Surroundings Of Brussels
( Originally Published 1904 )
THE only excursion of interest in the immediate neighbourhood of Brussels is that to Laeken (recommended), which may be taken by tram from the Inner Boulevards, the Gare du Nord the Gare du Midi, Bourse, etc. Cars run every ten minutes. The modern Church of St. Mary at Laeken is a handsome unfinished building. A little to the right lie the Park and the Royal Château, inaccessible and unimportant. The road behind the church ascends the Montagne du Tonnerre, a little hill with a Monument to Léopold I., not unlike the Albert Memorial in London. A good view of Brussels is obtained from the summit of the monument, ascended by a winding staircase. (No fee.) The easiest way to make this excursion is by carriage in the afternoon.
Unless you are a military man or a student of tactics, I do not advise you to undertake the dull and wearisome excursion to Waterloo. The battle-field is hot and shadeless in summer, cold and draughty in spring and autumn. The points of interest, such as they are, lie at considerable distances. Waterloo is country, and ugly country — no more. The general traveller who desires to be conducted round, the various strategic landmarks of the field Will find his wants amply catered for by Baedeker. But I advise him to forego that foregone disappointment.
The time saved by not visiting Waterloo may, however, be well devoted to a morning excursion to Louvain. This ancient and important town, which should be visited both on account of its magnificent Hôtel-de-Ville, and in order to make a better acquaintance with Dierick Bouts, the town-painter, can be conveniently reached by train from the Gare du Nord. The best trains take little more than half an hour to do the journey. A single morning is sufficient for the excursion, especially if you start early. Wednesday is the most convenient day, as a quick train then returns about half-past one. (Consult Bradshaw.)
A good lunch can be obtained in the large white building on the left-hand side of the Hôtel-de-Ville. (It is a private club, but contains a public restaurant, on the right within, to which, push through boldly.) If you have Conway, take him with you on this excursion, to compare the doubtful Roger van der Weyden at St. Pierre with the woodcut he gives of its supposed original at Madrid. Read before you start (or on the way) his admirable accounts of Roger van der Weyden and Dierick Bouts.
Louvain is, in a certain sense, the mother city of Brussels. Standing on its own little navigable river, the Dyle, it was, till the end of the fourteenth century, the capital of the Counts and of the Duchy of Brabant. It had a large population of weavers, engaged in the cloth trade. Her; as elsewhere, the weavers formed the chief bulwark of freedom in the population. In 1378, however, after a popular rising, Duke Wenceslaus besieged and conquered the city ; and the tyrannical sway of the nobles, whom he reintroduced, aided by the rise of Ghent, or, later, of Antwerp, drove away trade from the city. Many of the weavers emigrated to Holland and England, where they helped to establish the woollen industry.
During the early Middle Ages, Louvain was also celebrated for its University, founded in 1426, and suppressed by the French in 1797. It was reestablished by the Dutch in 1797. but abandoned by the Belgian Government in 1834, and then started afresh in the next year as a free private Roman Catholic University. Charles V. was educated here.
The modern town has shrunk far away within its ancient ramparts, whose site is now for the most part occupied by empty Boulevards., It is still the stronghold of Roman Catholic theology in Belgium.
As you emerge from the station, you come upon a small Place, adorned with a statue (by Geefs) of Sylvain van der Weyer, a revolutionary of 183o, and long Belgian Minister in England. Take the long straight street up which the statue looks. This leads direct to the Grand' Place, the centre of the town, whence the chief streets radiate in every direction, the ground-plan recalling that of a Roman city.
The principal building in the Grand' Place is the Hôtel-de-Ville, standing out with three sides visible from the Place, and probably the finest civic building in Belgium. It is of very florid late Gothic architecture, between 1448 and 1463. Begin first with the left façade, exhibiting three main storeys, with handsome Gothic windows. Above come a gallery and then a gable-end, flanked by octagonal turrets, and bearing a similar turret on its summit. In the centre of the gable is a little projecting balcony of the kind so common on Belgian civic buildings. The architecture of the niches and turrets is of very fine florid Gothic, in better taste than that at Ghent of nearly the same period. The statues which fill the niches are modern. Those of the first storey represent personages of importance in the local history of the city : those of the second, the various mediæval guilds or trades : those of the third, the Counts of Louvain and Dukes of Brabant of all ages. The bosses or corbels which support the statues are carved with scriptural scenes in high relief. I give the subjects of a few (beginning on the left) : the reader must decipher the remainder for himself. The Court of Heaven : The Fall of the Angels into the visible Jaws of Hell: Adana and Eve in the Garden : The Expulsion from, Paradise : The Death of Abel, with quaint rabbits escaping : The Drunkenness of Noah : Abraham and Lot : etc.
