Discover delightful hidden gems at Flemish Masters in Situ


The masterpieces you don’t know about in Flanders’ churches and castles will amaze you as you head out on routes designed to bring hidden treasures to light

Off the beaten path

In the Sint-Maartens Church in the centre of Kortrijk, I recently came across one of the most beautiful altarpieces I’ve seen in Flanders. (I live in the hometown of the Ghent Altarpiece, so this is saying quite a lot.)

Sint-Maartens is a three-minute walk from the city’s Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Church, home to an original Anthony Van Dyke, one of the biggest names of the Baroque. The churches are separated by a flawlessly restored begijnhof with a visitor’s centre relaying the history of these Unesco-protected quarters and the women who ran them.

All of this was discovered on a half-day jaunt inspired by Flemish Masters in Situ, an idea so good it’s hard to believe no one thought of it before. Sponsored by outgoing tourism minister Ben Weyts and Openbaar Kunstbezit, the initiative introduces visitors to artistic masterpieces that hang not in museums but in the churches, abbeys, castles or town halls for which they were originally made.

Because they are not heavily promoted or in a tourist hotspot, these pieces go largely unnoticed. But as the Deerlijk-Kortrijk route proved to me, they can equal Brussels’ Bruegels or Antwerp’s Rubens.

3D Pentecost

The “Triptych of the Holy Spirit” by Bernaert de Rijckere (detail pictured above) is a 16th-century altarpiece located in a side chapel of Sint-Maartens, the church for which it was created. De Rijckere never earned the fame of Rubens, but the latter apparently thought highly of him, having bought one of his paintings himself.

While his name may not be on the tip of your tongue, De Rijckere was well-known in his day, with money both inherited and earned through a large number of commissions. He eventually settled in Antwerp, but he was born in Kortrijk and received commissions from  both cities.

De Rijckere’s “Triptych” is an illustration of the Pentecost, when the holy spirit descends upon the Apostles and Mary. Though the painter doesn’t stray from a typical interpretation of flames appearing above the figures’ heads, the painting seems to glow with serenity. Some of this is down to the flames – De Rijckere pressed indentations into the canvas, filling them with gold paint, which gives them a kind of 3D effect.

The left panel of the triptych portrays God giving life to Adam, while on the right God watches over the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. While the central panel consists largely of just the figures, big as life, the side panels contain much detail in the background. Animals living in harmony during the creation, bystanders gazing in wonder during the baptism.

An interactive screen – present in front of every work included in Flemish Masters in Situ – provides details about the painting, the artist and the church in seven languages. The initiative’s website does the same.

Sint-Maartens is also home to De Rijckere’s “Christ Carrying the Cross”, his earliest-known work, and some other fine paintings, such as “The Beheading of Saint Catherine” by Karel van Mander, a De Rijckere contemporary, and “The Adoration of the Magi” by 17th-century Flemish painter Gaspar de Crayer.

An unexpected – and delightful – group of paintings just to the right as you enter the church illustrate the life of the building’s namesake (pictured above). Thoroughly modern, they were painted by art restorer Filiep Serrus in the 1990s. The bold lines and colours wouldn’t be out of place in a graphic novel and work perfectly to move the viewer through the life of Saint Martin, from army to monk to hermit to bishop.

The Flemish Masters in Situ website provides routes to make visiting clusters of masterpieces easy. My route, Kortrijk-Deerlijk also included “The Elevation of the Cross” by Anthony van Dyck in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw church a stone’s throw from Sint-Maartens.

To art aficionados, Van Dyck needs no introduction; the wealthy Flemish Baroque painter enjoyed international fame, was established in Rubens’ studio and became England’s court painter under King Charles I and Queen Henrietta.

Van Dyck created hundreds of paintings, which are spread across museums, churches and private collections around the world. The one here in Onze-Lieve-Vrouw is from 1631, a prolific period for Van Dyck in terms of church commissions.

“The Elevation” (detail above) illustrates some of what made Van Dyck popular; though portraying a very dramatic scene, it’s anything but bombastic, with soft colours and sensitive facial features. The men raising the cross look more concerned than they do determined; you would be forgiven for thinking they are taking him down rather than putting him up.

The third stop on this route is the Sint-Columba Church in Deerlijk, a small town a few kilometres east of Kortrijk. The interior of the church is rather plain, but just to the right as you enter is the Altarpiece of Saint Columba, well worth the trip.

This wooden relief (detail pictured above) portrays 10 scenes from the life of Saint Columba, carved from a single piece of oak. The artist is not known, though it is known that the piece came from a workshop in Kortrijk.

Plan to contemplate its finite details for at least 30 minutes, while following the story on the touchscreen. This is one of the works that also comes with audio accompaniment.

Columba wasn’t made a saint for nothing – miracle after miracle saves her from the staunchly evil Emperor Aurelian. The most famous occurrence is when a bear escapes from an amphitheatre and pounces upon a rapist, preying on the virginal Columba, imprisoned for her refusal to renounce Christianity.

The Columba altarpiece is what Flemish Masters in Situ is all about: A remarkable work that captivates visitors – who never would have found it on their own.

Nearly all of the works included in Flemish Masters in Situ are free to visit. The few that are not can be visited with a Pilgrim’s Book, available to purchase at many of the sites or on the website. It comes with detailed information about all of the works.

Flemish Masters in Situ is part of the three-year Flemish Masters programme launched by the tourism ministry and VisitFlanders

Photo Columba ©Saskia Vanderstichele/courtesy Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen, photo Van Dycke ©Dominique Provost/courtesy Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen