Tongeren welcomes new museum of church treasures


Teseum showcases the extraordinary richness of the religious artefacts amassed by the monks who used to live on the grounds of the Basilica of Our Lady

Dusting off the antiques

For centuries, the Basilica of Our Lady has dominated the lush landscape of Haspengouw, in southern Limburg. Visible from every direction, it was the first sight offered to travellers approaching the city of Tongeren.

Adjacent to the gothic church lies the former chapter house, where the monks used to meet and where Teseum, Tongeren’s newest museum, has found its home. 

The monks were responsible for running all aspects of the church. Over the centuries, they amassed a treasure trove of religious objects of significant value. Some were used in religious ceremonies, like the chalices and censers, or the chasubles worn by the priests. Others were reliquaries and paintings.

“The Basilica of Our Lady has one of the largest collections of religious artefacts, the oldest of which date back to the 6th century,” explains Stefanie Sfingopoulos, the city’s heritage and tourism consultant. “Tongeren has taken ownership of the church treasure and has decided to open it to the public as a museum.”

For years, the church treasure was hidden away in old display cases in one of the rooms. “Thanks to the much larger exhibition space, a lot of these items can be seen for the first time,” says Sfingopoulos. “But it is about more than just the artefacts. The museum reveals their origins, how they were used in the church’s daily practices and why.”

Music comes to life

The museum, she says, tells the story of the monks and the objects they cared for. “Part of the collection is made up of music manuscripts, because the monks were responsible for church music. They include Gregorian chants and polyphonic music. To add an extra dimension to the museum, we asked a choir to perform them, so visitors can actually listen to them.”

From a religious perspective, the most important part of the collection is the bodily remains of the saints and the objects they were in contact with. Possession of relics was proof of the church’s long history and its power and prestige.

The museum tells the story of these artefacts’ origins, how they were used in the church’s daily practices and why

- Stefanie Sfingopoulos

The holy objects were venerated by the people, so the most important relics occasionally left the church to be displayed to the public, for example during the Heiligdomsvaart ceremony held once every seven years.

The largest part of  the collection is stored on the upper floor, under an impressive roof supported by thick wooden beams. The adjacent Romanesque cloister has also been opened to the public. With the monastery’s garden, it is a unique site in the region and an oasis of calm for the city. But, Sfingopoulos says, there is still more to come.

The museum’s organisers now plan to open up the basilica’s basement. “There is an entire network of cellars under the church with significant archaeological value,” says Sfingopoulos. “It contains the remains of Roman structures, giving us an insight into 2000 years of history.”

For the moment, exploratory research is being carried out and the museum hopes to open the underground site to the public by 2018. “It’s something we are really looking forward to,” says Sfingopoulos.

Photo: Stefan Matthijssens