Belgium – The Heart Of Bruges

THE original nucleus of Bruges is formed by the Bourg, which stands near the centre of the modern city. In 865, Baldwin Bras-de-Fer, Count of Flanders, built a château or burg by the Reye, in a corner of land still marked by the modern canal of the Dyver, and near it a chapel, into which he transported the relics of St. Donatian. This burg grew in time into the chief palace of the Counts of Flanders, now replaced by the Palais de Justice; while the chapel by its side developed into the first cathedral of Bruges, St. Donatian, now wholly demolished. A bridge hard by crossed the little river Reye; and from this bridge the town ultimately derives its name. The burg was built as a tête-du-pont to protect the passage. A town of traders gradually sprang up under the protection of the castle, the counts were read aloud to the people assembled in the square.

The Belfry can be ascended by steps. Apply to the concierge; twentyt-five centimes per person. Owing to the force of the wind, it leans slightly to the southeast. The * view from the top is very extensive and striking; it embraces the greater part of the Plain of Flanders, with its towns and villages : the country, though quite flat, looks beautiful when thus seen. In early times, however, the look-out from the summit was of practical use for purposes of observation, military or maritime. It commanded the river, the Zwin, and the sea approach by Sluys and Damme; the course of the various canals ; and the roads to Ghent, Antwerp, Tournay, and Courtrai. The Belfry contains a famous set of chimes, the mechanism of which may be inspected by the visitor. He will have frequent opportunities of hearing the beautiful and mellow carillon, perhaps to excess. The existing bells date only from 168o : the mechanism from 1784.

The square building on either side of the Belfry, known as Les Halles, was erected in or about 1248, and is a fine but sombre specimen lof Early Gothic civic architecture. The wing to the left was originally the Cloth Hall, for the display and sale of the woollen manu-factures of Ghent and Bruges. It is now used as municipal offices. The wing to the right is the meat market. Inside the court, a door to the left gives access to a small Museum of Antiquities on the ground floor, which may be safely neglected by all save specialist archæologists. (Admission, fifty centimes.)

Now, stand with your back to the Belfry to survey the square. The brick building on your right is the Post Office (modern) ; the stone one beyond it (also modern) is the Palace of the Provincial Government of Flanders. Both have been erected in a style suitable to the town. In the Middle Ages, ships could come up to this part of the Grand’ Place to discharge their cargo. The quaint houses that face you, with high-pitched gable-ends, are partly modern, but mostly old, though restored. To the west, on the left side of the Place, at the corner of the Rue St. Amand, stands the square castle-like building known as Au Lion de Flandre and marked by its gold lion. It is one of the best brick mediæval buildings in Bruges. According to a doubtful tradition, it was occupied by Charles II. of England during his exile, when he was created by the Brugeois King of the Crossbowmen of St. Sebastian (see later). In the house beside it, known as the Craenenburg, the citizens of Bruges imprisoned Maximilian, King of the Romans, from the 5th to the 17th of February, 1488, because he would not grant the care of his son Philip, heir to the crown of the Netherlands, to the King of France. They only released him after he had sworn before an altar erected at the spot, on the Host, the true Cross, and the Relics of St. Donatian, to renounce his claim to the guardianship of his son, and to grant a general amnesty. However, he was treacherously released from his oath by a congress of princes convened a little later by his father, the Emperor Frederic IV.

From the corner of the Post Office, take the short Rue Breydel to the Place du Bourg, the still more intimate centre and focus of the early life in Bruges. This Place contained the old Palace of the Counts of Flanders, and the original Cathedral, both now destroyed, as well as the Town Hall and other important buildings still, preserved for us.

The tallest of the three handsome edifices on the south side of the Square (profusely adorned with sculpture) is the ** Hôtel de Ville, a beautiful gem of Middle Gothic architecture, begun about 1376, and finished about 1387. This is one of the finest pieces of civic architecture in Belgium. The facade, though overestored, and the six beautiful turrets and chimneys, are in the main of the original de-sign. The sculpture in the niches, destroyed during the French Revolution, has been only tolerably replaced by modern Belgian sculptors in our own day. The lower tier contains the Annunciation, right and left of the doorway, with figures of various saints and prophets. In the tiers above this are statues of the Counts of Flanders of various ages. The reliefs just below the windows of the first floor represent episodes from Biblical history : — David before Saul, David dancing before the Ark, the Judgment of Solomon, the Building of Solomon’s Temple, and other scenes which the visitor can easily identify. The Great Hall in the interior is interesting only for its fine pendant Gothic wooden roof.

