OLD Ghent occupied for the most part the island which extends from the Palais de Justice on one side to the Botanical Gardens on the other. This island, bounded by the Lys, the Schelde, and an ancient canal, includes almost all the principal buildings of the town, such as the Cathedral, St. Nicolas, the Hôtelde-Ville, the Belfry, and St. Jacques, as well as the chief Places, such as the Marché aux Grains, the Marché aux Herbes, and the Marché du Vendredi. It also extended beyond the Lys to the little island on which is situated the church of St. Michel, and again to the islet formed between the Lieve and the Lys, which contains the château of the counts and the Place Ste. Pharailde.
In the latter Middle Ages, however, the town had spread to nearly its existing extreme dimensions, and was probably more populous than at the present moment. But its ancient fortifications have been destroyed, and their place has been taken by boulevards and canals. The line may still be traced on the map, or walked round through a series of shipping suburbs; but it is uninteresting to follow, a great part of its course lying through the more squalid portions of the town. The only remaining gate is that known as the Rabot (1489), a very interesting and picturesque object, situated in a particularly slummy quarter. It can best be reached by crossing the bridge near the church of St. Michel, and continuing along the Rue Haute to the Boulevard du Béguinage (where stood originally the Grand Béguinage, whose place is now occupied by modern streets). Turn then along the boulevard to the right till you reach the gate, which consists of two curious round towers, enclosing a high and picturesque gable-end. Owing to the unpleasant nature of the walk, I do not recommend this excursion.
The south quarter of the town, beyond the Cathedral and St. Nicolas, has been much modernized during the last two centuries. Its only interesting points are the recent Palais de Justice and the Kouter or Place d’Armes (once the archery ground), in which a pretty flower-market is held on Friday and Sunday mornings. The Café des Arcades, at its east end, occupies the site of Hubert van Eyck’s studio.
The rest of the inner town contains little that throws light on its origin or history.
There is, however, one small excursion which it would be well for those to take who have a morning to spare, and who desire to under-stand the development of Ghent I mean to the Monastery of St. Bayou, which alone recalls the first age of the city. Every early mediæval town had outside its walls a ring of abbeys and monasteries, and Ghent was particularly rich in this respect.
St. Amand was the apostle of Flanders and the surrounding countries. He was sent by the pious King Dagobert to convert the Flemings en bloc, and is said to have built, about 63o, a little cell by the bank of the Lys, northeast of the modern city. In 651, St. Bavon entered this infant monastery, which henceforth took his name. The abbey grew to be one of the most important in Flanders, and occupied a large area on the northeast of the town, near the Antwerp Gate. Eginhard, the biographer and son-in-law of Charlemagne, was abbot in the ninth century. The Counts of Flanders had rights of hospitality at St. Bavon’s; hence it was here, and not in the Oudeburg, as usually stated, that Queen Philippa gave birth to John of Gaunt. In 1539, however, Charles V., that headstrong despot, angry at the continual resistance of his native town to his arbitrary wishes, dissolved the monastery in the high-handed fashion of the sixteenth century, in order to build a citadel on the spot. As compensation for disturbance to the injured saint, he transported the relics of St. Bavon to what was then the parish church of St. John, which has ever since borne the name of the local patron. Around the dismantled ruins, the Emperor erected a great fort, afterward known as the Spaniards’ Castle (Château des Espagnols, or Het Spanjaards Kasteel). This gigantic citadel occupied a vast square space, still traceable in the shape of the modern streets ; but no other relic of it now remains. The ruins of the abbey are in themselves inconsiderable, but they are certainly picturesque and well worth a visit from those who are spending some days in Ghent. The hurried tourist may safely neglect them.
The direct route from the Place d’Armes to the abbey is by the Quai du Bas Escaut, and the Rue Van Eyck. A pleasanter route, however, is by the Rue de Brabant and the Rue Digue de Brabant to the Place d’Artevelde, passing through the handsomest part of the modern town. (In the Place itself stands the fine modern Romanesque Church of St. Anne, the interior of which is sumptuously decorated in imitation of mosaic.) Thence, follow the Quai Porte aux Vaches to the Place Van Eyck. Cross the bridges over the Upper and Lower Schelde, and the abbey lies straight in front of you.
