Flanders: a rich heritage
When it comes to heritage, Flanders is as rich as the sea is deep. Throughout our patch of land, you are practically tripping over both UNESCO-recognised treasures, as well as lesser-known gems. Stroll through a few highlights of the Flemish art cities of Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen.
When you say heritage, you might as well say Bruges. The impressive Markt Square with its historic façades, the winding medieval alleys and canals, the belfry, the cathedral, the numerous masterpieces of the Flemish Primitives, and more. The list is quite simply endless. So it makes perfect sense that UNESCO automatically recognises the historical city centre as a world cultural heritage site. A stroll through the meandering alleys of Bruges leads you from one surprise to another.
However, Bruges is much more than just a beautiful city centre, as excellently illustrated by the historic café Vlissinghe. Over 500 years old and it is still a popular watering hole to date. While fortifying your inner being, you can admire the numerous historical paintings, photographs and documents on the walls.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and the fourth tower
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is one of the greatest art treasures in the world. This iconic polyptych was painted in the 1430s to exactly match the dimensions of a chapel in St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. Today, it can still be admired on the very same spot. Or at least parts of it can. The masterpiece is being restored in various stages and should be completed by the end of 2019. You can follow this project live in the open studio in the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK).
Just a stone's throw away from the studio you will find another, somewhat lesser-known gem in the Ghent crown: the Book Tower. This iconic building by Art Nouveau pioneer Henry Van de Velde, has long served as the library of the Ghent University and houses more than three million books. This modern giant has already been described as the fourth tower of Ghent, in addition to the centuries-old trio of St. Nicholas Church, the Belfry and St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
Rubens, Rubens and Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens is one of the greatest artists of all time. The Antwerpian is the figurehead of the Baroque, the movement that continues to shape the city to this day. The many Baroque buildings and numerous masterpieces are reminiscent of Antwerp’s golden age. Rubens' impact on that time should not be underestimated. That is why Antwerp makes it a point of honour to pay homage to the master. In the Rubens House, where Rubens once lived and worked, you can admire his works, just as you can in the Plantin-Moretus Museum. In the Cathedral of Our Lady – itself a noteworthy piece of heritage – you will also find a number of his masterpieces.
A lesser-known place with an amazing collection is St. Paul's Church. In this former 17th century monastery church you will find beautiful Baroque altars, more than 200 sculptures and over 50 paintings including masterpieces by Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Anthony Van Dyck.
Gothic Hall of Fame and a whole lot of animals
Without a doubt, Leuven is proof that Gothic architecture can also be playful. The façade of its iconic town hall, an impressive 15th-century late Gothic building, is decorated with no less than 236 statues of important figures from Leuven's history, a sort of forerunner of the 'Hall of Fame', accompanied by dozens of colourful flags. It's a one-of-a-kind building.
That said, you can also discover slightly less famous pearls, such as the Zoological Institute of the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). There, you can find more than 5,000 stuffed animals, the skeleton of a Greenland whale, an American passenger pigeon and a purportedly extinct Coelacanth, a so-called lobed-finned fish. This quirky piece of heritage is definitely worth a visit.
Beguines and Burgundians
They were once the domain of a group of women who could be called the very first feminists. Today, the Flemish Beguinages still radiate tranquillity and contemplation. Since the 12th century, these places were home to Beguines, unmarried women who dedicated their lives to God. Mechelen is also home to the beautiful Large Beguinage, with its own unique character. Halfway through the 16th century the original Beguinage was destroyed during the Iconoclasm. The Beguines moved to a new place within the city walls. If you step through the stately entrance gate, you will enter a tranquil world, close to the heart of the city.
In addition to Beguinages, churches and a cathedral, Mechelen also has many spacious mansions and residences. A good example is the Hof van Busleyden, a stately city palace dating from the 16th century and located in the heart of the city. Through this historic place, Mechelen will immerse you and allow you to relive Burgundian court culture, including authentic masterpieces by Flemish Masters and other masters.
A flamboyant town hall and contemporary art
The iconic Grote Markt of Brussels is just one of the countless heritage highlights in the capital. The stately square is, and was, surrounded by heritage. The showstopper of the square is the flamboyant, Gothic town hall with its monumental tower dating from the early 15th century. There are also many other examples of architectural splendour all around the iconic structure. The golden and decorative elements that make the surrounding guild houses shine in the sunlight are perfect examples of this.
Brussels is a city par excellence where history goes hand in hand with the contemporary. Kanal, the new museum of modern art, is perfect proof of this. This brand new museum is moving into a former, modernist car garage and will soon be the home to the Brussels site of the glorious Pompidou Centre. For the time being, there are temporary exhibitions to admire and soon the art house will show its own collection of contemporary art. From an architectural point of view alone, it is already worth a visit.
Story created on 21 March 2019