Dominating the skyline with its distinctive five towers is Tournai’s Romanesque/early Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame, built with the wealth of the flourishing wool and stone trades. Its mammoth proportions in combination with the local slate-coloured marble were much admired by contemporaries and the design was imitated all along the Escaut valley. The present cathedral is the third church on this site, most of it completed in the latter half of the twelfth century, although the choir was reconstructed in the middle of the thirteenth. It’s a bit of building site at the moment, and likely to be so for some time, having been damaged by storms in the late 1990s, but you should inspect the west facade, on place de l’Evêché, with its three tiers of sculptures filling out the back of the medieval portico, before entering the church either here or by the main entrance on the south side. Inside, the nave is part of the original structure, erected in 1171, as are the intricately carved capitals that distinguish the lowest set of columns, but the vaulted roof is eighteenth-century. The choir was the first manifestation of the Gothic style in Belgium, and its too-slender pillars had to be reinforced later at the base: the whole choir still leans slightly to one side due to the unstable soil beneath. In front of the choir, the Renaissance rood screen is a flamboyant marble extravaganza by Cornelis Floris, embellished by biblical events such as Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
The ample and majestic late twelfth-century transepts are the cathedral’s most impressive – and most beautiful – feature. Apsed and aisled to a very unusual plan, they impart a lovely diffuse light through their many windows, some of which (in the south transept) hold superb sixteenth-century stained glass depicting semi-mythical scenes from far back in Tournai’s history. Opposite, in the north transept, is an intriguing twelfth-century mural, a pockmarked cartoon strip relating the story of St Margaret, a shepherdess martyred on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian. Its characters are set against an exquisite blue background reminiscent of – and clearly influenced by – Byzantine church paintings. Take a look, too, at Rubens’ characteristically bold The Deliverance of Souls from Purgatory, which hangs, newly restored, beside the adjacent chapel.
Be sure also to see the trésor, whose three rooms kick off with a splendid wood-panelled, eighteenth-century meeting room and a chapel hung with a rare example of a medieval Arras tapestry, made up of fourteen panels depicting the lives of St Piat and of St Eleuthère, the first bishop of Tournai. Next door, have a look at the silver and gilded copper châsse de Notre-Dame, completed in 1205 by Nicolas de Verdun and festooned with relief figures clothed in fluidly carved robes, and a wonderful early sixteenth-century Ecce Homo by Quentin Matsys, showing Christ surrounded by monstrous faces. The treasury also once hosted a gem-studded Byzantine Cross, which was stolen in a high-profile armed raid a couple of years ago – hence the current heightened sense of security.