Walk past the ivy-clad outer wall of the ruins to the white house at the corner of the street beyond it, where you will find the concierge (notice above the door). One franc is sufficient tip for a party. The concierge conducts you over the building, which has a picturesque cloister, partly Romanesque, but mainly fifteenth century. The centre of the quadrangle is occupied by a pretty and neatly-kept garden of the old sweet-scented peasant flowers of Flanders. The most interesting part of the ruins, however, is the octagonal Romanesque baptistery or ” Chapel of St. Macaire,” a fine piece of early vaulting, with round arches, very Byzantine in aspect. The chapel rests on massive piers, and its Romanesque arches contrast prettily with the transitional Gothic work of the cloister in the neighbourhood. Within, are several fragments of Romanesque sculpture, particularly some capitals of columns, with grotesque and naïve representations of Adam and Eve with the Lord in the Garden, and other similar biblical subjects. (Examine closely.) There is likewise an interesting re-lief of St. Amand preaching the Gospel in Flanders, and a man-at-arms in stone, of Artevelde’s period, removed from the old coping of the belfry.
We next go on to the crypt, the tombs of the monks, the monastery cellars, etc., where are collected many pieces of ancient sculpture, some found in the ruins and others brought from elsewhere. The refectory at the end, which for some time served as the Church of St. Macaire, is now in course of transformation into a local Museum of Monumental Art. It contains some good old tombs, and” an early fresco (of St. Louis?) almost obliterated. But the garden and cloister are the best of the place, and make together a very pretty picture. You can return by the Quai and the Rue St. Georges, or by the Place St. Bavon and the Archiepiscopal Palace. (The castellated building to the left, much restored, near the cathedral, known as the Steen of Gérard le Diable, is the sole remaining example of the mediaeval fortified houses in Ghent.)
Another monastery, a visit to which will lead you through the extensive southern portion of the city, is the wholly modernized Benedictine Abbey of St. Pierre (I do not recommend it). To reach it, you take the Rue Courte du Jour and the Rue Neuve St. Pierre, to the large square known as the Plaine St. Pierre, partly obtained by demolition of the monastery buildings. It is situated on rising ground, which may pass for a hill in Flanders. This is, in its origin, the oldest monastery in Ghent, having been founded, according to tradition, by St. Amand himself, in 630, on the site of an ancient temple of Mercury. The existing buildings, however, hardly date in any part beyond the seventeenth century. The Church of Notre-Dame de St. Pierre was erected between 1629 and 1720, in the grandiose style of the period. It is vast, and not unimposing. The interior has a certain cold dignity. The pictures are mostly of the School of Rubens, many of them dealing with St. Peter and St. Benedict; among them are good specimens. The best, by De Crayer, shows the favourite Benedictine subject of St. Benedict recognizing the envoy of King Totila, who personated the king.
The Plaine de St. Pierre is used for the amusing yearly fair, from Mi-Carême to Easter.
The Museum of Painting (a small and unimportant gallery) is situated in part of an old Augustinian monastery, which is reached by the Oudeburg and the Rue Ste. Marguerite. (Church by the side, full of Augustinian symbols.) Open daily from nine to twelve, and two to five, free. (I do not advise a visit, unless you have plenty of time to spare.) The Picture Gallery is on the second floor.
The rooms to the left contain modern Belgian and French pictures, many of them possessing considerable merit, but not of a sort which enters into the scheme of these Guide-books.
The rooms to the right of the staircase contain the early pictures.
First room. F. Pourbus : A votive triptych for recovery from sickness. In the centre, Isaiah prophesying to Hezekiah his recovery. On the wings, the Crucifixion, and the donor with his patron, St. James. Outside the wings, in grisaille, the Raising of Lazarus (in two panels), giving a symbolical meaning to this votive offering. On the wall beside it, several tolerable pictures of the old Flemish School: a good Ex Voto of a donor, with the Madonna and Child, by an unknown artist; a writhing Calvary, by Van Heemskerk ; a Holy Family, by De Vos ; and a quaint triptych of St. Anne and her family, with her daughter, the Ma-donna, and her grandchild, the Saviour, at her feet. Around are grouped Joseph, Mary Cleophas, Zebedee, Alpheus, Joachim, the husband of Anna, and Mary Salome, with her children, James and John. This queer old work, by an unknown artist, is interesting for comparison with the great Quentin Matsys, which you will see at Brussels. St. Joseph holds in his hand the rod that has flowered. (See ” Legends of the Madonna.”)
Beneath this triptych are three interesting portrait groups of husbands and wives, sixteenth century. On the wings, a ” Noli Me Tangere ” Christ and the Magdalen in the garden.
