Two things to see in Ghent

Ghent is a charming and underrated city in the upper region of Belgium, halfway between Bruxelles and the much more famous Bruges. Now, if you go to Bruges first you’ll understand why Ghent is not so famous, and that’s why I recommend you to visit it before you get there. It’s unfair to compare it: […]

Ghent is a charming and underrated city in the upper region of Belgium, halfway between Bruxelles and the much more famous Bruges. Now, if you go to Bruges first you’ll understand why Ghent is not so famous, and that’s why I recommend you to visit it before you get there. It’s unfair to compare it: it’s like saying Padua is less pretty than Venice. No shit, Sherlock.

Should you decide to listen to me, here’s a couple of things I recommend to see.

1. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral

A visit to this church is recommended not only from the outside, for its stunning 89-meter-tall tower, but for its beautiful altarpiece.
The place is consecrated to the local patron, Bavo of Ghent (622–659), a saint venerated by both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church, who was converted by Saint Amand and gave away all his riches to the poor. He’s one of the missionary saints who travelled through France and Flanders alongside Amand. He’s often represented as a knight with a sword and falcon.

The church was built on the site of a Chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist, a wooden construction from 942, and the foundations in the crypt show signs of a later Romanesque construction we know very little about. The current construction began around 1274, and underwent several expansions between the XIV and the XVI centuries. In 1539, the abbey was dissolved as a result of the rebellion of the Flemish provinces against Charles V, who had been baptised in the church. The church became a cathedral twenty years later.

The stunning entrance portal

Between 2019 and 2021, archaeologists made a creepy discovery on the north side of the church: a layer of human bones called “the bone walls”. Radiocarbon dating suggests they come from the second half of the XV century, but they stand at the feet of walls most likely constructed later, in the XVII or early XVIII centuries.

One source notes that the church’s cemetery was cleared during the first half of the 16th century and again after 1784 when the cemetery stopped accepting new bodies.

A project was founded to examine the skeletal remains to determine the age, sex and stature of the people these bones belonged to, adding stable isotope analysis to reconstruct their diet and origins.

The interiors sport high walls with a lower portion in grey stone and the upper parts in bricks. Someone was evidently afraid of the weight.

The real feature however is inside the cathedral-

1.1. The Ghent Altarpiece

The Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is a one-of-its-kind polyptych from the XV Century: it was painted by no others than Hubert and Jan van Eyck, though this attribution has been disputed, it’s considered one of the world’s treasures and, according to some scholars, it marked the transition from Middle Age to Renaissance art. It’s often defined as the first major oil painting.

A polished overview of the opened polyptych.

The piece is organized in three portions, with foldable wings and a central part, and it was opened only on special occasions, so it’s perfectly preserved.

On the inside, the upper part shows us a figure of God, enthroned and with an iconography reminding us of the Pope in a traditional tarot deck. On his right, the Virgin Mary is shown reading a book. On his left, a heavily bearded St. John the Baptist only pretends to read and raises a hand in warning.

Inside the wings, angels playing music are shown on the right portion, and wingless angels sing on the left. The figure of a pregnant Eve counterpoints the Virgin Mary, while Adam covering himself with a fig leaf is on the outer portion opposite St. John.

The lower portion gives the name to the polyptych: people from all trades are shown gathering in adoration of the mystic lamb, standing on an altar while the Holy Spirit, symbolised by a dove, overlooks the whole composition. We can distinguish knights and merchants, literates and the clergy, hermits and monks. Specifically, from left to right:

  • the first panel from the left is dubbed “the just judges“, representing power and fairness embodied by the Christian virtue of justice: this piece is not original, as it was stolen in 1934 and repainted five years later by one Jef Van der Veken;
  • the second panel from the left is the “soldiers of Christ“: at the back of the group, behind the colourful banners, we can see crowned princes participating in the worship of the lamb;
  • the first panel from the right is the hermits;
  • the second panel from the right is the pilgrims, led by their protector, Saint Christopher.

The city is represented in the background, grounding the composition to its time and place.

The closed altarpiece.

On the back, on the portions meant to be seen for most of the time when the altarpiece is closed, the upper part depicts an Annunciation scene, with the archangel Gabriel on the left holding the lily and the Virgin Mary on the right, her hands crossed and the book of prayers in front of her, with again the Holy Spirit represented as a dove. The interiors are extremely interesting and many have attempted to place the street depicted outside the window, without any success. Maria answers through an upside down inscription, thus arranged so it can be read from Heaven.

Four prophets are represented in the crescents above: Zechariah is above Gabriel, with a quote from his own book saying “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion … behold, your king comes”, while Micah is above the Virgin and I can’t read his quote. The Erythraean Sibyl is depicted on the left, and the Cumaean Sibyl on the right.

The lower portion shows us the two patrons who commissioned the work: Joos Vyd and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. Joos was a member of the city council, and Elisabeth came from one of the most influential families in Ghent.

The two central paintings in grisaille, giving the illusion of painted statues, are John the Baptist, again represented as a bearded old man, and St John the Evangelist holding the traditional cup with a little dragon taking a bath in it. You might remember we saw something similar painted by El Greco.

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1.2. The Choir

I have a weakness for grisalles, a particular style of painting in shades of grey (no reference to the appalling soft-porn pseudo-fanfiction), and the choir is decorated by a series of 11 such paintings done by Petrus Norbertus van Reysschoot (1738 – 1795) depicting five scenes from the Old Testament and six from the New. When seen from the side, they look like they’re in relief. They’re stunning.

1.3. Rubens’ painting

Saint Bavo enters the Convent at Ghent, also known as The Conversion of Saint Bavo with reference to the moment the soldier encountered his future mentor Saint Amand, was painted by no other than Peter Paul Rubens in 1623 and it’s still in the Cathedral, though no one seems to be paying too much attention to it.
If you observe it and don’t think it’s particularly impressive, I suggest you take a closer look at the group of ladies on the left. That’s Rubens alright.

2. The Gravensteen Castle

We were lucky enough to visit this 1180 castle while it was snowing outside, and it made for a truly magical experience.
The castle was built under the reign of Arnulf I (890–965), and it was the residence of the Counts of Flanders until 1353. Its interiors and courtyard are absolutely stunning, complemented by humorous modern banners which try to give you ideas as to what the differences rooms might have been dedicated to.

The halls host an impressive exposition of XV century weaponry, which is the fanciest and most inefficient of all times: powderkegs with ivory handles, carved guns that are most likely to blow up in your hands, heavy and unhandlable swords, crossbows that weigh a ton. You take your pick.

From the walkways you’ll have a stunning sight of Ghent, but beware the stairs in the towers: they’re so steep it is said the resident lord had impressive tights due to walking up and down the whole day. Other fancy stories include a room where people was left to choke themselves should they fall asleep, an underground jail with fishing rabbits, beheaded ladies, people whose thongue was pierced with hot nails, horses mourning their knights and other fun stuff.

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