( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Flanders owes everything to its water communications. At the junction of the Schelde with the Lys and Lei, there grew up in the very early Middle Ages a trading town, named Gent in Flemish, and Gand in French, but commonly Anglicized as Ghent. It lay on a close network of rivers and canals, formed partly by these two main streams, and partly by the minor channels of the Lieve and the Moere, which together intersect it into several islands.
Such a tangle of inland waterways, giving access to the sea and to Bruges, Courtrai, and Tournai, as well as less directly to Antwerp and Brussels, ensured the rising town in early times considerable importance. It formed the center of a radiating commerce. Westward, its main relations were with London and English wool ports; eastward with Cologne, Maastricht, the Rhine towns, and Italy.
Ghent was always the capital of East Flanders, as Bruges or Ypres were of the Western province; and after the Counts lost possession of Arras and Artois, it became in the thirteenth century their principal residence and the metropolis of the country.
Early in the fourteenth century, the burghers of Ghent, under their democratic chief, Jacob or Jacques Van Artevelde, attained practical independence. Till 1322, the counts and people of Flanders had been united in their resistance to the claims of France; but with the accession of Count Louis of Nevers, the aspect of affairs changed. Louis was French by education, sympathies, and interests, and artistocratic by nature; he sought to curtail the liberties of the Flemish towns, and to make himself despotic. The wealthy and populous burgher republics resisted and in 1337 Van Artevelde was appointed Captain of Ghent. Louis fled to France and asked the aid of Philip of Valois.
Thereupon, Van Artevelde made himself the ally of Edward III. of England, then beginning his war with France; but as the Flemings did not like entirely to cast off their allegiance-a thing repugnant to medieval sentiment-Van Artevelde persuaded Edward to put forward his trumped-up claim to the crown of France, and thus induced the towns to transfer their fealty from Philip to his English rival. It was therefore in his character as King of France that Edward came to Flanders. The alliance thus formed between the great producer of raw wool, England, and the great manufacturer of woolen goods, Ghent, proved of immense importance to both parties.
But as Count Louis sided with Philip of Valois, the breach between the democracy of Ghent and its nominal soverign now became impassable. Van Artevelde held supreme power in Ghent and Flanders for nine years—the golden age of Flemish commerce—and was treated on equal terms by Ed-ward, who stopt at Ghent as his guest for considerable periods. But he was opposed by a portion of the citizens, and his suggestion that the Black Prince, son of Edward III., should be elected Count of Flanders, proved so unpopular with his enemies that he was assassinated by one of them, Gerald Denys. The town and states immediately repudiated the murder; and the affiance which Van Artevelde had brought about still continued. It had far-reaching results; the woolen industry was introduced by Edward into the Eastern Counties of England, and Ghent had risen meanwhile to be the chief manufacturing city of Europe.
The quarrel between the democratic weavers and their exiled counts was still carried on by Philip van Artevelde, the son of Jacques, and godson of Queen Philippa of England, herself a Hainaulter. Under his rule, the town continued to increase in wealth and population. But the general tendency of later medieval Europe toward centralized despotisms as against urban republics was too strong in the end for free Ghent. In 1381, Philip was appointed dictator by the democratic party, in the war against the Count, son of his father's opponent, whom he repelled with great slaughter in a battle near Bruges.
He then made himself Regent of Flanders. But Count Louis obtained the aid of Charles VI. of France, and defeated and killed Philip van Artevelde at the disastrous battle of Roosebeke in 1382. That was practically the end of local freedom in Flanders. Tho the cities continued to revolt against their sovereigns from time to time, they were obliged to submit for the most part to their Count and to the Burgundian princes who inherited from him by marriage:
The subsequent history of Ghent is that of the capital of the Burgundian Dukes, and of the House of Austria. Here the German king, Maximilian, afterward Emperor, married Mary of Burgundy, the heiress of the Netherlands; and here Charles V. was born in the palace of the Counts. It was his principal residence, and he was essentially a Fleming... .
The real interest of the Cathedral centers, not in St. Bavon, nor in his picture by Rubens, but in the great polyptych of the Adoration of the Lamb, the masterpiece of Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert, which forms in a certain sense the point of departure for the native art of the Netherlands.
Stand before the west front at a little distance, to examine the simple but massive architecture of the tower and facade. The great portal has been robbed of the statues which once adorned its niches. Three have been "restored"; they represent, center, the Savior; at the left, the patron, St. Bavon, recognizable by his falcon, his sword as duke, and his book as monk; he wears armor, with a ducal robe and cap above it; at the right, St. John the Baptist, the earlier patron.
Then, walk to the right, round the south side, to observe the external architecture of the nave, aisles and choir. The latter has the characteristic rounded or apsidal termination of Continental Gothic, whereas English Gothic usually has a square end. Enter by the south portal.
The interior, with single aisles and short transepts (Early Gothic) is striking for its simple dignity, its massive pillars, and its high arches, tho the undeniably noble effect of the whole is somewhat marred to English eyes by the unusual appearance of the unadorned brick walls and vaulting. The pulpit, by Delvaux (1745), partly in oak, partly in marble, represents Truth revealing the Christian Faith to astonished Paganism, figured as an old and outworn man. It is a model of all that should be avoided in plastic or religious art. The screen which separates the choir from the transepts is equally unfortunate. The apsidal end of the Choir, however, with its fine modern stained glass, forms a very pleasing feature in the general coup d'oeil.. .
The sixth chapel (of the Vydts family) contains the famous altar piece of the Adoration of the Lamb, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, to study which is the chief object of a visit to Ghent. See it more than once, and examine it carefully. Ask the sacristan to let you sit before it for some time in quiet or he will hurry you on. You must observe it in close detail. Taking it in its entirety, then, the altar-piece, when opened, is a great mystical poem of the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Lamb, with the Christian folk, both Church and World, adoring. The composition contains over 200 figures. Many of them, which I have not here identified, can be detected by a closer inspection, which, however, I will leave to the reader.
Now, ask the sacristan to shut the wings. They are painted on the outer side (all a copy) mainly in grisaille, or in very low tones of color, as is usual in such cases, so as to allow the jewel-like brilliancy of the internal picture to burst upon the observer the moment the altar-piece is opened.
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 Scheldc, and an ancient canal, includes almost all the principal buildings of the town, such as the Cathedral, St. Nicholas, the Hotel-de-Ville, the Belfry, and St. Jacques, as well as the chief Places, such as the Marche aux Grains, the Marche aux Herbes, and the Marche du Vendredi. It also extends beyond the Lys to the little island on which is situated the church of St. Michael, and again to the islet formed between the Lieve and the Lys, which contains the chateau of the Counts and the Palace Ste. Pharailde.
In the later 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.
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 unjustly 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 overawe 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 Ancient Grand Beguinage, but only its name now survives in that of a street.