The somewhat lower building, to the right of the Hôtel de Ville, is the ** Chapelle du Saint Sang. The decorated portal round the corner also forms part of the same building.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (age of the Crusades) the chivalrous and credulous knights of the North and West, who repaired to the Holy Land, whether as pilgrims or as soldiers of the Faith, were anxious to bring back with them relics of the saints or of still more holy personages. The astute Greeks and Syrians with whom they had to deal rose to the occasion, and sold the simple Westerns various sacred objects of more or less doubtful authenticity at fabulous prices. Over these treasured deposits stately churches were often raised; for example, St. Louis of France constructed the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, to contain the Crown of Thorns and part of the True Cross, which he had purchased at an immense cost from Baldwin, Emperor of Constantinople. Among the earlier visitors to the Holy Land who thus signalized their journey was Theo-dark of Alsace, elected Count of Flanders in 1128; he brought back with him in 1149 some drops of the Holy Blood of the Saviour, said to have been preserved by Joseph of Arimathea, which he presented to his faithful city of Bruges. Fitly to enshrine them, Theodoric erected a chapel in the succeeding year, 1150; and this early church forms the lower floor of the existing building. Above it, in the fifteenth century, when Bruges grew richer, was raised a second and more gorgeous chapel (as at the Sainte Chapelle), in which the holy relic is now preserved. Almost all the works of art in the dainty little oratory accordingly bear special reference to the Holy Blood, its preservation, and its transport to Bruges. The dedication is to St. Basil, the founder of Eastern monasticism — a Greek father little known in the West, whose fame Theodoric must have learned in Syria. The nobles of Flanders, it must be remembered, were particularly active in organizing the Crusades.

The exterior has a fine figure of St. Leonard (holding the fetters which are his symbol) under a Gothic niche. He was the patron of Christian slaves held in duress by the Saracens. The beautiful flamboyant portal and staircase, round the corner, erected in 1529-1533, in the ornate decorative style of the period, have (restored) figures of Crusaders and their queens in niches, with incongruous Renaissance busts below.

To visit the interior, ring the bell in the corner : admission, fifty centimes per person.

The Museum of the Brotherhood of the Holy Blood, on the first floor, which we first visit, contains by the left wall the handsome silver-gilt Reliquary (of 1617), studded with jewels, which encloses the drops of the Holy Blood. The figures on it represent Christ, the source of the Blood, the Blessed Virgin, St. Basil, patron of the church, and St. Donatian, patron of the town. The Blood is exhibited in a simpler shrine in the chapel every Friday ; that is to say, on the day of the Crucifixion. The great Reliquary itself is carried in procession only, on the Monday after the third of May. Right and left of the shrine are portraits of the members of the Confraternity of the Holy Blood by P. Pourbus, 1556: unusually good works of this painter. A triptych to the right, by an unknown master of the early sixteenth century, figures the Crucifixion, with special reference to the Holy Blood, representing St. Longinus in the act of piercing the side of Christ (thus drawing the Blood), with the Holy Women and St. John in attendance; on the wings, the Way to Calvary, and the Resurrection.

Between the windows is a curious chronological picture of the late fifteenth century, representing the History of Our Lady in the usual stages, with other episodes. To the right of it, a painting of the fifteenth century shows Count Theodoric receiving the Holy Blood from his brother-in-law, Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, and the bringing of the Holy Blood to Bruges.

On the right wall there is a famous triptych by Gerard David (the finest work here), representing the Deposition in the Tomb, with the Maries, St. John, Nicodemus, and an attendant holding a dish to contain the Holy Blood, which is also seen conspicuously flowing from the wounds; the left wing shows the Magdalen with Cleophas ; the right wing, the preservation of the Crown of Thorns by Joseph of Arimathea. The portrait character of the faces is admirable: stand long and study this fine work.

The original designs for the windows of the Chapel are preserved in a glass case by the window ; behind which are fragments of early coloured glass; conspicuous among them,-St. Barbara with her tower.

On the exit wall is a fine piece of late Flemish tapestry, representing the bringing of the body of St. Augustine to Pavia, with side figures of San Frediano of Lucca and Sant’ Ercolano of Perugia — executed, no doubt, for an Italian patron.

The Chapel itself, which we next enter, is gorgeously decorated in polychrome, recently restored. The stained glass windows, containing portraits of the Burgundian princes from, the beginning of the dynasty down to Maria Theresa and Francis I., were executed in 1845 from earlier designs. The large window facing the. High Altar is modern. It represents appropriately the history of the Passion, the origin of the Sacred Blood, its Transference to Bruges, and the figures of the Flemish Crusaders engaged in its transport. At the summit of the window, notice the frequent and fitting symbol of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood.

In the little side chapel to the right, separated from the main building by an arcade of three arches, is the tabernacle or canopy from which the Sacred Blood is exhibited weekly. Notice on the steps the angels holding the Crown of Thorns. The window to the left (modern) represents St. Longinus, the centurion who pierced the side of Christ, and St. Veronica, displaying her napkin which she gave to the Saviour to wipe his face on the way to Calvary, and which retained ever after the impress of the Divine Countenance. Almost all the other objects in the chapel bear reference, more or less direct, to the Holy Blood. Observe particularly in the main chapel the hand-some modern High Altar with its coloured reliefs of scenes of the Passion and its Crown of Thorns conspicuously displayed. Such scenes as the Paschal Lamb on its base, with the Hebrew smearing the lintel of the door, are of course symbolical.

The Lower Chapel, to which we are next conducted, is a fine specimen of late Romanesque architecture, now in course of restoration. It was built by Theodoric in 1150. Its solid short pillars and round arches contrast with the lighter and later Gothic of the upper building. Notice as you pass out, from the Place outside, the two beautiful turrets at the west end of the main chapel.

