Belgium – The Core Of Ghent

THE old town of Ghent lies on the island formed by the junction of the Lys and the Schelde, with their various backwaters, all now largely artificial. Near this point, but beyond the Lys, the Counts of Flanders early erected a strong castle, the Gravensteen or Oudeburg, beneath whose protection, aided by the two navigable rivers, merchants and weavers gradually settled. As at Bruges, the heart of the town, however, is purely municipal and mercantile in its architecture. The Town Hall, which was the meeting-place of the citizens, and the Belfry, which summoned them to arms or council, are the chief points of interest in the city. The Schelde is still tidal to its very centre.

As most visitors will probably stop in one of the hotels on the Place d’Armes, near the south end of older Ghent, I shall frankly take that square as our starting-point. It may facilitate recognition at first sight to add that the large square tower visible to the right from the Place d’Armes, is that of the Cathedral, while the tapering spire, crowned by a gilt dragon, belongs to the Belfry.

Go first on a tour of orientation through early Ghent. If you follow these directions implicitly, you can see everything important in one short walk. Cross the Place d’Armes diagonally to the northeasterly corner, and follow the small and narrow streets which run due north to the front of the Cathedral. Walk round the south side of this, to form a first general impression, but do not enter it at present.

Then, from the west front of the Cathedral, take the Rue St. Jean straight before you. The tower with the gilded dragon which faces you as you walk is that of the Belfry. It was de-signed in 1183, about a century earlier than that of Bruges, but only erected between 1321 and 1339; it is a fine work in the Early Gothic style. Its windows have been walled up. The tapering turret which crowns the tower is unfortunately modern, and of iron. On the very summit stands a huge gilded dragon, which universal tradition represents as having been brought from St. Sophia at Constantinople to Bruges by the Crusader Baldwin o,f Flanders (1204), and removed as a trophy by the people of Ghent, under Philip van Artevelde, in 1382. It certainly appears to be of Oriental origin, but is stated on documentary evidence, discovered by M. Vuylsteke, to have been made in Ghent itself in 1380. If so, it would seem at least to be based on an Oriental model.

The small building to the right of the Belfry, recently restored, is the Cloth Hall, erected in 1424, a graceful but not very important Gothic edifice, of the Decorated period, with niches vacant of their statues. The concierge of the Belfry now has a room in it. Application must be made here to mount to the summit, a dark and steep ascent. The ad-mission is one franc, or two for a party.

The view is extensive and beautiful, but not quite so striking as that at Bruges. The principal buildings of the city lie just below you : beyond, all Flanders. The chimes are celebrated. The chief bell is known as Roelandt.

Now turn round into the Botermarkt or Marché au Beurre to the right, and inspect the Belfry again from the little bay in the corner opposite. This is the best near view of the tower. The portal to the right is the entry to the town prison, beneath the Belfry. In its gable is a too-famous eighteenth century relief, the Mammelokker, representing the Roman Daughter feeding her father from her breast at the window of the prison, and doubt-less intended to excite the charity of passers-by. It certainly serves no other function, for it is neither beautiful nor decorative.

Cross over to the right side of the Butter market. The building on the left, in two totally distinct portions, is the Hôtel-de-Ville. The part at which you first arrive (latest in point of time) was rebuilt in the early Renaissance style in 1595 — 1628. It is one of the earliest and in many ways the best example of Renaissance architecture in Belgium, in part because it retains certain good features of local domestic building, such as the pointed gable-ends (round the corner to the left) and the projecting windows with dormers on the main façade. Look out for their origin elsewhere. It has three storeys, with projecting half colonnades, the columns being Doric on the ground floor, Ionic on the first floor, and Corinthian on the second. Recollect the gable-ends and dormers for comparison with others in old houses in Ghent hereafter.

Now, continue on to the corner, where we arrive at the earlier Gothic portion of the Hôtel-de-Ville, erected in 1518—1535 by Dominic de Waghemakere, who also built in part the cathedral at Antwerp. The projecting polygonal corner, with its handsome balcony, is very noticeable. The work is of the latest and most florid Gothic, somewhat lacking in grace and dignity, but ornate in its splendour. Observe the depressed arches, the noble cornice, the rich decoration of garlands. Most of the niches are now empty. From the corner opposite, a good view is obtained of both parts of the Hôtel-de-Ville and also of the Belfry.

