Stories of Bruges

Santa Who ?Historical figures

Posted by Your Bruges Wed, November 28, 2018 10:23:42

Some visitors get confused, and I can understand them. When they’re walking around in Bruges, they go in the chocolate shops and see two different Santa’s standing.

When asking what’s that all about, they get the reply that there is “Sinterklaas” and “Santa Claus”. But, wait a minute… If you translate Sinterklaas, that IS Santa Claus… What the hell??

In Belgium and the Netherlands (generally the former Dutch colonies) we have two “Santa’s”. The first is Sinterklaas (as we call him) and that’s celebrated on December 6th. Where the heck did he come from?

Well, somewhere in the 2nd- 3rdcentury there was a Bisshop Nicolaas of Myra who lived in Turkey (the country, not the bird…) and died on… December 6th342. Due to some legends, he became patron for children. Legends were of 3 schoolchildren beaten to death by an innkeeper but revived by St Nicolaas, 3 poor daughters who could still get married thanks to the gifts given by St Nicolaas or the legend of a child being put in a bath by St Nicolaas to protect him from a fire.

You may notice that “Sinterklaas” is kinda sounding like Saint Nicolaas but it’s not exactly the same. The aggregation happened somewhere in the late 1200’s. Since then he was considered the big friend for all children, giving out candy and presents. During the history his role changed to a bogeyman who rewarded the good children, but punished the bad by putting them in a bag.

In the 1700’s it was changed back to the good man we know today, using the bag for putting the presents in, not kids…
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So he changed from patron for children, to a bogeyman, strict pedagogue into the folkloric friend for all children we have today.

Santa Claus comes from Saint Nicolaas. Remember there where a lot of Dutch when the new colonies were started? Well, in time the name changed and with the reformation and contra reformation a lot changed. Protestants banned the feast of St Nicolaas. But it was so popular with the common people it didn’t completely disappear. It transformed.

The first drawing of the Santa Claus we know today is from Thomas Nast in 1881. I added a picture of it below.

The American Santa Claus is probably a mix of Father Christmas and Saint Nicolaas.
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So don’t go saying Santa Claus to Saint Nicolaas in Belgium, it is totally different.

Saint Nicolaas rides a horse, accompagnied by his helpers (Zwarte Pieten). Santa Claus has his sleigh with the reindeers and is helped by his elves. Common is the mistake people say Saint Nicolaas lives in Spain, but he only travels to Spain to get the gifts and sweets. Santa Claus lives on the North Pole.

I’d like to finish with a poem… Yes I know, it’s not my habit in doing this, but it’s such a known, and nice poem. In 1823 an unknown author published A visit from St Nicholas. Enjoy !

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

End of WWIHistorical moments

Posted by Your Bruges Sun, November 11, 2018 15:17:35

November 11th1918 was the official end of World War I. In a forest near the French city Compiègne, about 80 kilometres north of Paris the cease-fire was achieved.
As of 11am that morning there were no battles fought. The real end of WWI was in 1919 with the Peace-treaty of Versailles.

Negotiations started already a couple of days earlier, but an agreement was reached on November 11that 5am. The cease-fire would start at 11am, so there were still six hours to go.
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The news spread very fast over the world and the morning editions on the East coast of the US headlined ‘End of the war”. In Paris the street lanterns were illuminated after years of not using. All over the world people came on the streets to celebrate.

The 26thAmerican division at the Maas-Argonnen front had prepared to attack on that morning at 9.30am. At 9.10am the news reached the division to stop all warfare starting at 11am. The planned attack was cancelled. At 10.30am the order came to have the attack go through any way.

This was no rarity on the morning of Armistice. Until the very last moments of WWI there was fights. The South Africans, located North of Mons would stay under German machinegun fire until exactly 11am. At 11am they saw the German soldier who operated the machinegun stand up, take off his helmet and make a bow in their direction. He then turned around and walked away.

