From St Janshospitaal, it’s a couple of minutes’ walk north to St-Salvatorskathedraal (Holy Saviour Cathedral) a bulky Gothic edifice that mostly dates from the late thirteenth century, though the ambulatory was added some two centuries later. A parish church for most of its history, it was only made a cathedral in 1834 following the destruction of St Donatian’s by the French. This change of status prompted lots of ecclesiastical rumblings – nearby Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk was bigger and its spire higher – and when part of St Salvators went up in smoke in 1839, the opportunity was taken to make its tower higher and grander in a romantic rendition of the Romanesque style.
Recently cleaned, the cathedral’s nave has emerged from centuries of accumulated grime, but it remains a cheerless, cavernous affair. The star turn is the set of eight paintings by Jan van Orley displayed in the transepts. Commissioned in the 1730s, the paintings were used for the manufacture of a matching set of tapestries from a Brussels workshop and, remarkably enough, these have survived too and hang in sequence in the choir and nave. Each of the eight scenes is a fluent, dramatic composition featuring a familiar episode from the life of Christ – from the Nativity to the Resurrection – complete with a handful of animals, including a remarkably determined Palm Sunday donkey. The tapestries are actually mirror images of the paintings as the weavers worked with the rear of the tapestries uppermost on their looms; the weavers also had sight of the tapestry paintings – or rather cartoon copies, as the originals were too valuable to be kept beside the looms.
Entered from the nave, the cathedral Schatkamer occupies the adjoining neo-Gothic chapter house, whose nine rooms are packed with ecclesiastical tackle, from religious paintings and statues through to an assortment of reliquaries, vestments and croziers. The labelling is poor, however, so it’s a good idea to pick up the English-language mini-guide at the entrance. Room B holds the treasury’s finest painting, a gruesome, oak-panel triptych, The Martyrdom of St Hippolytus, by Dieric Bouts (1410–1475) and Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482). The right panel depicts the Roman Emperor Decius, a notorious persecutor of Christians, trying to persuade the priest Hippolytus to abjure his faith. He fails, and in the central panel Hippolytus is pulled to pieces by four horses.