Turn to the left into the Rue Haut-Port, to observe the main front o,f this earlier Gothic building, with its fine projecting windows above, its empty niches, its handsome entrance staircase and main portal, its beautiful little balcony for addressing the people below, and the large projecting window of its ancient chapel near the centre. Note how well the façade is thus broken up and diversified. This is the finest specimen of florid Gothic in Bel glum. Beyond it comes another Renaissance portion, and then a handsome Renaissance dwelling-house. The street also contains several fine early houses, the best of which, a Gothic guild-hall, known as the Cour St. Georges, stands at the corner to the left, facing the Hôtel-de-Ville.

The interior of the Hôtel-de-Ville need not be visited, though it has a handsome Gothic staircase and some fine halls and internal courts, interesting to those who have plenty of time at their disposal.

Now, return to the Belfry and continue straight down the left-hand side of the Rue de la Catalogne. The church on the right, round the base of which houses have been allowed to cluster, is St. Nicholas — the oldest in the town. This is one of the most solid pieces of architecture at Ghent. It has a fine decorated tower, which has happily escaped restoration, besides small turrets to the Transepts, and two, rather larger, to the gable of the Nave. Go on into the Koornmarkt or Marché aux Blés, to the right; stand there for a moment, at the end of the Rue de la Catalogne, to observe the fine coup d’oeil, which takes in St. Nicholas, the Belfry, and the tower of the cathedral. The main façade of St. Nicholas, also encumbered with houses, faces the Koornmarkt. Over the door is a modern figure of the Saint himself, raising three boys who were salted down for meat. Nicholas was the popular saint, the patron of the merchants and burgesses ; and the prominent position of his church on the Corn Market is very characteristic of the burgher spirit of Ghent.

A hasty glance will suffice for the interior, which is a characteristic specimen of the unrestored Belgian church, with figures of the Twelve Apostles, as always, against the pillars of the Nave; an ugly carved pulpit; short Transepts ; an Apse with bad glass ; and the vaulting of Nave, Aisles, and Choir concealed by plaster. The tawdry decorations render what might be a fine interior wholly unimpressive. The High Altar has an altar-piece by Liemakere, representing, in the confused style of the School of Rubens, the election of St. Nicholas as Bishop of Myra. Above is an eighteenth century figure of the Saint, raising three boys from the tub. The early pillars of the Choir are really handsome.

On emerging from the front of the church, continue straight on to the bridge which crosses the Lys, affording a good view to the left of the Apse of St. Michel. Then, go along the side of this handsome church, with late Gothic windows resembling English Perpen dicular. It has a solid but unfinished tower, and a good west portal, robbed of its sculpture and cruelly mutilated. A glimpse at the interior, which has been scraped and renovated, will show at once the fine architecture. The nave has impressive round pillars, windows in the clerestory, and excellent brick vaulting. The vaulted aisles are surrounded by chapels. The choir is very handsome. In the north transept is a famous but overrated * Crucifixion by Van Dyck, not without beauty of conception and composition, but spoiled by restorations. Walk round the transepts and ambulatory. There are some good works of the School of Rubens.

Now, continue along the quay, on the same side as St. Michel (observing as you go that the early town extended to both banks of the river), in order to view the façade of the hand-some ” Maison des Bateliers,” or Guild House of the Skippers, erected in 1531 for the masters of the shipping of Ghent, in somewhat the same florid late-Gothic style as the Hôtel-de-Ville. This is the finest existing specimen of old Flemish houses. Over the doorway is an appropriate relief of a ship, somewhat antiquated and heraldic in character. By the side of this Guild-house are two others, less interesting : the first, the Guild-house of the Grain Measurers; the next, very old and dilapidated, the Staple House of Corn, Romanesque, said to be the earliest civil building in Belgium. Several fine gable-ends are seen to the left, including one with Renaissance architecture, on this side of the Lys. At the moment of writing, the houses next to the Skippers’ Guild are in course of demolition, exposing a bare side of the old Hall most unpicturesquely.

Now, retrace your steps over the Bridge, and through the Corn Market, almost wholly modernized, with the exception of a few gabled houses.