Some officers would cancel attacks due to fog or some other excuse, while many pushed through. Stenay, the last French city would be conquered by American troops, with 300 fatalities in this attack.

The last British soldier, George Ellison, would die that morning at 9.30am. Around 10.50am the French courier Augustin Trebouchon died. He was bringing the message of the cease-fire and that soup would be brought at 11.30am. If you see his grave, you’ll see that he died on November 10th, as for all other French troops who died on that day. This to avoid annoying questions from families.

At 10.58am the Canadian soldier George Price died near Mons. This was also at the location where the first British soldiers died in 1914.
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The last Belgian military was probably Marcel Terfve. At 10.42am he was hit in the chest, dying 3 minutes later.

The American soldier Henry Gunther of the 31stInfantry Regiment was with his unit in an attack at Romagne in the Argonnen that morning. According to general William Nicholson they must keep the attack going until exactly 11am. At 10.55am private Gunther leads his platoon. At 10.59am Henry Gunther falls… one minute later, November 11th, 11am all guns stop…

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St Salvators CathedralPlaces & buildings

Posted by Your Bruges Tue, February 27, 2018 18:05:03

This is the cathedral of the city. As you know, there’s only one in Bruges. This may be known, but the difference between a church and a cathedral is only one little detail. This detail can’t be seen from the outside, but you need to go inside to find it.
Inside there’s the “cathedra” or the seat of the Bishop. When a Bishop is seated (and sometimes does services) in a church, this is considered as a cathedral.
So size had nothing to do with it!

No, this cathedral is about 80 meter high, while the close-by Church of Our Lady is about 120 meter!

Blog imageSaint Eligius

According to legend the founder of this church was Saint Eligius… He is born in Frnace around 588 and died on December 1st 660. He’s the patron of goldsmiths, metalworkers, mechanical engineers and coin collectors. Most of his life he lived in France, but started out as a goldsmith. When he made a throne of gold, decorated with jewels kind Clotaire II paid a royal salary to Eligius who… donated the money to the man who learned him the profession of goldsmith. Eligius became mint master and later most influential advisor of the French kings Clotaire II and Dagobert

In 632 Eligius had a monastery built and lived a devoted life. When Dagobert died Eligius was ordained, in 640 he became Bishop. When we go inside, I’ll show you a sculpture of Eligius with his miter (of being Bishop), but also you’ll find another attribute of a bishop: a crosier (kromstaf).
One nice legend about the life of Eligius is the one of “the removable horse-leg”. Yes, I know!

At young age Eligius already knew how to work as a metalworker. He worked for a blacksmith boss who was really full of himself. This man had a sign that said “Master of masters” at his workshop. One day, a resistive horse was brought in the workshop, but even the master of masters couldn’t handle this feisty animal. Eligius however walked up to the horse, took off the leg of the animal, brought the leg to the anvil and put on a new horseshoe. Then returned to the animal with his leg, attached it back where it should be and the animal quietly walked out the workshop.

The blacksmith boss didn’t want to be lesser than his apprentice so when a next difficult animal came in, he tried this little trick himself… The poor animal started bleeding severely and the master didn’t know what to do and turned to Eligius. He said that the boss really should remove the sign… When this was done, the bleeding stopped, Eligius returned the leg at its place and the horse could leave the workshop unharmed. The blacksmith was learned a lesson and didn’t consider himself a master of masters any more.

But, why Eligius? Well, I told you the legend says he was the founder of this church… But the first church that stood here was erected around 850. That’s about, oh… 190 years after he died. So he couldn’t have been the founder. But you do find some of his images in the cathedral, still today.

Blog imageSt Salvators church in 1802

Something else is strange, two churches this close to one another… Some brochures will tell that the canal was the border between the two dioceses, but then the Church of our Lady is on the wrong side!

There were several fires in this building. The first was in 1116 and a new building is erected after this. You can still see some of the first stones on the lower levels at the front gate.

Unfortunately in 1183 a second fire hits the church, so they restore the church and build a first tower that is about 45 meter high.

