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Bruges The Beautiful

( Originally Published 1925 )



On the way up from Brussels to Bruges it is well to alight at Ghent for a few hours. There are attractions enough to keep one for several days, but as our objective was St. Bavon (St. Bavo, or Sint Baafs) we did not stay more than the allotted time. And an adventurous time it was. The Ostend express landed its passengers at the St. Pierre station and that meant the loss of half an hour. The Cathedral is reached by the tramway, and there we found that as an office was about to be sung no one would be allowed in the ambulatory until after its completion. It was pouring live Belgian rain without; already the choristers in surplices were filing into the choir. Not a moment to be spared! The sacristan was a practical man. He hustled us into a side chapel, locked the heavy doors, and left us in company with the great picture of the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. A monk knelt in prayer outside, the rain clouds made the lighting obscure. We were hemmed in, but by angels and ministers of grace. The chanting began. Atmosphere was not needed in this large and gloomy edifice, only more light. Gradually the picture began to burn through the artificial dusk, gradually its glories became more perceptible. Begun by Hubert in 1420 and finished by Jan in 1432, its pristine splendour has vanished; and the loss of the wings — the Adam and Eve are in Brussels, the remaining volets in the Berlin Museum — is irreparable despite the copies. But this Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, with its jewelled figures of the Christ, of St. John the Baptist, St. Cecilia, and the central panel with its mystical symbolism, painted in sumptuous tones, the lamb on the altar, the prophets and ecclesiastics in worship, the singing angels, is truly an angelic composition.

The rain had ceased. A shaft of sunshine pierced the rosy glass windows and fell upon the hieratic figure of the bearded Christ, which glowed supernally. In the chancel the Psalms had died away and the only sound was that of sandals shuffling over marble floors. The man turned the lock. It was a return to the world as if one had participated in a sacred ceremony.

Bruges is invariably called Bruges-la-Morte, but it is far from being dead, or even desperately melancholy. Delft, in Holland, after nine o'clock at night, is quieter than Bruges. Bruges the Dead? No, Bruges the Beautiful is nearer the truth. After reading Rodenbach's morbid romance of Brugesla-Morte we felt sure that a stay in Bruges would be like a holiday in a cemetery. Our experience dispelled this unpleasant illusion. Bruges is in daylight a bustling and in certain spots a noisy place. Its inhabitants are not lugubrious of visage, but wideawake, practical people, close at a bargain, curious like all Belgians, and on fête days given to much feasting. Bruges is infinitely more interesting than Brussels. It is real, while modern Brussels is only mock-turtle. And Bruges is more picturesque, the food is as well flavoured, there are several resorts where ripe old Burgundy may be had at not an extravagant price, and the townsfolk are less grasping, more hearty than in Brussels.

The city is nicknamed a Northern Venice, but of Venice there is naught, except the scum on the canal waters. The secular odour of Bruges was not unpleasant in October; in August it may have been. We know that the glory of the city hath departed, but there remain the Memlings, the Gerard Davids, at least one Van Eyck, not to mention several magnificent old churches.

Let us stroll to the Béguinage. Reproductions of Memling and Van Eyck are in almost every window. The cafés on the square, where stands the Belfry of Longfellow's poem, are overflowing with people at table. It is Friday, and tomorrow will be market day; with perhaps a fair or a procession thrown in. You reach the Cathedral of St. Sauveur (Sint Salvator), erected in the tenth century, though the foundations date back to the seventh. The narrow lane-like street winds around the rear of the church. Presently an-other church is discerned with a tower that must be nearly four hundred feet high, built, you learn, some time between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. Notre Dame contains the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy, a lovely white marble statue of the Virgin and Child ascribed with justice to Michael Angelo, and a fine bow-window. We pass the Hospital of St. ' Jean, turn up an alley full of cobblestones and children, and finally see the canal that passes the houses of the Béguinage. The view is of exceeding charm. The spire of Notre Dame and the apsis may be seen up (or is it down?) stream. A bridge cuts the river precisely where it should; weeping willows to the left lend n elegiac note to the ensemble, and there is a gabled house to the right which seems to have entered the scene so as to give an artist the exact balance for his composition. Nature and the handicraft of man paint pictures all over Bruges.

We enter the enclosure with the little houses of the béguines, or lay sisterhood. There is nothing particular to see, except a man under a tree admiring his daubed canvas, near by a dog sleeps. The sense of peace is profound. Even Antwerp seems a creation of yesterday compared with the brooding calm of Bruges, while Brussels is as noisy as a boiler shop. The Minnewater (Lac d'Amour) is another pretty stretch, and so we spent the entire day through shy alleys, down crooked streets, twisting every few feet and forming deceptive vistas innumerable, leading tired legs into churches, out of museums, up tower steps.

