Hermes the healer
The Saint Hermes Church in Ronse is a beauty in its own right, but the crypt underneath it is really worth a visit. Yet the church has a very dark side to it. It’s the latest stop in our tour of Mysterious Flanders.
Guardian of the mentally ill lives on in Flanders
Like many other churches, the Church of Saint Hermes is designed to impress the faithful. The thick walls, the light playing through the windows, the lavish decoration... Everything invites silence and contemplation. The church is a destination of pilgrimage where a host of saints are invoked for a variety of ailments. That means that the church, more than other places of worship, is filled with religious art, often donations from people whose prayers were answered. The niches are filled with stone plates acknowledging the various saints. Furthermore, there’s a collection of ex-votos, little statues in silver, representing the sick body part.
The saint who gave the church its name is Hermes, called on to heal the mentally ill. In the side chapel dedicated to him are signs on the wall showing gratefulness for the healing of the soul. A large statue depicts Hermes on horseback in full armour, with a chained devil behind him. In the past, psychiatric disorders were seen as the work of Satan.
Hermes lived in the early days of Christianity. He was a wealthy Roman patrician and a confidant of the emperor. Hermes had one son, who was terminally ill, but whose life was saved by Pope Alexander. Hermes converted to Christianity after this miracle, but that was not appreciated by everybody, to say the least. Together with Pope Alexander, he was beheaded. And for some reason, his remains ended up here in the church of Ronse.
It is remarkable that Saint Hermes is worshiped here in Ronse as a healer of the mentally ill. To those paying attention, a sinister reminder of the cult surrounding him can be found in the church’s side chapel. At the back is an inconspicuous wooden bench containing solid iron hooks, where those with the severest mental illness were chained until they were healed. With a little imagination you can hear their cries mingling with the murmuring of the pastor. During the middle ages, those considered to be possessed by the devil were not exactly handled with kindness.
Under the church building, accessible from the side, lies a well-conserved crypt. Today the Romanesque colonnade gives off a mystical air, but it must have been a sinister place in earlier days. Here, those suffering from neuroses were treated to eradicate the devils from their body and soul; that happened through ritual baths and immersion in the ice-cold water of the well in the middle of the crypt.
Once a year, on the first Sunday after Pentecost, the bones of Saint Hermes leave the church. Then the relic is carried around the edge of Ronse in a procession called the Fiertel. The origin of this religious procession and its name remains unknown, but the intention is clear: Keep evil outside Ronse.
The church and the crypt are in Sint- Hermesstraat in Ronse. The church is open to visitors every day and the crypt’s opening hour can be found online.