Of all the cities in Belgium, it’s hard to trump GHENT, a vital, vibrant metropolis whose booming restaurant and bar scene wends its way across a charming cityscape, a network of narrow canals overseen by dozens of antique brick houses. If Bruges is a tourist industry with a town attached, Ghent is the reverse – a proudly Flemish city which, with a population of 240,000, is now Belgium’s third largest conurbation. Evidence of Ghent’s medieval pomp is to be found in a string of superb Gothic buildings including St-Baafskathedraal, whose principal treasure is Jan van Eyck’s remarkable Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the world’s most important paintings. Supporting the cathedral are the likes of St-Niklaaskerk, with its soaring arches and pencil-thin turrets; the forbidding castle of the counts of Flanders, Het Gravensteen; and the delightful medieval guildhouses of the Graslei. These central attractions are supplemented by a trio of outlying museums: S.M.A.K, a Museum of Contemporary Art; STAM, which explores the city’s history; and the fine art of the Museum voor Schone Kunsten.
The principal seat of the counts of Flanders and one of the largest towns in western Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Ghent was once at the heart of the Flemish cloth trade. By 1350, the city boasted a population of fifty thousand, of whom no fewer than five thousand were directly involved in the industry, a prodigious concentration of labour in a predominantly rural Europe. Like Bruges, Ghent prospered throughout the Middle Ages, but it also suffered from endemic disputes between the count and his nobles (who supported France) and the cloth-reliant citizens (to whom friendship with England was vital).
The relative decline of the cloth trade in the early sixteenth century did little to ease the underlying tension, as the people of Ghent were still resentful of their ruling class, from whom they were now separated by language – French against Flemish – and religion – Catholic against Protestant. Adapting to the new economic situation, the town’s merchants switched from industry to trade, exporting surplus grain from France, only to find their efforts frustrated by an interminable series of wars in which their rulers were involved. The catalyst for conflict was usually taxation: long before the Revolt of the Netherlands, Ghent’s merchants and artisans found it hard to stomach the financial dictates of their rulers – the Habsburgs after 1482 – and time and again they rose in revolt only to be crushed and punished. In 1540, for example, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V lost patience and stormed the town, abolishing its privileges, filling in the moat and building a new castle at the city’s expense. Later, in 1584, with the Netherlands well on the way to independence from Habsburg Spain, Philip II’s armies captured Ghent. It was a crucial engagement: thereafter Ghent proved to be too far south to be included in the United Provinces and was reluctantly pressed into the Spanish Netherlands. Many of its citizens fled north, and those who didn’t may well have regretted their decision when the Inquisition arrived and the Dutch forced the Habsburgs to close the River Scheldt, Ghent’s economic lifeline, as the price of peace in 1648.
In the centuries that followed, Ghent slipped into a slow decline from which it only emerged during the industrial boom of the nineteenth century. In optimistic mood, the medieval merchants had built the city’s walls a fair distance from the town centre to allow Ghent to expand, but the expected growth had never taken place until now. Within the space of twenty years, these empty districts filled up with factories, whose belching chimneys encrusted the old city with soot and grime, a disagreeable measure of the city’s economic revival. Indeed, its entrepreneurial mayor, Emille Braun, even managed to get the Great Exhibition, showing the best in contemporary design and goods, staged here in 1913.
Ghent remains an industrial city, but in the last twenty years it has benefited from an extraordinarily ambitious programme of restoration and refurbishment, thanks to which the string of fine Gothic buildings that dot the ancient centre have been returned to their original glory.Read More
Citadelpark and S.M.A.K.
Citadelpark and S.M.A.K.