The next little square at which we arrive is the Marché aux Herbes. Its west side is occupied by the ancient but uninteresting Grande Boucherie. Turn to the left by the corner of the Boucherie, with Our Lady and Child in a niche, and cross the bridge to the other side of the Lys. On the left are two handsome old houses. In front rise the gateway and bastions of the Oudeburg, or Castle of the Princes. This was the primitive palace of the Counts of Flanders in Ghent. The irregular little square in front of it is known as the Place Ste. Pharailde. The castle has recently been cleared from the numerous modern houses which en-cumbered and hid it. The first stronghold on this site was erected in 868. The existing ruins of the gateway, with round Romanesque arches, date back to 1180; the square keep behind is of the tenth century. In this palace Jacob van Artevelde entertained Edward III. When Edward returned to England, he left Queen Philippa here, and during his absence she bore, in the Monastery of St. Bavon, her third son, John of Gaunt, who took his well-known surname from the place of his birth. It was on Edward’s return to Flanders, accompanied by the ladies of Philippa’s suite, that he found the French fleet drawn up near Sluys to prevent his entry into the port of Bruges, on which occasion he gained the first great English naval victory. The Castle, which is now in course o,f partial restoration, is closely bound up with the greatness of Van Artevelde and the heroic period in the history of Ghent.

Walk round it to note its extent and its commanding position at the point where the bridge crosses the Lys to the main part of the town.

The opposite corner of the Place Ste. Phargailde has a Renaissance gateway, reërected in imitation of the original by Arthus Quellin, and adorned with sculptures of Neptune, the Schelde, and the Lys, the sources of Ghent’s greatness. It leads to the Fish-market. Around are several good old houses.

Continue along the quay on the same side of the river as the Oudeburg, as far as the Pont du Laitage, just before reaching which you pass on your left two seventeenth century houses with reliefs (the Works of Charity, a Flying Hart, etc.). Cross the bridge and turn to the right as far as the big cannon, known as ” Dulle Griete ” or ” Mad Margaret,” dating back to the fourteenth century. By the touch-hole are the Cross of St. Andrew and the arms of Philippe le Bon of Burgundy.

Turn into the large square in front of you. The building, with a tower at the corner and high gables, which faces you at the end of the street as you advance, is one of the best old mediæval houses in Ghent, the Collacie-Zolder, or Municipal Council-Room, of the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It has an interesting little pulpit or balcony at its corner, with a bell, from which addresses could be made to the people. The towers that face you a little to the left are those of St. Jacques, to be visited presently.

Continue into the square, at the corner of which is the Municipal Council-Room. This is the Vrydagmarkt or Marché du Vendredi, in which a strikingly picturesque market is still held every Friday morning. If possible, visit it. The square was the forum of old Ghent and the meeting-place of the citizens. A few fine old buildings in the native local style still surround it. The centre is appropriately occupied by a modern colossal statue of Jacob van Artevelde, addressing the citizens in his famous speech when he excited them to opposition to the Count of Flanders with his Gallicizing policy. At the base are allegorical figures of Flanders, and of the Belgian towns, wearing mural crowns. The reliefs represent Van Artevelde’s three chief diplomatic triumphs, — the League of Ghent with Bruges and Ypres ; the League of Flanders and England ; the League of Flanders, Brabant, and Hainault. In this square the most important events in the history of early Flanders took place. Here the citizens of Ghent took the oath of allegiance to each new count on his accession, after they had compelled him to swear in good old Teutonic style ” to uphold and see upheld all the standing wits (laws), fore-rights (regulations), free-hoods, and wonts of the Countship and town of Ghent.” The guilds which had their halls around met here to oppose arbitrary action on the part of their sovereign. Here, too, the parties within the town itself frequently joined issue in civil contest. In later times, the Duke of Alva perpetrated most of his shameful executions on this spot. The site of the statue of Van Artevelde was originally occupied by one of Charles V., who was born in Ghent, in a palace now destroyed, and whose history is intimately connected with this town, always one of his principal residences. The statue was destroyed in 1794 by the French invaders. The picture is in the Museum.

Turn up at the corner by the Municipal Council-Room and take the first street to the left, which leads you into the Place St. Jacques, occupied by the Church of St. Jacques. The façade, with the two towers, was Romanesque, but has been restored in such a wholesale way as to destroy its interest. The remainder of the church is Gothic. Walk round it so as to observe its features, noticing in particular the quaint stone spire of the right-hand tower. The interior might be good, were it not spoiled by tawdry decorations. The pulpit has a marble figure of the patron, St. James, with the pilgrim’s staff and gourd, emblematic of his connection with the great place of pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella. The vaulting has been freed from excrescences, and is excellent of its kind. The High Altar has a figure of St. James above, and a painting of his martyrdom beneath.

This walk will have led you through the principal part of early Ghent. Hence you may return either by the Cathedral or by the chief line of business streets which runs direct from the Pont du Laitage to the modern Palais de Justice and the Place d’Armes.