The second room has Dutch and Flemish works of the seventeenth century, mostly self-explanatory. The Last Judgment, by R. Coxcie, shows a late stage of a subject which we have already seen at Bruges, now reduced to an opportunity for the display of exaggerated anatomical knowledge. There are also several tolerable works of the School of Rubens, many of which are interesting mainly as showing the superiority of the Master to all his followers. Rombouts, The Five Senses, is, however, an excellent work of its own class. The centre of the further wall is occupied by a worthless picture of Duchastel’s, representing the Inauguration of Charles II. of Spain as Count of Flanders, in 1666, interesting mainly as a view of old Ghent. The action takes place in the Marché du Vendredi, the centre of which is occupied by the statue of Charles V., destroyed at the French Revolution. All round are the original picturesque houses, with their high Flemish gable-ends. On the right is the Church of St. Jacques, much as at the present day. In front of the Municipal Council Chamber a platform is erected for the inauguration. The picture gives a good idea of the splendour of Ghent, even at the period of the Spanish domination.
Near it, Rubens’s St. Francis receiving the Stigmata, where the conventional elements of the crucified six-winged seraph, the rays proceeding from the five wounds to the saint’s hands, feet, and side, and the astonished brother, Leo, in the distance, are all preserved, though enormously transfigured. The colour is unpleasing. This is almost a replica of the work in the Cologne Museum. Rombouts tolerable Holy Family. Close by, some of Hondekoeter’s favourite birds, and Zeghers’s flowers. Over the door, a fine De Crayer. In the centre of the room is a series of pictures from the Gospel History, by F. Pourbus, with the Last Supper and donor at the back of one, formerly a triptych.
The third room has pictures of the School of Rubens, many of them of considerable merit, particularly De Crayer’s Coronation of St. Rosalie and Vision of St. Augustine, in both of which he approaches within a measurable distance of the great master. His Judgment of Solomon is also excellent. Some other pictures in the room, however, exhibit the theatrical tendency of the seventeenth century in its worst form.
On the way back from the Picture Gallery, you pass on your left the Rue Longue des Pierres, down which, a little way on the right, is a small museum of antiquities. I do not advise a visit to this. It contains one good brass, and some silver badges worn by ambassadors of Ghent, but otherwise consists, for the most part, of third-rate bric-à-brac.
Most visitors to Ghent go to see the Grand Béguinage. This was originally situated in a little district by itself, close to the gate of the Rabot, where its church, uninteresting (dedicated, like that of Bruges, to St. Elizabeth of Hungary), still stands; but the site has been occupied by the town for new streets. The present Grand Béguinage lies on the road to Antwerp. It is a little town in miniature, enclosed by wall and moat, with streets and houses all very neat and clean, but of no archæological interest. Yet it forms a pleasant enough end for a short drive. And you can buy lace there. The description in Baedeker is amply sufficient.
Bruges is full of memories of the Burgundian princes. At Ghent it is the personality of Charles V., the great Emperor who cumulated in his own person the sovereignties of Germany, the Low Countries, Spain and Burgundy, that meets us afresh at every turn. He was born here in 1500, and baptized in a font (otherwise uninteresting) which still stands in the north transept of the Cathedral. Ghent was really, for the greater part of his life, his practical capital, and he never ceased to be at heart a Ghenter. That did not prevent the citizens from justly rebelling against him in 1540, after the suppression of which revolt Charles is said to have ascended the Cathedral tower, while the executioner was putting to death the ringleaders in the rebellion, in order to choose with his Brother Ferdinand the site for the citadel he intended to erect, to over-awe the freedom-loving city. He chose the Monastery of St. Bavon as its site, and, as we have seen, built there his colossal fortress, now wholly demolished. The Palace in which he was born and which he inhabited frequently during life, was known as the Cour du Prince. It stood near the Ancien Grand Béguinage, but only its name now survives in that of a street.
The Spaniard’s Castle was long the standing menace to freedom in the Low Countries. Within its precincts Egmont and Hoorn were imprisoned in 1568 for several months before their execution.
During the early Middle Ages, the Oudeburg was the residence of the Counts of Flanders in Ghent. Later on, that castellated building grew out of keeping with the splendour of the Burgundian princes, and its place as a royal residence was taken by the Cour du Prince, already mentioned, which was inhabited by Maximilian and his wife, Mary of Burgundy, as well as by Philippe le Beau and Johanna of Spain, the parents of Charles V. No direct memorials of the great Emperor now exist in Ghent, his statue in the Marché du Vendredi having been destroyed; but a modern street commemorates his name, and mementoes o,f him crop up at every point in the city.
Though the Ghenters were rebellious subjects, Charles V. was proud of his capital, and several of his very bad bons mots, punning on the words Gand and gant, have been preserved for us. As Baedeker repeats these imperial jests, however, I need not detail them.