In a sleepy corner of Brabant, the hamlet of ZOUTLEEUW, some 30km west of Tongeren – and 7km west of Sint Truiden train station – was a busy and prosperous cloth town from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Thereafter, its economy slipped into a long, slow decline whose final act came three hundred years later when it was bypassed by the main Brussels–Liège road. The village has one claim to fame, the rambling, irregularly towered and turreted St-Leonarduskerk, whose magnificently intact Gothic interior is crammed with the accumulated treasures of several hundred years, being the only major church in the country to have escaped the attentions of both the Calvinists and the revolutionary French. The church is devoted to the French hermit St Leonard, whose medieval popularity was based upon the enthusiasm of returning Crusaders, who regarded him as the patron saint of prisoners.
The church’s tall and slender, light and airy nave is dominated by a wrought-iron, sixteenth-century double-sided image of the Virgin, suspended from the ceiling, and by the huge fifteenth-century wooden cross hanging in the choir arch behind it. The side chapels are packed with works of religious art, including an intricate altar and retable of St Anna to the right of the entrance in the second chapel of the south side aisle, and a fearsome St George and the Dragon in the Chapel of Our Lady on the opposite side of the nave. The north transept is dominated by a huge stone sacramental tower, nine tiers of elaborate stonework stuffed with some two hundred statues and carved by Cornelis Floris, architect of Antwerp’s town hall, between 1550 and 1552. The ambulatory, much darker and more intimate than the nave, is lined with an engaging series of medieval wooden sculptures, most notably a captive St Leonard with his hands chained. There’s also a figure of St Florentius, the patron saint of tailors, holding an enormous pair of scissors; and a thirteenth-century statue of St Catherine of Alexandria, shown merrily stomping on the Roman Emperor Maxentius, who had her put to death.