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Museum at the A 17th-century ceiling lays bare love

Imagine you are just presented with this: An entire wooden ceiling dating from 1637. Beautifully painted and of great historical value. This is exactly what happened to Museum aan de A in the city of Groningen. Yet, the ceiling came very close to being destroyed.

This remarkable ceiling was uncovered in a fashion shop in Groningen. Architectural historian Taco Tel, visited the building because although the building had never been surveyed, it had features indicating its considerable age. ‘I went upstairs, then I saw the medieval oak roof construction and knew that this building really should have been listed.’ By coincidence, some construction workers had just started demolishing it and Tel was invited to watch. ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes. A ceiling from the first half of the 17th century was revealed. A supreme find.’

Architectural historian Taco Tel

That which is lost will never return

The thoughts and feelings I experienced are almost impossible to describe. The previous day, I had visited the shop building where builders were cutting out a hole through the suspended ceiling. This had been installed in the 1960s. ‘I spent many an hour here, while never having even a sip,’ that’s what the plasterer scribbled on there, next to the date. Presumably he was completely unaware of the treasure under which he had been working.

I couldn’t believe how elated I was feeling. The following day, after some careful dismantling, the house revealed its secret: an entire wooden ceiling dating from 1637. Beautifully painted. Extremely rare. You can immediately picture what the whole house would have looked like. Absolutely breathtaking. All sorts of things run through your head. How on earth did they accomplish this back then? And who lived under this roof? What do all these pictures convey?

If you find something like this too late, when everything has been demolished, you are in sackcloth and ashes (despair). The cultural historic significance of such a ceiling is enormous. Whatever is thrown into the skip can never be recovered. You may think: it’s just an old piece of junk. But that junk offers a glimpse into the way people thought and lived in the past. When we know where we are from, what our past looked like, we have a better understanding about who we have become.

Not painted over

The wooden ceiling is effectively the underside of the upper floor joists, which traditionally meant that the joists and underside of the floorboards stayed visible. Amazingly, over all these years it had not been repainted, as was usually the case. In that case, the monumental paint would have dissolved within the linseed oil of the new paint. Colours disappear and all that remains are some faint outlines.

Demolition permit granted

After the discovery, the situation became all the more tense. Unfortunately, a demolition permit had already been granted to remove this particular painted beam section and the building did not have a listed monument status. Along with Egge Knol, curator of the Groninger Museum at that time, we visited the site to discuss the property with its investor. Egge remarked: at our museum there is only one board that has painting like this. And over there, you’ve got an entire ceiling. To which the investor replied: usually when we are working on a building, we bulldoze through from front to back. But now I guess we will have to stop for a while.

Preserving the colours

The ceiling was removed plank by plank and beam by beam. An entire team of experts are observing the restoration: how are we planning to clean the ceiling? How can we preserve the colours, which painting techniques have been employed? Eventually, the ceiling will hang in the entrance hall of Museum aan de A. Museum director Nicolette Bartelink is delighted. The ceiling has an enormous appeal to the people of Groningen. For a short time, people were able to see it during the demolition of the shop front when you could look in from the street. It attracted a huge number of people. Not only is this ceiling great to see, but it also lays bare many stories. For example, we have since discovered just who might have lived beneath the ceiling over the years.

Bernard the Bomber

Apparently, the ceiling was commissioned by a widower who was remarrying. He was decorating the house to suit his new wife. Bartelink: Everything symbolic refers to love; the flowers, all the birds. One does not quite know what one is seeing. Also, of interest here are the minor repairs that have been made to the ceiling. Probably as a consequence of the attack in 1672 by Bommen Berend ‘Bernard the Bomber’, the bishop Bernhard Von Galen from Münster, who believed Groningen belonged to him. Together with an army at his disposal and a hail of bombs, he attempted to conquer the city but did not succeed.

On view without a ticket

As to when the ceiling can be viewed, Bartelink is unable to say for certain. We hope it will be in 2026, when the renovation of the museum is completed. Anyone and everyone will be able to come and enjoy it. In our freely accessible entrance hall, ticket-free.