NIVELLES grew up around its abbey, which was founded in the seventh century and became one of the most powerful religious houses in Brabant until its suppression by the French Revolutionary Army in 1798. Nowadays, the abbey is recalled by the town’s one and only significant sight, the Collégiale Ste-Gertrude, a vast edifice that utterly dominates the Grande-Place at the heart of the town, and was erected as the abbey church in the tenth century. Little is known of Gertrude, but her cult was very popular on account of her supposed gentleness – her symbol is a pastoral staff with a mouse running along it. Built in the Ottonian style (the forerunner of Romanesque), with a transept and chancel at each end of the nave, the church itself is a beautiful and unusual construction, in better shape now than it has been for years following a long restoration. The west chancel represents imperial authority, the east papal – an architectural illustration of the tension between the pope and the emperor that defined much of Otto’s reign. The interior is extremely simple, its long and lofty nave supported by sturdy pillars, between which sits a flashy oak and marble pulpit by the eighteenth-century Belgian artist Laurent Delvaux; the heavily restored, fifteenth-century wooden wagon kept at the western end of the church is used to carry the shrine of Ste Gertrude in procession through the fields once a year. Unfortunately, the original thirteenth-century shrine was destroyed in 1940, but a modern replacement has been made and the traditional autumn procession has recently been revived.
Outside, the cloisters are lovely, and you can see them and other parts of the church that are otherwise out of bounds on regular guided tours (t 067 84 08 64). Although usually in French, tours can be given in English if you book in advance, and take in the large Salle Impériale over the west choir, a copy of Ste Gertrude’s shrine and what remains of the original and the large Romanesque crypt, where the foundations of a Merovingian chapel and church (seventh-century) and three Carolingian churches (ninth- and tenth-century) have been discovered, as well as the tombs of Ste Gertrude and some of her relations.