One of the finest Gothic churches in Belgium, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady; www.dekathedraal.be) is a forceful, self-confident structure that mostly dates from the middle of the fifteenth century. Its graceful, intricate spire dominated the skyline of the medieval city and was long a favourite with British travellers. William Beckford, for instance, fresh from spending millions on his own house in Wiltshire in the early 1800s, was particularly impressed, writing that he “longed to ascend it that instant, to stretch myself out upon its summit and calculate, from so sublime an elevation, the influence of the planets”. To help guide yourself around, pick up a free diagrammatic plan just beyond the entry desk.
Inside, the seven-aisled nave is breathtaking, if only because of its sense of space, an impression that’s reinforced by the bright, light stonework. The religious troubles of the sixteenth century – primarily the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566 – polished off the cathedral’s early furnishings and fittings, so what you see today are largely Baroque embellishments, most notably four early paintings by Pieter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Of these, the Descent from the Cross, a triptych painted after the artist’s return from Italy in 1612 and hung just to the right of the central crossing, is without doubt the most beautiful, displaying an uncharacteristically moving realism derived from Caravaggio. Christ languishes in the centre in glowing white, surrounded by mourners tenderly struggling to lower him. As was normal practice at the time, students in Rubens’ studio worked on the painting, among them the young van Dyck, who completed the face of the Virgin and the arm of Mary Magdalene. His work was so masterful that Rubens is supposed to have declared it an improvement on his own, though this story appears to originate from van Dyck himself. Oddly enough, the painting was commissioned by the guild of arquebusiers, who asked for a picture of St Christopher, their patron saint; Rubens’ painting was not at all what they had in mind, and they promptly threatened him with legal action unless he added a picture of the saint to the wings. Rubens obliged, painting in the muscular giant who now dominates the outside of the left panel.
Above the high altar is a second Rubens painting, the Assumption, a swirling Baroque scene painted in 1625, full of cherubs and luxuriant drapery, while on the left-hand side of the central crossing, the same artist’s The Raising of the Cross is a grandiloquent canvas full of straining, muscular soldiers and saints; this triptych was painted in 1610, which makes it the earliest of the four. On the right-hand side of the ambulatory in the second chapel along, there’s the cathedral’s fourth and final Rubens, the Resurrection, painted in 1612 for the tomb of his friend, the printer Jan Moretus, showing a strident, militaristic Christ carrying a red, furled banner. Among the cathedral’s many other paintings, the only other highlight is Maerten de Vos’ (1531–1603) Marriage at Cana, hung opposite the Descent from the Cross, a typically mannered work completed in 1597.