In 1358 a third fire strikes and the tower is heavily damaged. Parts of this tower were covered in the renovations then.

Throughout the ages the church expands, a choir is built, later an ambulatory is needed. In 1580 the Iconoclastic Fury comes to our regions and several works of art are destroyed.
When they restore the church afterwards, the brilliant plan of painting the interior of the church in white! So the paintings and polychrome are lost.

The end of the 17th century the rood screen (doksaal) is built, but where it should be, between the choir and transept.

With the French period the church is sold publicly, parishioners buy the building and use a nice trick… They ask to postpone the payment over and over again. Until there is the treaty of Amiens, ending the war between French and English. So the church was never paid for!

In 1834 the church gets the title of cathedral. When the French sold the St Donatiuscathedral on the Burg square, this couldn’t be saved so the diocese (bisdom) of Bruges ceased to exist then. But in 1834 it was refounded and we needed a new cathedral.
There’s always been a competition between St Salvators and the Church of Our Lady. St Salvators won because it’s the oldest… It won with only 25 years!

But, the new cathedral didn’t have the grandeur it should have.
Blog imageThe fire in 1839

Can we speak of a divine intervention? It’s a strange one maybe, because in 1839 a fourth fire breaks out and destroys the larger part of the building. Roofs came down, a part of the tower came down, several works of art lost… But, we could build a “new” cathedral.

End of the 19th century there are neo-gothic wall decorations painted, and in 1935-36 the rood screen is moved to its current location.

In 1989 renovations begin on the outside, finished in 2009. In that same year the renovations inside are started. They were supposed to be ready in 2012… but just so you know, inside it took them 5 years longer than planned.

If you want, we can go inside. I can show you the mural paintings of angels (1480), Peter (1500) and the neo-gothic decorations from the 19th century.

Also the rood screen from 1679 in marble is really impressive. You see a God that has motion in it.

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The rood screen

The pulpit (preekstoel) is a nice piece as well, where you see St Eligius as bishop with his tools. This work is from 1777.
Blog imageThe pulpit

Today, the renovations –that took over 5 years- inside are almost finished. A cathedral well worth a visit.

Jan van Eyck, our most important painterHistorical figures

Posted by Your Bruges Thu, February 15, 2018 13:30:22

When you visit the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, you can’t miss the painting by Jan van Eyck; Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele.

Jan van Eyck was one of the Early Netherlandish painters (Flemish Primitives). This group of artists worked in the 15th and beginning of the 16th century in flourishing cities as Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai and Brussels. Some of the most known names were Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Dirk Bouts and Gerard David.
In those centuries the Southern part of the Netherlands was the centre of economic and political power. With all those trading partners converging in that area these artists soon made name and fame in all of Europe.

Jan van Eyck introduced a style that was never seen before. With an unprecedented eye for the tiniest detail, a perception-based view of the visual reality. It is remarkable that the innovations of van Eyck run surprisingly similar with the developments in Florentine paintings. There are a lot of speculations on the ties between van Eyck and his Italian colleagues, but tangible proof is still missing.

Blog imagePortrait of a man (supposed self-portrait)

Jan van Eyck is also the personification of the transition from an anonymous, modest painter to an educated, self-aware and famous individual. He put his signature and a date on many of works, on the frame or hidden in the painting. His motto “Als ich can” (roughly translated to “If I can”) is found on several frames. All this points to the fact he was proud and aware of his standing and craftsmanship, an attitude that will become typical for the artists of the renaissance.

Where Jan van Eyck was born is uncertain. The family name could refer to the Belgian city Maaseik. And it’s generally accepted that this could indeed be the birthplace of little Jan. Some documents dating from the 16th century confirm this assumption.

