Finding Art in Bruges and Ghent

Once centers of trade and commerce, these two Belgium cities contain lavish art, churches and public buildings. By: Scarlet Cheng
The famous Graslei in Ghent // © 2010 Phaif
The famous Graslei in Ghent // © 2010 Phaif

For those who picture the Medieval city of Bruges from the shoot-em-up gangster film “In Bruges,” you will be pleasantly surprised to find that the city is remarkably placid in comparison to the movie and also a very visitor-friendly place. The film was shot in and around some of the famous sites of the city, which is the capital and largest city in the West Flanders province of Belgium. One major scene in particular was filmed at the Belfort (or Belfry) situated on the Markt, the town square. However, when visiting the tower, perhaps the most dangerous thing visitors will encounter is the steep hike up its narrow staircase of 366 steps. There’s no elevator, and visitors may have to do a few contortions to squeeze by other people. On upper levels, visitors will find the Belfry’s clockwork and bells, but what really makes the climb worthwhile are the breathtaking glimpses of the city.

This spring, my visit to Bruges and Ghent was motivated by a keen interest in art, especially the work of the so-called Flemish Primitives — artists from the early Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries) who mastered new, more realistic methods of painting using dazzlingly rich colors and finishes. This includes such remarkable painters as Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, whose works can be found throughout Flanders. As wealthy and powerful cities, Bruges and Ghent were centers of trade and commerce in that bygone era, and many great works of art were commissioned for churches and public buildings.

When visiting a new city, I always like to find a vantage point that outlines the lay of the land and, although Bruges is compact and very walkable — an egg-shaped city crisscrossed by small waterways — its winding streets can be confusing. So, after checking into our hotel, my first destination was the Belfort. From there, visitors can overlook the wonderfully preserved residences and public buildings, mostly red or gray tiled rooftops atop stepped-back gabled structures. The spires of the city’s churches further punctuate the landscape.

Visitors can get to know the city even better via its canals — short boat rides are available at five different embarkation points in Bruges. Clients should be sure to get a Bruges Card from their hotel — it offers various discounts. Or, for those planning to stay for a full two or three days, the Brugge City Card, which is available for 48 or 72 hours, is well worth it, as it includes admission to the city’s major sites, plus a boat ride and a tour at De Halve Maan, the last brewery still operational in the city.

As far as my main mission, viewing Bruges’ art, there is so much to see. In my opinion, two must-see attractions are the Groeninge Museum and the Hans Memling Museum, part of St. John’s Hospital complex. The former has a world-famous collection of Flemish Primitive art, including van Eyck’s “The Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele” of 1436. The rich details are sumptuous — just take a close look at the embroidered cloak of St. Donatian and the elaborately tooled metal armor of St. George who flank the central figure of the Madonna. The Hans Memling Museum has masterworks, too. Be sure to go into the chapel to see Memling’s “Altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist” and “Shrine to Saint Ursula” which is constructed like a scale model of a church, with six side panels illustrating the life of the saint.

Ghent is a much more modern city, with a metropolitan area numbering nearly half a million inhabitants, and the old town is smaller than Bruges. The city’s boat tours are well worth taking. There are several operators offering a basic 40- to 50-minute tour that passes by some of the city’s major sites, including the forbidding Castle of the Counts, old guild halls and the city’s ancient port. The tour boats can be found in the Medieval center of Ghent and run daily from approximately mid-March to mid-November.

However, most visitors who, like me, have come to Ghent for its art are there to see one thing, a multi-paneled painting by Jan van Eyck. This particular painting was probably started by Eyck’s older brother, Hubert, and is known as the Ghent Altarpiece or “The Mystic Lamb” and can be seen at the St. Bavo Cathedral. The complex work presents the story of the Christian faith, told on the interior with its two tiers (or in art parlance, registers) of panels and, on the exterior, which is seen when the altarpiece is closed. The main story is inside. The theme of original sin is introduced by Adam and Eve on the upper side panels, and the theme of worship and salvation in the lower register, where groupings of prophets, apostles, martyrs and others gather reverently around the Sacred Lamb, the symbol of Christ the Redeemer.

When open, the altarpiece measures an awe-inspiring 13 feet high by 17 feet wide. It was commissioned Joost Vijdt and Elisabeth Borluut, a wealthy couple who also paid for the construction of a chapel at Saint Bavo. (They are depicted as kneeling figures on the outside panels.) Today, visitors see a replica of the altarpiece in the chapel. The original altarpiece has been placed inside a large glass casing in a room near the main entrance.

Currently, “The Mystic Lamb” is undergoing a major conservation project, thanks to the Getty Foundation of Los Angeles, so through the end of this year, visitors can only look through a window into the room where conservators and technicians are examining and photographing various panels. But indeed, even to have that peek of van Eyck’s masterpiece is riveting.

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