To the left of the Hôtel de Ville stands the ornate and much gilded Renaissance building, known as the *Maison de l’Ancien Greffe, originally the municipal record office, but now employed as a police-court. It bears the date 1537, and has been recently restored and profusely covered with gold decoration. Over the main doorway is the Lion of Flanders ; on the architrave of the first floor are heads of counts and countesses; and the building is surmounted by a figure of Justice, with Moses and Aaron and emblematical statues. Note the Golden Fleece and other symbols. The interior is uninteresting.

The eastern side of the square is formed by the Palais de Justice, which stands on the site of an old palace of the Counts of Flanders, presented by Philippe le Beau to the Liberty of Bruges, and employed by them as their town hall of the Buitenpoorters, or inhabitants of the district outside the gate, known as the Franc de Bruges. The Renaissance building, erected between 1520 and 1608, was burnt down and replaced in the eighteenth century by the very uninteresting existing building. Parts of the old palace, however, were preserved, one room in which should be visited for the sake of its magnificent chimneypiece. In order to see it, enter the quadrangle : the porter’s room faces you as you enter; inquire there for the key; admission, fifty centimes per person. The concierge conducts you to the courtroom, belonging to the original building. Almost the entire side of the room is occupied by a splendid Renaissance chimneypiece, executed in 1529, after designs by Lancelot Blondeel of Bruges (a painter whose works are frequent in the town), and Guyot de Beaugrant of Malines, for the Council of the Liberty of Bruges, in honour of Charles V., as a memorial of the Treaty of Cambrai, in 1526. This was the treaty concluded after the battle of Pavia, by which Francis the First of France was compelled to acknowledge the independence of Flanders. Some of the figures in the background are allusive to the victory. The lower part, or chimneypiece proper, is of black marble. The upper portion is of carved oak. The marble part has four bas-reliefs in white alabaster, by Guyot de Beaugrant, representing the History of Susannah, a mere excuse for the nude : the first, Susannah and the Elders at the Bath; the second, Susannah dragged by the Elders before the Judge; the third, Daniel before the Judge exculpating Susannah; the fourth, The Stoning of the Elders. The genii at the corners are also by Beaugrant. The whole is in the pagan taste of the Renaissance. The upper portion in oak contains in the centre a statue of Charles V., represented in his capacity as Count of Flanders (as shown by the arms on his cuirass) : the other figures represent his descent and the cumulation of sovereignties in his person. On the throne behind Charles (ill seen) are busts of Philippe le Beau, his father, through whom he inherited the Burgundian dominions, and Johanna (the Mad) of Spain, his mother, through whom he inherited the united Peninsula. The statues on the left and right are those of his actual royal predecessors. The figures to the left are his paternal grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian, from whom he derived his German territories, and his paternal grandmother, Mary of Burgundy, who brought into the family Flanders, Burgundy, etc. Mary is represented with a hawk on her wrist, as she was killed at twenty-five by a fall from her horse while out hawking. (We shall see her tomb later at Notre-Dame.) The figures on the right are those of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the maternal grandfather and grandmother of Charles, from whom he inherited the two portions of his Spanish dominions. The medallions at the back represent the personages most concerned in the Treaty of Cambrai, and the Victory of Pavia which rendered it possible, — De Lannoy, the conqueror, to whom Francis gave up his sword, and Margaret of Austria. The tapestry which surrounds the hall is modern; it was manufactured at Ingelmünster after the pattern of a few old fragments found in the cellars of the ancient building. The mediocre painting on the wall depicts a sitting of the court of the Liberty of Bruges in this room (1659).

The northern side of the square is now occupied by a small Place planted with trees. Originally, however, the old cathedral of Bruges occupied this site. It was dedicated to St. Donatian, the patron of the city, whose relics were preserved in it; but it was barbarously destroyed by the French Revolutionary army in 1799, and the works of art which it contained were dispersed or ruined. Figures of St. Donatian occur accordingly in many paintings at Bruges. Jan van Eyck was buried in this cathedral, and a statue has been erected to him under the trees in the little Place. In order, therefore, mentally to complete the picture of the Place du Bourg in the sixteenth century, we must imagine not only the Hôtel de Ville, the Chapelle du Saint Sang, and the Ancien Greffe in something approaching their existing condition, but also the stately cathedral and the original Renaissance building of the Franc de Bruges filling in the remainder.

An archway spans the space between the Ancien Greffe and the Hôtel de Ville. Take the narrow street which dives beneath it, looking back as you pass at the archway with its inscription of S. P. Q. B. (for Senatus Populusque Brugensis). The street then leads across a bridge over the river Reye or principal canal, and affords a good view of the back of the earlier portion of the Palais de Justice, with its picturesque brick turrets, and a few early arches belonging to the primitive palace. I recommend the visitor to turn to the right after crossing the bridge, traverse the little square, and make his way home by the bank of the Dyver and the Church of Notre-Dame. The view toward the Hôtel de Ville and the Belfry, from the part of the Dyver a little to the east behind the Belfry, is one of the most picturesque and striking in Bruges.