However the Township of Arendonk has also strong arguments in which it claims to be the birthplace of little Jan. Art-historical the exact birthplace or origin of a painter was less important. Less important than the place where he learned his profession. And when I look at the statements this Township makes, they could be right.
In the Altarpiece of Ghent (Lam Gods) there is a prophet kneeling (centre panel) with an open book. The text reads: “Iste erat electus alios eligi nec licet testis deest et eis esto testis est igitur Jan van der Moelnere ex Arendonca civitate”. This handwritten text by Jan van Eyck names the nickname Van der Moelen. This name that be found in the town documents of Arendonk, next to the signature of Jan van Eyck…

Also when Jan van Eyck was born is controversial. There are no authenticated sources that can verify anything. So everything is done through interpretations of the documented events during the life of Jan van Eyck. There is a document that states that Hubert – the brother of Jan – was born around 1366 and that Jan was considerably younger. Today the year 1390 is the most accepted date of birth for little Jan.

The first documents telling us where Jan van Eyck was, date back to 1422. Then he was already named a “Master”, had one assistant and worked for Jan van Beieren, Duke of Holland and living in Den Haag (The Hague). When Jan van Beieren died in 1425, Jan van Eyck moved to Bruges. Documents tell us that on May 19th 1425 Jan van Eyck was the court painter of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (grandfather of Mary of Burgundy, whom I mention several times during my walk).

In August of 1426 Jan van Eyck is paid for two trips in order of Philip the Good. The first is a pilgrimage he makes in the place of the Duke. The second trip however is classified as a “secret mission”, bringing the artist to “distant countries”. Nothing more is mentioned in the documents found. It is suspected that Jan van Eyck travels to the Holy Land, passing Italy and further on to the Ottoman Empire.

Blog imageJan stayed in Tournai from 1427 until 1432. On May 6th 1432 the Altarpiece of Ghent is ready. The son of Philips the Good and Isabella of Portugal, Joos van Gent is baptised there on that day. Unfortunately shortly after, in 1434, Joos van Gent dies. It is also in 1432 Jan van Eyck settled permanently in Bruges. His house and workshop was in the Gouden Handstraat 6.

In 1434 he paints the Arnolfini Portrait and it’s assumed he receives the order for Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, that he finishes in 1436.
In 1436 he goes on another “secret mission” for the Duke of Burgundy. He must have been a type of James Bond!
In the years that follow he makes more works. One thing I found strange… Next to a couple of secret missions I also found a payment for “some panels and other secret objects” in 1440. He really was a spy, I think.

Jan van Eyck died on July 9th 1441 and was buried on St Donathian’s Cathedral cemetery. In 1442 the body was moved to the choir inside the cathedral.

With bringing name and fame to Bruges, it is safe to say Jan van Eyck was one of our most important painters ever.

Today, his works can be found all over the world. In Belgium there are two works in Bruges, two in Antwerp and the Altarpiece in Ghent. But in Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Vienna, Rotterdam, Paris, Madrid, London, Turin, Sibiu, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington you can admire his works. Except for Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and London I haven’t seen other works. Have you noticed them and did you know it was a Flemish artist you were looking at?

I'll be telling you more about a couple of his works, as the symbolism is sometimes really fun!

Bruges La MorteHistorical figures

Posted by Your Bruges Tue, February 13, 2018 20:39:37

Georges Rodenbach and Bruges La Morte

Georges Rodenbach was born in Doornik in 1855, son of a family with German origins. Patriarch Ferdinand (1714-1786) was a chirgan with the Austrian army, who settled in Ypres after the marriage with Catharina Vanden Bossche.

The name Rodenbach may sound familiar to the beer lovers amongst you, and you are right. One of the grandsons of Ferdinand was the founder of the known beer Rodenbach.

Georges lived in Ghent, went there to school and university. He graduated in law in 1878, but before passing the bar in Ghent he first went to Paris to improve his legal competences. In Paris he mostly spent his free time in literary salons to make friends with numerous poets and writers. It was no secret that Georges was a writer of poems and novels himself. In that year in Paris he wrote 21 “Lettres Parisiennes” (Letters from Paris) for the catholic Brussels weekly “La Paix”.

