Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bruges: Lace, blood and rugs

I have spoken before about the meaninglessness of the term "luck" when applied to the expat experience. But there's (at least) one thing I'm happy to put my hand up and say I've been lucky to do, and that's having the chance to visit some of the world's finest art galleries and museums and see the very best artists the world has to offer. From the Hermitage to the Uffizi, the Louvre to Tate Modern, the Kunsthistorisches Museum to the Vatican Museums, and many more - I haven't seen everything, but I've seen a lot.

Due to the vagaries of fortune, it can take a somewhat Herculean (or Pokemonian) effort to see all the masterpieces by any given artist, but between the Arnolfini Portrait and Man in a Turban in the National Gallery in London, The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin in the Louvre, the Ghent Altarpiece in, well, Ghent, to which I have now added the Madonna of Canon van der Paele in the Groeningen Museum in Bruges, I think I can safely say I've seen all the superstar works by Jan van Eyck.

Van Eyck is a helpful name to add to your memory banks for the next time someone challenges you to name three famous Belgians (I also suggest Hergé, Magritte, Jacky Ickx and Jacques Brel). According to Wikipedia, he was only "probably" born in what is now Belgium, but he was definitely active in Bruges in the first half of the 15th century, and his paintings charmingly invoke the fashions in clothing and furnishings that he would have encountered in his daily life. Long credited with inventing oil paint, it's now thought that he was merely superlatively skilled and innovative in its use.

That much is still glaringly obvious today. I don't know how long I stood staring at the Madonna of Canon van der Paele, but there is so much detail and such skill in rendering the different textures displayed in the painting and perfect perspective, that you could drink it in for hours on end. 

It may sound silly, but I was captivated especially by a humble rug. Even looking at my photograph of this painting of a rug blows me away. I can't even comprehend how he tricks your brain into believing that the rug is lying on top of a flight of steps, or how he distinguishes the texture of the rug from the thick, stiff folds of the Virgin's gown, the tiled floor or the rich brocade on the bishop's robes. If you look carefully, you can even see that he's painted in "cracks" on the fold line of the rug over the top step. It's not necessarily my favourite painting of all time (nominees for that post would include Magritte's Empire of Light and Kandinsky's Im Blau - which can often be spotted in photos taken in my living room), but it is one of the most astonishing in terms of its technical virtuosity.

As you may have gathered by now, one of the things I did in Bruges was visit an art gallery - namely, the Groeninge Museum. It's a relatively small collection, but this allows you to really pay attention to its fine collection of Northern Renaissance art (I took much less time on the post-Renaissance stuff). Another particular highlight was Bosch's Last Judgement - which is stylistically about as far away from van Eyck as you can get, with its bizarre, nightmarish depictions of hell.

Loved the guy pulling a face at Mary in this crucifixion scene
Goodness, is that a man or a satyr? Renaissance leggings certainly leave nothing to the imagination, at any rate
I'm not sure whether it comes across in the photo, but when I walked in the room, I literally thought that this was a stuffed bird in a box frame - probably the best trompe l'oeil effect I've seen
I got to the museum so early that I was able to make it out in time to get to the Basilica of the Holy Blood while the relic was on display, which happens at 11 am each day. I sat for quite a while looking at the lovely chapel and observing (from a distance) as a queue of people took turns to go up to the altar to kneel before the relic and pray, while an exhortation to do just that (and to donate money) played on a loop in five different languages. Not particularly conducive to prayerful contemplation, I would have thought. According to legend, the phial containing Christ's blood was brought back from the Holy Land to Bruges by Thierry of Alsace in 1150, however, more recent research has concluded that it was probably filched during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. An impressive pedigree either way.

Basilica of the Holy Blood (Source: Wikipedia)
Sticking with the holy theme, in the afternoon I visited the Jerusalem church, a 15th century church that, like the Temple Church in London, was supposedly modelled off the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (although funnily enough, they look completely different) - rhis one doesn't even have a round bit, as far as I can tell. It is still privately-owned (and thus you have to pay to get in), apparently by the descendants of the original owners, who are buried in a fancy tomb in the middle of the church, which is kinda cool.

For the price of entry to the Jerusalem church, you also get to see the next-door "Lace Museum". This consists of a few rooms with different styles of handmade lace (which are, admittedly, quite impressive) and a few explanations about how lace is made and the different techniques or patterns which can be used. None of these explanations actually left me any the wiser about how lace is made, except that I possibly had a vague idea that it involved poking holes in a piece of cloth: this is not true. I was also informed that there were lace-making demonstrations from 2 pm onwards. By the time I had thoroughly exhausted the delights of the Lace Museum, it was still only about 1.57, but I thought I'd go into the demonstration room anyway. This consisted of an old lady who was apparently getting a lesson on how to make lace, and her instructor. After a brief (although friendly) hello, they both ignored me. All conversation was in Dutch, and the actual mechanism by which shuffling spools of thread around needles stuck into a piece of card resulted in lace still remain a mystery to me. I probably lasted until about 2.03 before the sensation of awkwardly hovering at the shoulder of an old Belgian woman got too much for me. Perhaps if I'd waited a bit longer, or perhaps if it was summer and the place was packed with tourists, there would have been more of a real "demonstration", but as it was, I pretty much felt both the church and the museum could have safely been skipped.

So that was that, other than the fact that the sun came out and I took photos on the way back to the hostel which didn't actually get transferred off my camera the first time (thus I didn't put any of them up on the last post). That seems to happen with annoying regularity - I quite often realise, "hmm, I'm sure I took more photos than that", but I wonder how often I've wiped my memory card with dozens of unseen photos on it. As everything's prettier with a blue sky behind it, here are some snaps of Bruges in living colour:

Markt square

Pretty church on the way to the train station
The back of the Church of Our Lady

The scenery on the train journey back to Brussels had a real Christmas-card feel to it - all flat, snow-covered fields with the odd church spire peeping through
(PS I figured out for the first time that you can move images next to each other with the mouse. However, I clearly was not 100% successful at getting them to behave exactly as I wanted them to - and can't be bothered fiddling about with the HTML.)


  1. Wow, what an amazing post! I have to say, my eyes went straight to the rug in the first photo - amazing - it looks so real! And that's just a photo. I'd love to see that painting now. Thanks for the art history lesson. :) M x

  2. You forgot the most famous belgian of the all - Eddy Merckx! What is is with these names anding in ckx anyway?
    And by the way how do you pronounce van Eyck? I'd be afraid to try it in public in case someone heard me and appled the heimlich manoeuvre.

    1. I think it's a bit like "fan ache", but I may have made that up!

  3. LOL! fan ache!......

    .Well art is not really my bag, but these are amazing pictures and Bruges is a place I REALLY must get to, especially after seeing this. I guess living in Europe we really don't know how lucky we are to be so near to so many places. New Zealand is such a long way from anywhere. I am amazed that so many Kiwis travel,

    1. Hi Denise! That is why so many Kiwis travel! Just about all our young people (or so it seems) disapear in their early 20s and some come back about mid 30s. GM x

    2. Yes, I agree with my Mum - being so far away from everything really makes you long to get out there, and when you do, it won't be a weekend break!

      Bruges isn't that far from Paris really - if you can tear yourself away!


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