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Belgian And Dutch Gothic - Examples

( Originally Published 1921 )


Tournai Cathedral (A.D. 066—1338) illustrated the styles of three successive periods. The nave is Romanesque, the circular-ended transepts (p. 479 B), with four towers and the central lantern, are Transitional (A.D. 1146), and the choir, with complete chevet, is fully developed Gothic, very light and elegant in character after the French manner. The Tomb of S. Piat is a good example of the florid architecture of the period.

S. Gudule, Brussels (A.D. 1226—80) (p. 471), depends largely for effect on its elevated site and its two fine western towers (A.D. 1518). The blind traceried windows of these towers are conspicuous instances of the use in ornament of features which, in their origin, were constructive. The choir (A.D. 1226) is generally considered the earliest Gothic work in Belgium, and has large side chapels with wonderful stained glass, while the eastern termination has a half-developed chevet (p. 471 F). The vaulting and nave windows, with some fine glass, were added between A.D. 1350 and 1450.

Antwerp Cathedral (A.D. 1352–1411) (p. 472) is the most impressive church in Belgium, and is remarkable for nave and triple aisles, narrow transepts, and a lofty clear-story containing huge windows of stained glass (p. 472 B, C). The west front (A.D. 1422–1518) (p. 472 D), with its one immense tower and spire, 400 ft. high, is graceful in the florid taste of the period, and if a companion tower had been carried up to the same dominating height, they might have dwarfed the body of the Cathedral itself. Here the curious bulbous turret over the crossing is a feature due to the Spanish occupation.

Bruges, Ypres, and Ghent Cathedrals all have their special characteristics of different periods, and in this lies their historic charm.

Notre Dame, Dinant (thirteenth century), nestles picturesquely beneath the rocky citadel, and with its bulbous spire formed a pleasing picture across the bridge over the Meuse, before this familiar feature was ruthlessly destroyed by the Germans.

The Chapelle du Saint-Sang, Bruges, designed as a reliquary shrine, is a miniature church in two storeys, of which the lower dates from A.D. 1150 and the upper from the fifteenth century, while the doorway and staircase are frankly Flamboyant. Here again, as often in Belgium, we have, side by side, the work of different periods.

Haarlem, Utrecht, and Dordrecht Cathedrals are in the true Dutch style, with warm-coloured bricks externally and barn-like internally, an effect which is emphasised by the whitewash due to the Protestant dislike of colour and ornament. They owe much of their attraction to their picturesque situation by the water-side.


The most arresting aspect of Belgian and Dutch architecture is its secular rather than its ecclesiastical development. The various municipal, commercial, and domestic buildings all reflect the independent and prosperous condition of the freedom-loving burghers of the Mediaeval cities of the Netherlands. Town halls, guild houses, and trade halls of the free cities are the most distinctive buildings, and have an open and friendly appearance suited to a commercial community. They reached their highest development in the Renaissance period, and are in striking contrast to the stern and forbidding aspect of similar buildings in such Italian cities as Florence and Siena.

The Beffroi, Bruges (A.D. 1280) (p. 475 c), 352 ft. high, picturesque and commanding, forms a landmark for many miles, and has a famous peal of bells. Its chequered history is referred to by Longfellow :

"In the market place of Bruges
Stands the belfry old and brown
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded,
Still it watches o'er the town."

Here, as in many cities, the belfry was a distinguishing feature of independence, and signified an important privilege, often obtained by charter from the feudal lords. The massive lower storeys were frequently used as record offices, while the tower itself served as a watch-tower from which the bells rang out a summons to the citizens or a warning on the approach of enemies, or on an outbreak of fire.

The Belfry, Ghent (A.D. 1300-39), rises 400 ft. in the centre of a magnificent group of public buildings, ecclesiastical, military, municipal, and commercial, and a survey of the city from its summit is immortalised in the words attributed to Charles V : Combien faudrait-il de peaux d'Espagne pour faire un gant de cette grandeur? "

The Town Hall, Brussels (A.D. 1401–55) (p. 475 E), has a typically Gothic facade, three storeys high, with mullioned windows and a profusion of statues, surmounted by a high roof with tiers of dormer windows, and a central tower with richly ornamented upper octagon. It is a stately municipal building, and the spacious hall on the first floor is larger than the Guildhall, London.