Feeling homesick he returned to Ghent and started working as a lawyer. Disappointed in his work, his love for the literary arts prevails. He keeps close contacts with the Brussels literary circle “L’Union Littéraire”, where he becomes friends with Caroline Popp, writer and publisher of “Journal de Bruges”. This friendship is so strong he spends the entire summer of 1884 with her in Bruges, getting the important impressions of the city of Bruges.

Georges is so disappointed in his work as lawyer in Ghent, that he moved to Brussels to work there as a lawyer. But again is love and passion for the literary arts wins and in 1888 he leaves Belgium and moves to Paris to become a fulltime writer and poet. He moved in different artistic circles where he made friends with some prominent people; Mallarmé, Daudet, Rodin…

He also started working for the liberal newspaper “Le Figaro” where he wrote several serials on cities as Ghent, Middelburg and… Bruges.

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It is in the format of a serial that Rodenbachs most known work is published for the first time. Bruges La Morte tells the story of widower Hugues Viane, looking for the shadow of his deceased wife and is attracted to Bruges. One of the rooms of his house on the Rozenhoedkaai is devoted to his wife; with several portraits and in a glass shrine a lock of hair of her. To pass the time he made long walk through the city. During one of these walks he meets a woman whom is the spitting image of his wife. He becomes friends with her. Turns out she’s an actress and her name is Jane Scott. During their dates Hugues seeks the traits of his deceased wife. Somehow he has her moving in to one of his houses just outside the centre of the city. However, soon Jane gets bored in this bizarre relationship and goes out in search for more enjoyable company. In Bruges gossip about this widower and actress starts. With months passing by, Hugues discovers more and more differences between Jane and his wife. When Jane discovers the room with portraits and lock of hair, she confronts him with this and everything goes wrong. He strangles her with the lock of hair.

What made this work special? The main character in this book isn’t Hugues Viane, but the city. The bells of the Belfry, the Beguinage, the atmosphere of the city… It all plays an important part in the setting.

But the people of Bruges didn’t appreciate the book! It was published on February 4th – 14th 1892. This was the moment Bruges took on the plans to (re)connect with the sea and expanding its harbour (Zeebrugge). Just then this writer from Paris wrote a book with “dead” in the title! Also the colourless setting isn’t something the people of Bruges liked.
Also there was the language in which it was written; French. The Flemish-fanatics accused the writer of immoral, obscene and anti-religious thoughts, having the descriptions of the relationship between Hugues and Jane in mind. Maybe difficult to understand today, don’t forget that people had a totally different view on love and relationships in those times.

While Rodenbach didn’t want to put a 100% accurate realistic image of the city on paper. He only wanted to vent his personal feelings, feelings of melancholy in which Bruges formed a perfect frame for this.
It is however without a doubt that Rodenbach –maybe unwillingly and without realising- boosted tourism in Bruges. It is a paradox but Rodenbach didn’t want to depict Bruges as a dead city. He fought this controversy by adding a foreword in reprints of Bruges La Morte, trying to explain his intentions.

Georges Rodenbach died in Paris on December 25th 1898. And even after his death there was protest coming from Bruges. The Flemish catholics and conservatives remained opposed, depicting him as “French”, who made Flemish people as fools and mocking Bruges. The symbolism used in the book was misinterpreted, taken too literally and considered too bold. Creating an image of a dead could be blocking the expansion of the port of Zeebrugge and this would be ill-fated form the economic growth of Bruges.

Still today, if you go looking for anything on him in Bruges, the only reminder is a plaque on the house ‘De Rode Steen’ at the Jan van Eyck Square.

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It is clear that Rodenbach was and still is a misunderstood figure in the history of Bruges. Except for the controversy of those times it is impossible to recognize the major influence the book had on Bruges and its tourism.

With the book being translated in several languages (English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Finnish and Dutch) it attracted many people from all over Europe, and today the world. After all the misinterpretations maybe it's time we recognize what Georges Rodenbach did for the city.

What do you think the city of Bruges could do to remember and commemorate him?