in concentration camps during World War II. The Homomonument honors the global LGBTQ community, including those killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust and all who continue to fight against denial, oppression and discrimination.
In the shadow of Amsterdam’s Westerkerk, a second triangle rises above ground at the Homomonument, making for comfy seating.
A line from Dutch Jewish gay poet Jacob Israël de Haan’s “To a Young Fisherman” is engraved on a street-level triangle: Naar vriendschap zulk een mateloos verlangen (Such an endless desire for friendship).
6. Het Lieverdje. According to Amsterdam sculptor Carel Kneulman, his bronze sculpture of a confident young boy with hands on his hips is a self-portrait of sorts. “I used to be such a boy myself,” he said in an interview about his work in the late 1940s, calling his sculpture, “my garden gnome.”
The name Lieverdje (Sweetie) surfaced when journalist Henri Knap wrote a story about a boy who saved a dog from drowning in a canal. Published in Het Parool, Amsterdam’s daily newspaper, in 1947, the article was the first of numerous stories about Amsterdam’s mischievous street boys. When Knap was later asked what gift he could give Amsterdammers, he replied, “Put Kneulman’s Lieverdje on the Spui.”
Amsterdam journalist Henri Knap campaigned for a statue of an anonymous street kid on the Spui. It became the hub of anti-establishment protests during the turbulent 1960s.
In 1960, Knap’s wish came true when the mayor’s wife unveiled Het Lieverdje on one of Amsterdam’s liveliest public squares. Since the statue was co-financed by tobacco manufacturers, it became the center of PROVO protests during the rebellious ’60s. The left-wing movement embracing free love, nature and democratization fizzled out by the end of the decade, but Keulman’s statue remains to this day.
7. Man met Vioolkist (Man with Violin Case). One of Amsterdam’s quirkiest statues mysteriously appeared on the Tweede Marnixplantsoen, on the western edge of the Jordaan, in 1982. Except for a few equally mysterious exits for restoration purposes, he’s been hurrying toward the Bloemgracht tram stop, clutching a violin case in one hand, a top hat in the other, ever since.
Along with other works by the same elusive local, Man met Vioolkist has been donated to the city on condition that its creator remains anonymous. Clearly, the mystery is part of the fun.
Dubbed Man Trying to Catch Tram 10 before the tram lines were changed when the North/South Metro line opened or Man with Violin Case, the headless, cobalt blue figure is dressed for inclement weather, in a full-length, tailored coat with its collar pulled up. While its creator remained unknown for years, the municipality divulged this clue in 2000: “this is an Amsterdammer who earns a living as a doctor, who is an artist in his spare time.”
8. Het Zagertje (The Little Sawer). For more than three decades, a little iron man in the wooded area near Leidseplein has been trying to saw off a tree branch. Whether he succeeded in 2019 or whether his untimely disappearance, along with the branch he was anchored to, was due to wind, rain or thievery is anyone’s guess.
Most important is that the little saw man who appeared overnight in the Leidsebosje in 1989 is safe, albeit slightly damaged. The iconic statue is now undergoing minor surgery by the still anonymous doctor who crafted him. Once restored, he may be back to his old mischief, possibly with a new look and on a new branch.
Whether or not Het Zagertje reappears, one thing is clear: statues and monuments are now an integral part of Amsterdam’s eclectic streetscape. Since the mid-19th century, when edifices glorifying Rembrandt and Joost van den Vondel appeared in public spaces, Dutchies have put both renowned and unsung heroes on pedestals, inviting all to remember the artists, writers, philosophers, and anonymous underdogs that inspired a nation of painters. Which Dutch statue is your favorite?