From STAM, it’s a brief stroll southeast to Citadelpark, a large chunk of greenery which takes its name from the fortress that stood here until the 1870s, when the land was cleared and prettified with the addition of grottoes and ponds, statues and fountains, a waterfall and a bandstand. These nineteenth-century niceties survive today and, as an added bonus, the park seems refreshingly hilly after the flatness of the rest of Ghent. In the 1940s, a large brick complex was built on the east side of the park and, after many incarnations, much of this now houses S.M.A.K, the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art; www.smak.be), one of Belgium’s most adventurous contemporary art galleries. It’s largely devoted to temporary displays of international standing, and recent exhibitions have featured the work of Simon Gush, Paul Thek and Paolo Chiasera. These exhibitions are supplemented by a regularly rotated selection of sculptures, paintings and installations taken from the museum’s top-ranking permanent collection. S.M.A.K possesses examples of all the major artistic movements since World War II – everything from Surrealism, the CoBrA group and Pop Art through to Minimalism and conceptual art – as well as their forerunners. Perennial favourites include the installations of the influential German Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), who played a leading role in the European avant-garde art movement of the 1970s, a characteristically unnerving painting by Francis Bacon (1909–1992) entitled Figure Seated, and Panamarenko’s eccentric polyester zeppelin entitled Aeromodeller.
The best place to start an exploration of the city is the mainly Gothic St-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral), squeezed into the eastern corner of St-Baafsplein. The third church on this site, and 250 years in the making, the cathedral is a tad lop-sided, but there’s no gainsaying the imposing beauty of the west tower, with its long, elegant windows and perky corner turrets. Some 82m high, the tower was the last major part of the church to be completed, topped off in 1554 – just before the outbreak of the religious wars that were to wrack the country for the next one hundred years.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
Inside the cathedral, in a small chapel to the left of the entrance is Ghent’s greatest treasure, a winged altarpiece known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (De Aanbidding van het Lam Gods), a seminal work of the early 1430s, though of dubious provenance. Since the discovery of a Latin verse on its frame in the nineteenth century, academics have been arguing about who actually painted it. The inscription reads that Hubert van Eyck “than whom none was greater” began, and Jan van Eyck, “second in art”, completed the work, but as nothing else is known of Hubert, some art historians doubt his existence. They argue that Jan, who lived and worked in several cities (including Ghent) was entirely responsible for the painting and that only later, after Jan had firmly rooted himself in the rival city of Bruges, did the citizens of Ghent invent “Hubert” to counter his fame. No one knows the altarpiece’s authorship for sure, but what is certain is that in his manipulation of the technique of oil painting the artist – or artists – was able to capture a needle-sharp, luminous realism that must have stunned his contemporaries.
The altarpiece is now displayed with its panels open, though originally these were kept closed and the painting only revealed on high days and holidays. Consequently, it’s actually best to begin round the back with the cover screens, which hold a beautiful Annunciation scene with the Archangel Gabriel’s wings reaching up to the timbered ceiling of a Flemish house, the streets of a town visible through the windows. In a brilliant coup of lighting, the shadows of the angel dapple the room, emphasizing the reality of the apparition – a technique repeated on the opposite cover panel around the figure of Mary. Below, the donor and his wife, a certain Joos Vydt and Isabella Borluut, kneel piously alongside statues of the saints.
By design, the restrained exterior was but a foretaste of what lies within – a striking, visionary work of art whose brilliant colours and precise draughtsmanship still take the breath away. On the upper level sit God the Father (some say Christ Triumphant), the Virgin and John the Baptist in gleaming clarity; to the right are musician-angels and a nude, pregnant Eve; and on the left is Adam plus a group of singing angels, who strain to read their music. The celebrated sixteenth-century Flemish art critic Karel van Mander argued that the singers were so artfully painted that he could discern the different pitches of their voices – and true or not, it is the detail that impresses, especially the richly embroidered trimmings on the cloaks. In the lower central panel the Lamb, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, is depicted in a heavenly paradise – “the first evolved landscape in European painting”, suggested Kenneth Clark – seen as a sort of idealized Low Countries. The Lamb stands on an altar whose rim is minutely inscribed with a quotation from the Gospel of St John, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world”. Four groups converge on the Lamb from the corners of the central panel. In the bottom right are a group of male saints and up above them are their female equivalents; the bottom left shows the patriarchs of the Old Testament and above them are an assortment of bishops, dressed in blue vestments and carrying palm branches.