That first hard stroll told us how little we could know of Bruges in a day, a week or a month. Bag and baggage we moved up from Brussels and wished that the clock and the calendar could be set back several centuries. At twilight the unusual happened: the Sandman appeared with his hour-glass and beckoned to bed. There is no night in Bruges for the visitor within the gates; there is only slumber. Perhaps that is why the cockneys call it Bruges the Dead. The old horse that drags the hotel bus was stamping its hoofs in the courtyard; the wall of St. Jacques, eaten away by the years, faced us. The sun, somewhere, was trying to rub its sleepy eyes, the odour of omelet was in the air, and all was well. This is the home-like side of its life. It may still harbour artists who lead a mystic, ecstatic existence, but we met none of them. Poetic images are aroused at dusk along the banks of canals, bathed in spectral light. Here Georges Rodenbach, that poet of delicate images, placed his hero, a man who had lost a beloved wife. He saw her wraith-like form in the mist and at the end went mad.

The Memlings hang in a chamber at the Hospital St. Jean; the Chasse of St. Ursula is a reliquary, Gothic in design. They consist of a dozen tiny panels painted in exquisite fashion, with all the bright clarity and precision of a miniaturist, coupled with a solidity of form and lyric elegance of expression. They represent the side of Memling's art which might be compared to the illuminators of manuscripts or to the artificers in gold and precious stones. There is a jewelled quality in this illustration of the pious life and martyrdom of St. Ursula at Cologne. But it is not the greatest Memling, to our thinking. A portrait of Martin van Nieuwenhoven, the donator of the diptych, La Vierge aux Pommes, is as superb a Memling as one could wish for. The little hairs are a sign of clever, minute brush. It is the modelling, the rich manipulation of tones (yes, values were known in those barbarous times), the graceful fall of the hair treated quite as much en masse as with microscopic finish; the almost miraculous painting of the folded hands, and the general expression of pious reverie, that count most. The ductile, glowing colours make this a portrait to be compared to any of the master's we have studied at London, Berlin, Dresden, Lübeck, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels. But Bruges is the natural frame for his exalted genius.

If the Van Eycks were really the first to use oil-colour — a fable, it is said — Memling, who followed them, taught many great Italian painters the quality and expressiveness of beautiful paint. There is the portrait of Sybilla Sambetha, the serious girl with the lace veil. Did any of the later Dutch conjurers in paint attain such transparency? The Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine, a triptych with its wings representing the beheading of St. John the Baptist — the Salome is quite melancholy and St. John at Patmos, is one of the world pictures. The Adoration of the Magi, with its wings, The Nativity, and Presentation in the temple, is equally touching. For me Memling's Descent from the Cross sounds deeper music than Rubens -- which is operatic in comparison. The Virgin type of Van Eyck is less insipid than the Italian; there is no pagan dissonance, as in the conception of Botticelli. Faith blazed more fiercely in the breasts of these Primitive artists. They felt Christ's Passion and the sorrow of the Holy Mother more poignantly than did the Italians of the golden renaissance. We have always held a brief for the Art for Art theory. The artist must think first of his material and its technical manipulation; but after that, if his pulse beat to spiritual rhythms then his work may attain the heights. It is not painting that is the lost art, but faith. Men like the Van Eycks, Rogier van der Weyden, Memling, and Gerard David were princes of their craft and saw their religion with eyes undimmed by doubt.

James Weale has destroyed the legend that Hans Memling painted his St. Ursula for the benefit of St. Jean's Hospital as a recompense for treatment while sick there. He was a burgher living cornfortably at Bruges. The museum is a short dis-tance from the hospital. Its Van Eyck (Jan), La Vierge et l'Enfant — known as the Donator be-cause of the portrait of George van der Paele is its chief treasure, though there is the portrait of Jan's wife; Gerard David's Judgment of King Cambyses, and the savage execution companion picture; Memling's triptych, St. Christopher bearing tire Christ Child,. and David's masterpiece, The Baptism of Christ. Holbein never painted a head with greater verisimilitude than Van Eyck's rendering of the Donator. What an eye! What handling, missing not a wrinkle, a fold of the aged skin, the veins in the senile temples, or the thin soft hair above the ears! What synthesis! There are no niggling details, breadth is not lost in this multitude of closely observed and recorded facts. The large eyes gaze devoutly at the vision of the Child, and if neither Virgin nor Son is comely there is character delineated. The accessories must fill the latter-day painter avid of surface loveliness with consuming envy.

But it is time for sleep. The Brugeois cocks have crowed, the sun is setting, and eyelids are lowering. Lucky you are if your dreams evoke the brilliant colours, the magical shapes of the Primitives of Bruges the Beautiful.

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