The Town Hall, Bruges (A.D. 1377) (p. 475 F), reflects the importance of this northern depot of the Hanseatic League. The facade is embellished with traceried windows and statues of the Counts of Flanders in niches, all recently restored. The usual large hall on the upper floor has a timber roof of pendant type (A.D. 1402). The walls are now panelled with large frescoes representing rulers, artists, and great personages of Flanders, with the armorial bearings of the principal towns and trade guilds—a remark-able instance of modern artistic enterprise in so small a town.

The Town Hall, Ghent (A.D. 1481) (p. 476 A), built in two distinct styles, is a study in comparative architecture, for the ornate Gothic facade (A.D. 1518–33) stands side by side with, and in striking contrast to, the Renaissance facade (A.D. 1595–1622).

The Town Hall, Louvain (A.D. 1448) (p. 475 G), with its florid Gothic carving, much damaged by the Germans in the Great War, the Town Hall, Oudenarde (A.D. 1525) (p. 475 A), with its notable chimney-piece (p. 479 E), and the Town Hall, Middelburg (A.D. 1512), have the usual pointed windows, statues of counts in canopied niches, and steep, dormered roofs, while the Town Hall, Courtrai, still possesses its magnificent sculptured chimney-piece (p. 479 D).

The Cloth Hall, Ypres (A.D. 1200–1304) (p. 476 B), was the most famous and amongst the most ill-fated of all buildings erected during this period for mercantile purposes, and here was sold the cloth for which the country was renowned. Till its destruction by invading Germans, it remained the most imposing monument of Mediaeval commercial architecture, with its long, simple lines of repeated windows and statues, its high-pitched roof, and great central tower. The majestic simplicity of its long facade eclipsed in importance that of the later Town Hall by its side, thus emphasising the commanding position of commerce which was responsible for the development of civic life. On a recent inspection of the ruined cities of Flanders, the author was particularly impressed by the total demolition of this world-famous City of Cloth. The Cloth Hall is but a jagged fragment, the Hotel de Ville is no more, the Cathedral is a shell, and even the streets are pierced through to the drainage.

The Staple House, Ghent, with its small round-headed windows, dating from the beginning of the thirteenth century, the " Vieille Boucherie," Antwerp (A.D. 1501), with its spacious pillared hall, now restored for use as a museum, the " Grande Boucherie," Ghent (A.D. 1408), with bold open timber roof, and the " Boucherie," Ypres, with Gothic gables, are other examples of Trade Halls.

The Skipper's House, Ghent (A.D. 1531) (p. 475 B), with its traceried windows and other Gothic features, is probably the most beautiful among Belgian Mediaeval guild houses. Many of these meeting-places for the powerful trade guilds belong to the Renaissance period when their prosperity was at its height, but a certain number still attest the earlier glories of the Netherlands.

The Beguinage, Bruges, which dates-from the thirteenth century, is one of several of these peculiar institutions founded by S. Begga, daughter of a Duke of Brabant of the seventh century, and now practically confined to Belgium. Little but the porch of the church in the centre of this retreat remains of the Gothic period. These haunts of ancient peace, these quiet precincts, are planned with the church in the centre, and the little houses standing round it, all enclosed, like a Mediaeval town, by a high wall, and here pious women in the garb of the thirteenth century spend their time between work and prayer. Once more we notice the all-prevailing love of freedom, for the sisters take no vow of poverty or of absolute seclusion.

The Beguinage, Amsterdam, is another of these quiet settlements in a noisy city, where stand quaint houses, and the sisters still flit to and fro, but their tiny church is now devoted to English services.

The Castle, Antwerp, now known as the " Steen," dates in part from the tenth century, and still has portcullis, dungeons, " oubliette," and chapel, although the interior now serves as a museum.

The Castle, Ghent (rebuilt A.D. 118o), formerly belonging to the Counts of Flanders, has been judiciously restored, so as to give a vivid impression of the disposition and use of the various parts of a complete, fortified castle of the Middle Ages. It stands on an oval site on the banks of the Lys, and is defended on the land side by a gatehouse with octagonal towers. A defensive outer wall surrounds the castle ward, in which rises the usual four-storeyed donjon or keep, with adjoining hall and living-rooms—an excellent example of the military Gothic of the period.

The Merchants' Houses (p. 475 B, D) with their many-windowed facades, crow-stepped gables, and projecting cranes, which stand along the quays and water-ways, are, much as in Venice, of that flat, simple treatment which is made more picturesque by its coloured reflection in the still waters of the canals, while here the warm red bricks give a welcome glow of colour in the grey northern climate.

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