Historic Bruges landmark gets €1m facelift


The interior of the world-famous Church of Our Lady in Bruges is undergoing restoration – and it’s not all going to be plain sailing

Ambitious restoration planned

There’s the Rozenhoedkaai, Minnewater Park, the Basilica of the Holy Blood and the Gruuthuse city palace. But the Church of Our Lady is without question Bruges’ finest Gothic gem. Two years after its fearsome tower was released from decades of scaffolding, the interior is slated for a thorough facelift, with a pricetag of more than €1 million.

In between talking to building contractors and taking measurements, the first-ever Bruges city archaeologist, Hubert De Witte, tells me what makes the interior so special.

The Church of Our Lady has an impressive history. Its tower – slightly askew, finished in the middle of the 14th century, hit in 1938 by a warplane loaded with bombs (that miraculously did not explode) – is still the second-highest brick structure in the world. It features in one of Jacques Brel’s most famous Flemish songs. It harbours the mausolea of some of the middle ages’ most powerful dukes and duchesses. And, last but not least, it’s home to Michelangelo’s captivating “Madonna and Child”, the only work by the Renaissance master to have left Italy during his lifetime.

Of course, the church owes its enormous popularity to the presence of Michelangelo’s statue. But in recent years it has become something of a mixed blessing. “We’ve seen Bruges becoming more and more popular,” says De Witte, deputy director of all Bruges’ museums, “and this church in particular started suffering.”

Until a few years ago, he continues, “it used to receive two million visitors a year, walking in and out to see the Madonna. Each of them brought in dust and moisture. The marble Madonna wasn’t affected, but the other treasures were. Canvases and wooden frames suffered, the paint on the walls started peeling. The church looked, and still looks, a bit dirty.”

There was a simple solution to the problem: A division was made between the church and a separate paying museum – the only part of the church where the Madonna can be seen. As well as creating a much-needed source of income, this brought the annual number of visitors to the church down drastically, to 250,000. But the damage had been done, and the interior was in urgent need of refurbishment 

The easiest phase of the renovation – new tiles, electrical infrastructure and lighting – is now nearly finished. Most paintings in the church have simply been covered to protect them from dust. The four phases that lie ahead will be much harder.

Two weeks from now, the mighty choir and posterior parts will be sealed off from the public, and important paintings by Flemish Primitives Pieter Pourbus, Gerard David and Adriaan Isenbrant will be moved to the south aisles, where the Madonna is exhibited. 

Safeguarding treasures

It’s only in the third phase, due in 2017 or 2018, that real problems are expected. “We are still not sure what will happen to the Madonna then,” De Witte says. “It is fixed to an altar in the south aisle.” And with good reason. “It was stolen,” says De Witte, “twice.” First by the French in 1794, then by the Germans during the Second World War. “It was retrieved after the war in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. After that, it was affixed.” 

There are crypts with skeletons, coffins and paintings lying hidden under every tile of the floor

- Hubert De Witte

He adds that Bruges’ Madonna, as well as Ghent’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, features in a new Hollywood production by George Clooney. (He declined to go into detail, but Clooney’s film The Monument Men, due to open in the US next month, is the likely culprit.) In any case, De Witte expects that Michelangelo’s statue will be inaccessible for at least a year during the refurbishments.

The work also includes the restoration of the organ, the conservation of paintings and treatment against woodworm for the church’s confessional chairs. Most of the more basic infrastructe work is in the hands of the same architect who carried out the renovation of the exterior some years ago. In fact, more than a century ago the great-grandfather of the current architect was responsible for renovating the church. It’s a real dynasty.

But while this year’s refurbishment is very ambitious, some of the initial plans, such as underfloor heating, had to be left out. “A German company came here with geo-radars,” De Witte explains, “to measure where we could install the heating system without damaging anything that is historically valuable. It turned out to be impossible. There are crypts with skeletons, coffins and wall paintings lying hidden under literally every tile on the floor. We cannot damage those.” 

Underground secrets

It’s not very likely that those crypts will ever be dug up. According to De Witte, 90% of what is hidden under the floor has never been seen by anyone alive today. “It would be fascinating to start digging, but it is not appropriate,” he says. “The investment to see what’s underneath and to preserve what you then have found is too big. We need to focus all our time and energy on saving valuable things that are already in danger and need to be preserved. We prefer not to touch what can be kept underground.” 

The past is not something that is gone and has to be put in a museum. It lives on today

- Hubert De Witte

There are a few crypts that have been uncovered, though. We are now at the mausolea of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, behind the high altar in the choir area, already sealed off from the public. There are contractors all around, but De Witte insisted on taking me here. This place, he says, explains his personal bond with the church.

Back in 1978, as the first city archaeologist, De Witte discovered the remains of duchess Mary of Burgundy underneath the church’s choir. “We knew from a report in 1803 that the crypt was here,” he explains, “but it had been filled with debris after a restoration, dumped through a hole in the vault of the crypt. Mary’s lead coffin had been stolen and her skeleton thrown out.”

The search began, and De Witte’s team “found her skeleton, intact, under the debris. We also found the urn containing the heart of her son Philip the Fair, who died in Burgos in 1506. His heart was sent from Spain to Flanders to be placed in his mother’s grave.”

Thanks to De Witte’s excavations in the 1970s, the real cause of Maria’s death could be determined. “We already knew she had fallen from her horse while riding in the woods close to Torhout,” he says, “but after studying the fractures on the ribs we came to the conclusion that her horse must have faltered and fallen on her. She died some days later, here in the Court of the Prince, from pneumothorax and infections, things that are easily treated and cured nowadays. Not back then.”

More than 35 years later, De Witte still gets excited talking about those days: “I am the only man on this planet who can say that he drove Mary of Burgundy in his car, on the passenger seat, to an anthropologist in Antwerp.” 

Living history

Churches in Bruges might be classified as museums, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still places of worship. The Church of Our Lady hosts masses every night, even during restoration. “That is a conscious choice,” says De Witte. “The past is not something that is gone and has to be put in a museum. It lives on today.” 

Likewise, traditions dating back centuries still exist in Bruges. For instance, the last congregation of the knights of the Golden Fleece, an illustrious order founded by Philip the Good in 1430, was at the end of 2012. Nobility from all over Europe, including the kings of Spain and Belgium, gathered in Bruges, changed into black habits in the Gruuthuse palace, put on their famous golden amulets and walked – in procession – from the palace to the Church of Our Lady.

The press was allowed into the congregation for a few seconds, then the doors were closed, and worldly matters were discussed among chivalry. “Anachronistic, but necessary,” says De Witte. “The golden amulets they were wearing are priceless; some date back to the 16th century. They were sent to us from the treasury in Vienna, and we kept them with us in the museum depot for two days. It’s an unimaginable fortune. It needed to be kept a secret or it would have been too risky.”

Photo by Jan Darthet

Historic Bruges landmark gets €1 million facelift

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