The main façade has an entrance staircase, and two portals in the centre, above which are figures of St. Peter, to the left, and Our Lady and Child, to the right, the former in compliment to the patron of the church opposite. This façade has three storeys, decorated with Gothic windows, and capped by a gallery parapet, above which rises the high-pitched roof, broken by several quaint small windows. At either end are the turrets of the gable, with steps to ascend them. The rows of statues represent as before (in four tiers) persons of local distinction, mediæval guilds, and the princes who have ruled Brabant .and Louvain. Here again the sculptures beneath the bosses should be closely inspected. Among the most conspicuous are the Golden Calf, the Institution of Sacrifices in the Tabernacle Balaam's Ass, Susannah and the Elders, etc.
The gable-end to the right, ill seen from the narrow street, resembles in its features the one opposite it, but this façade is even finer than the others.
The best general view is obtained from the the door of St. Pierre, or near either corner of the Place diagonally opposite.
Do not trouble about the interior.
Opposite the Hôtel-de-Ville stands the church of St. Pierre, originally erected in 1040, but entirely rebuilt in 1430, to which date the whole existing edifice belongs. It is a handsome late Gothic building, with a fine West Front, never completed, and a truncated tower. The central west window is imposing, but the ruined portal has a depressing effect. Walk round the church once outside to observe its exterior architecture, obscured toward the Grand' Place by the usual agglomeration of small Renaissance houses. The main en-trance is in the south transept ; above it stands a poor modern statue of the patron, St. Peter. The high choir, with its flying but-tresses, would form a fine element if the houses were cleared away, so as to afford a view of the chapels below.
Now view the interior. Go at once into the body of the church. The general effect is handsome, but the walls are cold and whitewashed. The church has a fine nave„ with single aisles, short transepts, high choir, and ambulatory. The nave, transepts, and choir, have all an exactly similar clerestory, with an unusual triforium of open latticework, and tracery in the same style in the spandrils of the arches.
Go down to the west end of the nave. The entrance doors at this end have good but not beautiful carved woodwork of the Renaissance.
Left aisle. First chapel. Late Gothic copper font, with large crane, to support a heavy iron cover, now removed. The other chapels on this side contain nothing of interest.
Right aisle. First chapel (of San Carlo Borromeo), has an altar-piece, copied from one by De Crayer, carried off by the French and now at Nancy. It represents San Carlo ministering to the plague-stricken at Milan. Also, a triptych, by Van de Baeren, 1594. Centre, St. Dorothea beheaded. Her head praising God. On the left, her trial before the governor, Fabricius. On the right, her torture in enduring the sight of her sister's martyrdom. Statue of San Carlo by Geefs.
Second chapel, of the Armourers, has a railing with arms and cannon, and contains an old blackened crucifix, and much venerated because it is said to have caught a thief who had entered the church to steal the treasures.
The pulpit is a carved wooden monstrosity of the eighteenth century, representing, be-hind, the Repentance of Peter, with the cock crowing, a maladroit subject for a church dedicated to the saint. In front, the Conversion of St. Paul, with his horse overthrown. Above are two palm-trees.
A little beyond, in a chapel to the right, is a triptych, the Descent from the Cross (covered, the Sacristan will open it: one franc) ; usually attributed to Roger van der Weyden, but much disputed. It is probably a smaller (altered) copy of the famous composition in the Escurial at Madrid (see Conway). The central picture has Christ supported by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, with the fainting Madonna, St. John, and the other Maries. The singularly unpleasing fat cook-like Magdalen, in a rich robe, is a constant feature in the group of Descents from the Cross by Roger and his pupils. Study this picture. The left panel has a good portrait of the donor, with his two sons, accompanied by his patron St. James the Greater (or St. William?). The right panel has his wife, with her two daughters and her patroness, St. Adelaide (or St. Elizabeth of Hungary, holding the crown which she gave up for the Franciscan profession)
The choir is separated from the transepts and nave by a very handsome and elaborate * rood-loft, in the finest flamboyant late Gothic style (1450), one of the best still remaining examples in Europe. It supports a Crucifixion, with St. John and Our Lady. Its arcade of three handsome arches is surmounted by a sculptured balustrade, containing figures of saints (the Saviour, Our Lady and Child, the Twelve Apostles with the instruments of their martyrdom, the Doctors of the Church, and a few others). Examine carefully.
Now, pass behind the choir, into the ambulatory, beginning on the north, or left side. The first recess has a fine medieval tomb of Mathilde de Flandre. On your right, in the choir, a little further on, is a beautiful late Gothic tabernacle or canopy of 1450, gilded, and containing scenes from the Passion. Just behind the high altar is a curious little fifteenth century relief : Centre, the Crucifixion with St. John and Our Lady : Right, The Resurrection, with sleeping Roman soldiers : left, The donor, with his patron, St. John the Baptist.
The second chapel beyond the High Altar contains The Last Supper, by Dierick Bouts. This picture forms the central piece of a triptych, painted for the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. The left wing of it is now at Munich, and the right at Berlin. It represented, when entire, the same mystical series of the Institution of the Eucharist which we have already seen in the Pourbus of the Cathedral at Bruges. The central panel rep-resented the Institution of the Eucharist ; the left (Munich) has Melchizedeck offering bread and wine to Abraham; the right (Berlin), Elijah fed by ravens in the wilderness.- On the outer sides of the panels are two similar typical subjects: left (Munich), the Gathering of the Manna or food from Heaven; and right (Berlin), the Feast of the Passover, the Paschal Lamb being regarded as a type of the Christian sacrifice. The picture as it stands in this chapel has of course lost its mystical significance. It closely resembles the smaller Last Supper in the Brussels Gallery; but the architecture here is Gothic, not Renaissance. Study well, especially the figures of the donor (by the door) and the servant. The floor is characteristic.
The next chapel has a triptych, by Dierick Bouts, the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, patron against intestinal diseases: a bishop, martyred at Formia in the persecution of Diocletian. It represents the hideous episode of the unwinding of the saint's bowels. The executioner on the left is a good specimen of Dierick Bouts's rude artisan figures ; he looks like a cobbler. In the background is the Emperor Diocletian, richly attired, with a courtier, whose attitude recalls more than one of those in the Justice of Otho. The landscape is characteristic of Bouts's manner. This is a good, hard, dry picture. The left panel has St. Jerome, robed as cardinal, with his lion; the right has St. Anthony, accompanied by a vanquished demon. This, however, is a St. Anthony as the abbot, not as the hermit in the desert.
In the same chapel is a fine Renaissance tomb, representing Adolf van Baussede in adoration before the Trinity, introduced by his patron, St. Adolphus, with allegorical figures of Faith, Hope, and Charity. The work is almost Italian in character.
Over the High Altar is a modern figure of the patron, St. Peter, enthroned as pope, and with papal symbols behind him. Left of it is the fine canopy we have already observed from the outside, with scenes from the Passion. The architecture here is striking.
The great Quentin Matsys of the Family of St. Anne in the Brussels Picture Gallery was formerly an altar-piece in this church.
There is nothing else at Louvain that need detain you. If you like, you can stroll a little way down the Rue de Namur, just to the right of the Hôtel-de-Ville. It contains some good old houses. The desolate building on your right was originally the Halles, but is now the University. It was built for the Guild of
Clothmakers in 1317, and has been wholly modernized ; but there are some good Gothic arches on the basement floor within (approach down the side street to the right). Further on is the Collège du St. Esprit on the right, and the Church of St. Michel (uninteresting) on the left. The street which here runs off obliquely conducts to the Collège Marie Thérèse, and the Collège Adrien VI., uninteresting; and all used as hostelries for the students. The only other objects to look at in Louvain are' the choir-stalls in carved wood, early Renaissance, at the Church of St. Gertrude, dedicated to the Abbess of Nivelles and aunt of St. Gudula. It lies down the Rue de Marlines, in the opposite direction from the Rué de Namur. You have then seen Louvain.
On your way from Brussels to Antwerp, you ought to visit Malines Cathedral. The easiest way is to book your luggage through, and then stop for an hour or two at Malines, going on by a later train.