Of flesh and blood


Its projects from Africa to Peru, but its own list of Unesco-recognised monuments and heritage is vast. One of the best known is Bruges, whose entire city centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In a few weeks, 1,700 people of Bruges stage the only Unesco-recognised procession in honour of the blood of Christ

Its projects from Africa to Peru, but its own list of Unesco-recognised monuments and heritage is vast. One of the best known is Bruges, whose entire city centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Bruges is also home, every Ascension Day, to the Procession of the Holy Blood, a Unesco-recognised event. The centrepiece of this ceremony, which draws up to 100,000 spectators, is a vial containing the coagulated blood of Christ. Seriously? How did a 2,000-year-old blood-stained cloth from Jerusalem end up in Bruges?

Circa 33
AD After the body of Jesus Christ is taken down from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea wipes the Saviour's wounds with a cloth, which he then carefully guards. (In another story, he fills two cruets with the actual blood of Christ, one of them possibly being the cup from the Last Supper - also known as the Holy Grail.

On 7 April, Thierry of Alsace, a Count of Flanders, arrives in Bruges, accompanied by his wife, Sybilla of Anjou, and Leonius, Abbot of Saint Bertin's abbey of Saint Omar. Thierry has returned from the Holy Land. In his possession is a portion of Joseph's blood-stained cloth. Thierry has received it - with the approval of the patriarch of Jerusalem - from his brother- in-law, Baldwin III of Anjou, King of Jerusalem, as reward for his exceptional heroism. Thierry brings the relic to the Basilius chapel in Bruges, a chapel that he himself had built.

This is one possible source for the relic in Bruges. However, there is another possibility.

During the fourth crusade, Constantinople falls into the hands of the crusaders. Baldwin IX, a Count of Flanders, is chosen as new emperor. He sends looted relics to Flanders, and particularly to Bruges, where his daughters, Johanna and Margaretha, are in charge. Could one of these relics be the Holy Blood of Bruges? The manner in which the rock-crystal flask is cut indicates an origin in Constantinople.

This is the date of the oldest document concerning a relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges. The gap of a century casts doubt on Thierry's story.

The first procession is held to celebrate the relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges, as mentioned in the Charter of the Unloaders' Guild.

As the relic is regarded as property of the city, the procession becomes a civic event. The guilds of Bruges are obliged to participate, as well as artisans, marksmen, city councillors and clergy marching in all their splendour with the relic around the city walls.

The Bruges city council combines the two weeks of festivities around the Holy Blood with the city's month-long Annual Fair, thus immediately swelling the popularity of the event.

The Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood is founded. Its purpose is to safeguard the relic and to further its veneration. Its 31 members must be resident in Bruges and be "honourable people". The Provost is recognised by his rich neck chain; the Brothers wear a black silken tabard on which is embroidered a pelican feeding her young with her own blood. This is a symbol of Christ commonly seen in Bruges.

A processional route around the city is agreed, which has been kept to this day. In the 15th and 16th centuries, profane scenes with giants, the mythical Bayard Horse and the so-called chambers of rhetoric (dramatic societies) of Bruges are added to the biblical scenes and mystery plays.

Bruges has a Calvinist regime. The procession is banned, and the relic is taken to a safe place.

Early 17th century
The procession is re-commenced with even greater splendour giving it a triumphal aspect.

The currently used receptacle for the Holy Blood is constructed. It's set with hundreds of precious stones, including the Black Diamond from Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland.

During French rule, the procession is temporarily abolished and the relic transferred to a safe haven.

20th century
A continual variety of changes in the themes and the presentations are introduced as the event increases in international popularity.

Martin McDonagh's hit movie In Bruges draws attention to the Holy Blood relic. Two London-based hitmen, in hiding in Bruges, familiarise themselves with local sights, including, in one amusing scene, a visit to the Holy Blood.

The Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges is added to the Unesco list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

2 June, 2011
The procession is led by the "honourable people" of the Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood, accompanied by brass bands, hundreds of tableaux, floats and more than 1,700 citizens re-enacting stories in three parts. The first consists of scenes from the Old and New Testaments; the second shows the 1150 return of Thierry of Alsace to Bruges; the third is the procession of the Holy Blood relic itself.

The relic is carried by two prelates, surrounded by four members of the Noble Brotherhood and attended by dignitaries of church and state. The procession concludes with prayers in several languages. The relic is then enshrined once more in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where it is displayed each Friday, before and after the mass.

The Procession of the Holy Blood
2 June, from 14.30
Across the centre of Bruges
Special masses and daily displays of the Holy Blood take place in the weeks leading up to the procession. Check the website for details: www.holyblood.com


United by blood

When Unesco recognised the procession of the Holy Blood as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it was described as "a ceremony that for centuries has played an important role in expressing the identity of Bruges' inhabitants and in facilitating encounters with people from outside the city. Participants are a representative cross-section of ages, families and communities. Some inhabitants have participated for 40 or 50 years, and émigrés often return for ‘Bruges' Finest Day'. The Procession is a vibrant example of how a collective ceremony can unite a city through ritual enactment of its history and beliefs."

Our blood is not alone

Bruges isn't the only city claiming to have a relic of the blood of Christ. There are a few sites in Europe with vials of their own, including the Sant'Andrea Basilica in Mantua, Italy, and the Weingarten abbey in Germany, which also both stage annual processions. Bruges is the only procession recognised as world heritage by Unesco.


Of flesh and blood

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