Next door to the Gruuthuse, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk is a rambling shambles of a building, a clamour of different dates and styles whose brick spire is – at 122m – one of the tallest in Belgium. Entered from the south, the nave was three hundred years in the making, an architecturally discordant affair, whose thirteenth-century grey-stone central aisle is the oldest part of the church. The central aisle blends in with the south aisle, but the later, fourteenth-century north aisle doesn’t mesh at all – even the columns aren’t aligned. This was the result of changing fashions, not slapdash work: the High Gothic north aisle was intended to be the start of a complete remodelling of the church, but the money ran out before the work was finished.
In the south aisle is the church’s most acclaimed objet d’art, a delicate marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Purchased by a Bruges merchant, this was the only one of Michelangelo’s works to leave Italy during the artist’s lifetime and it had a significant influence on the painters then working in Bruges, though its present setting – beneath gloomy stone walls and set within a gaudy Baroque altar – is hardly prepossessing.
Michelangelo apart, the most interesting part of the church is the chancel beyond the black and white marble rood screen. Here you’ll find the mausoleums of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, two exquisite examples of Renaissance carving, their side panels decorated with coats of arms connected by the most intricate of floral designs. The royal figures are enhanced in the detail, from the helmet and gauntlets placed gracefully by Charles’s side to the pair of watchful dogs nestled at Mary’s feet. Oddly enough, the hole dug by archeologists beneath the mausoleums during the 1970s to discover who was actually buried here was never filled in, so you can see Mary’s coffin, the urn containing the heart of her son and the burial vaults of several unknown medieval dignitaries, three of which have now been moved across to the Lanchals Chapel.
Just across the ambulatory from the mausoleums is the Lanchals Chapel, which holds the imposing Baroque gravestone of Pieter Lanchals, a one-time Habsburg official who had his head lopped off by the citizens of Bruges for corruption in 1488. In front of the Lanchals gravestone are three relocated medieval burial vaults, each plastered with lime mortar. The inside walls of the vaults sport brightly coloured grave frescoes, a type of art which flourished hereabouts from the late thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century. The iconography is fairly consistent, with the long sides mostly bearing one, sometimes two, angels apiece, and most of the angels are shown swinging thuribles (the vessels in which incense is burnt during religious ceremonies). Typically, the short sides show the Crucifixion and a Virgin and Child. The background decoration is more varied with crosses, stars and dots all making appearances as well as two main sorts of flower – roses and bluebells. The frescoes were painted freehand and executed at great speed – Flemings were then buried on the day they died – hence the delightful immediacy of the work.