Ommegang: Brussels’ biggest religious procession
Emma attends to the Brussels' Ommegang. This great folkloric procession, with its historical roots in the sixteenth century, is one of the most important events in Brussels' history and culture.
“Free beer?” smiles a chap in green breeches, handing me a frothing plastic cup. “Sure!”, I beam back, feeling in a festive mood already. I stroll past him and enter Europe’s finest market square – the Grand Place. Tonight it’s transformed: stacked seats stand in front of the spired Hôtel de Ville and a red-draped medieval gallery has been erected before the Maison du Roi. Everywhere, people are hanging out of guildhouse windows, laughing and clinking glasses. The stage is set for the Ommegang – Flemish for ‘walk around’ – a spectacular religious procession featuring over 1,400 performers that’s been played out on these famous cobblestones for nearly 500 years.
It’s all thanks to an incidence of well-meaning thievery. In 1348, Beatrijs Soetkins heard the voice of the Virgin Mary telling her to retrieve the miraculous statue of the Madonna – which at the time resided in Antwerp – and bring it to Brussels to reward the Guild of Archers for building the Notre Dame du Sablon chapel in her honour. Her husband dutifully rowed downstream and she snuck inside and stole the statue.
However, on the way back his biceps tired and they succumbed to the fate of the currents. Miraculously, they were saved by the boat floating upstream and landing at the exact spot where the archers were practicing. Coincidence? They didn’t think so and neither did the Antwerp residents, who agreed to let them keep the statue. A pledge was made to build a bigger church and to celebrate the miracle every year with a procession, which was first performed in 1549 (it clearly took a while to get organised...) for Emperor Charles V, his son Philip II, and the knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
On this warm summer evening, amateur actors are milling around the square dressed in medieval garb. The women, donned in white cloth caps and linen skirts, nod primly to me as I pass; the men dip their head and bow and I find myself curtseying back.
The music rises and we return to our seats. A jester enters stage left, prancing and poking fun until the audience is begging for the show to begin.
Trumpets sound and men stream into the square holding huge flags aloft. With guttural yells, they fling them higher and higher into the air, catching the cartwheeling poles just before they’re on the brink of impaling them.
Next come the knights astride handsome horses. Draped in royal cloths, they lift their knees high and snort disdainfully at the two extras who have snuck in downstage and are surreptitiously trying to shovel horse muck into a wheelbarrow. The audience spots them anyway and lets out a roar of laughter.
As the light begins to fade, out come the giants. A parade of 10 metre-high folkloric leviathans honoured by different Belgian regions. Behind them, follow all the characters of the legend: the king, queen, Virgin Mary, hooded monks bearing candles and archers – all swirling around the circumference in a riot of colourful costumes.
From my seat, I can see the stilt fighters queuing in the wings. They rest against the tiered seating, nervously checking the bindings on their feet. Finally, it’s time and they burst onto the plaza and set about trying to topple their opponents. One by one they fall to the floor like striped matchsticks, until a lone victor remains – he hops on one leg, a victorious fist pointed at the night sky. The spectators cheer and whoop.
Don’t be deterred by the ominous-sounding words ‘religious procession’. This is an evening of unrivalled medieval merriment set in one of the finest open-air theatres in the world.