On the side panels, approaching the Lamb across symbolically rough and stony ground, are more saintly figures. On the right-hand side are two groups, the first being St Anthony and his hermits, the second St Christopher, shown here as a giant with a band of pilgrims. On the left side panel come the horsemen, the inner group symbolizing the Warriors of Christ – including St George bearing a shield with a red cross – and the outer group showing the Just Judges, each of whom is dressed in fancy Flemish attire. The Just Judges panel is not, however, authentic. It was added during the 1950s to replace the original, which was stolen in 1934 and never recovered. The lost panel features in Albert Camus’s novel The Fall, whose protagonist keeps it in a cupboard, declining to return it for a complex of reasons, one of which is “because those judges are on their way to meet the Lamb …[but]…there is no lamb or innocence any longer”. Naturally enough, there has been endless speculation as to who stole the panel and why with suspicion ultimately resting on a certain Arsène Goedertier, a stockbroker and conservative politician from just outside of Ghent, who made a deathbed confession in 1934. Whether he was acting alone or as an agent for others is still hotly contested – some argue that the Knights Templar orchestrated the theft, others accuse the Nazis, but no one really knows.
The theft was just one of many dramatic events to befall the painting – indeed it’s remarkable that the altarpiece has survived at all. The Calvinists wanted to destroy it; Philip II of Spain tried to acquire it; the Emperor Joseph II disapproved of the painting so violently that he replaced the nude Adam and Eve with a clothed version of 1784 (exhibited today on a column at the start of the nave just inside the church entrance); and near the end of World War II the Germans hid it in an Austrian salt mine, where it remained until American soldiers rescued it in 1945.
The cobbled square to the west of the Belfort is Emile Braunplein, named after the reforming burgomaster who cleared many of the city’s slums at the beginning of the twentieth century. The west edge of the square abuts St-Niklaaskerk, an architectural hybrid dating from the thirteenth century that was once the favourite church of the city’s principal merchants. It’s the shape and structure that pleases most, especially the arching buttresses and pencil-thin turrets which, in a classic example of the early Scheldt Gothic style, elegantly attenuate the lines of the nave. Inside, many of the original Baroque furnishings and fittings have been removed and the windows un-bricked, thus returning the church to its early appearance. One feature you can’t miss is the giant-sized Baroque high altar with its mammoth representation of God the Father glowering down its back, blowing the hot wind of the Last Judgement from his mouth and surrounded by a flock of cherubic angels. The church is sometimes used for temporary art exhibitions, which can attract an admission fee.
From the Design Museum, it’s a short hop to Het Gravensteen, the castle of the counts of Flanders, which looks sinister enough to have been lifted from a Bosch painting. Its cold, dark walls and unyielding turrets were first raised in 1180 as much to intimidate the town’s unruly citizens as to protect them and, considering the castle has been used for all sorts of purposes since then (even a cotton mill), it has survived in remarkably good nick. The imposing gateway comprises a deep-arched, heavily fortified tunnel leading to a large courtyard, which is framed by protective battlements complete with wooden flaps, ancient arrow slits and apertures for boiling oil and water.
Overlooking the courtyard are the castle’s two main buildings: the count’s residence on the left and the keep on the right, the latter riddled with narrow, interconnected staircases set within the thickness of the walls. A self-guided tour takes you through this labyrinth, the first highlight being a room full of medieval military hardware, from suits of armour, pikes, swords, daggers and early pistols through to a pair of exquisitely crafted sixteenth-century crossbows. Beyond, and also of interest, is a gruesome collection of instruments of torture; a particularly dank, underground dungeon (or oubliette); and the counts’ vaulted council chamber. It’s also possible to walk along most of the castle’s encircling wall, from where there are pleasing views over the city centre.