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Stories of Bruges

More stories to tell

There are so many stories to tell about Bruges (and Belgium) so this is where you'll find them.

If you want to get a personal tour filled with other stories... Reservations can be made.

If you have a request (walk or story), ask through mail ( and I'll look it up for you !

Michelangelo’s Madonna

Historical figures Posted on Wed, April 22, 2020 09:36:40

It was a cold autumn’s day in Carrara, on 19 October 1503. The young, 28-year old sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti had just heard the horrible news of the death of his good friend, Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini. He had passed away the day before, less than a month after his election to Pope, Pius III. Pope Pius III had been a reformist, openly protesting against the political intrigues of his predecessor, Alexander VI. Officially Pius III died of an infection of an ulcer on his leg, but soon rumors of poisoning spread.

Michelangelo Buonarroti – sculpture at the Uffizi of Florence

Michelangelo came to Carrara, looking for a piece of marble. His friend Pius had ordered a sculpture, depicting a Madonna with Child, intended for the altar of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Siena, commemorating his uncle, Pope Pius II.
Michelangelo already had a good idea of what the sculpture would look like. But would the successor agree with the order and buy the sculpture?

In September 1504, summer didn’t seem to stop. Michelangelo gently touched the head of the Madonna, feeling the cool marble. The sculpture is beautiful to him. He demonstrated his new views on shapes with this masterpiece.
The papal advisor, architect Donato Bramante, had just left. The new pope, Julius II, ordered Bramante to come and inspect the sculpture before buying it. The young Michelangelo already showed his skills with his ‘Piëta’, his ‘David’ was almost ready, but the papal advisor had been less than praising. This sculpture, showing Mary and Child, diverged with everything the old masters made, sculptures and paintings.
Grumbling Bramante said, “What have you done? The Child is too big. Furthermore, the Mother is not carrying the Child, as a loving mother would do. It looks as she’s negligently lets Him go. Mother and Child aren’t even lovingly leaning towards each other. There is no form of connection between them! As if the two figures are independent from each other…”
Michelangelo explains they are eternally connected to each other in the single piece of marble, and by their hands holding. The Child also finds security in the folds of the Mother’s cloak. Michelangelo’s explanation couldn’t convince Bramante.
Look at Mary’s face! There is an absent expression, She’s not there! She is not interested in the Child, staring in front of her. This sculpture will never touch the hearts and minds of any faithful Christian!
When Michelangelo opened his mouth to explain the somewhat blank face is more an indeterminate melancholy, expressing the unbearable realization of Jesus’ future, redemptive sacrifice, and at the same time the laborious acquiescence in that inevitable predestination, Barmante doesn’t give him the opportunity.
The Child isn’t even looking at the people standing in front of Him. He’s looking – and so does Mary – down! How could any human turn to this atrocity in prayer!
Michelangelo knew the sculpture was intended to be placed high in the altar in Siena. In its rightful spot, Mary and Jesus would be looking towards anyone coming before them. And the proportions, when you were in the cathedral, looking up to the sculpture, were precise. But, Michelangelo understood the underlying message, Rome wasn’t buying this sculpture.

In the spring of 1505, Pope Julius II calls Michelangelo to Rome. The pope is of the opinion Michelangelo is the most suitable man to design and sculpt his cenotaph. The young sculptor has Madonna with Child Michelangelo Buonarroti 33 made name and fame with several masterpieces: the Piëta, the David, the sculptures of Peter and Paul on the altar of Piccolomini. For his mausoleum, Julius II was something grand: a colossal Moses.
Sadly, Barmante deemed additional improvements to the Saint Peter’s Basilica are priority, leaving no more money to have Michelangelo construct the mausoleum. Disappointed, Michelangelo returned to Florence.
Shortly after Michelangelo return to Florence, Giovanni and Alessandro di Moscheroni were staying in the city. They were wealthy traders in cloth, coming from Bruges. At that time, Bruges was at its hey days with economics.
Jan and Alexander van Moeskroen (they liked to use the Italian ‘di Moscheroni’, sounding a bit more posh than ‘van Moeskroen’ does) had heard of this genius sculptor. They wanted to know if this young sculptor could make a sculpture for the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. With Michelangelo’s name and fame spreading quickly, they knew soon it would be impossible to afford a sculpture made by him.

The sculpture at the Church of Our Lady (Bruges)

On 13 August 1506, Michelangelo received a letter by Giovanni Balducci. “I estimate Francesco de Pugliese will have the opportunity to send the sculpture to Viareggo, and then to Flanders, Bruges, to the firm Giovanni and Alessandro di Moscheroni and Co.
Michelangelo was a happy man. He sold the sculpture of Madonna and Child for 4000 florins. It was the first time one of his sculptures would leave Italy.
A few weeks later, the sculpture, neatly packed in a crate, arrived in Bruges. Jan and Alexander were pleased. They pulled off something nobody else could manage. They bought a sculpture of a artist who was already a legend while he was still alive. In 1514, they donated the sculpture to the Church of Our Lady.
The only request they made was to be buried were the sculpture would come. Still today, and for all eternity, they rest at the feet of the masterpiece they bought from the grand master himself.

The tomb of Jan and Alexander van Moeskroen (Moscron) at the foot of the sculpture.

Santa Who ?

Historical figures Posted on Wed, November 28, 2018 10:23:42

Some visitors get confused, and I can understand them. When they’re walking around in Bruges, they go in the chocolate shops and see two different Santa’s standing.

When asking what’s that all about, they get the reply that there is “Sinterklaas” and “Santa Claus”. But, wait a minute… If you translate Sinterklaas, that IS Santa Claus… What the hell??

In Belgium and the Netherlands (generally the former Dutch colonies) we have two “Santa’s”. The first is Sinterklaas (as we call him) and that’s celebrated on December 6th. Where the heck did he come from?

Well, somewhere in the 2nd- 3rdcentury there was a Bisshop Nicolaas of Myra who lived in Turkey (the country, not the bird…) and died on… December 6th342. Due to some legends, he became patron for children. Legends were of 3 schoolchildren beaten to death by an innkeeper but revived by St Nicolaas, 3 poor daughters who could still get married thanks to the gifts given by St Nicolaas or the legend of a child being put in a bath by St Nicolaas to protect him from a fire.

You may notice that “Sinterklaas” is kinda sounding like Saint Nicolaas but it’s not exactly the same. The aggregation happened somewhere in the late 1200’s. Since then he was considered the big friend for all children, giving out candy and presents. During the history his role changed to a bogeyman who rewarded the good children, but punished the bad by putting them in a bag.

In the 1700’s it was changed back to the good man we know today, using the bag for putting the presents in, not kids…

So he changed from patron for children, to a bogeyman, strict pedagogue into the folkloric friend for all children we have today.

Santa Claus comes from Saint Nicolaas. Remember there where a lot of Dutch when the new colonies were started? Well, in time the name changed and with the reformation and contra reformation a lot changed. Protestants banned the feast of St Nicolaas. But it was so popular with the common people it didn’t completely disappear. It transformed.

The first drawing of the Santa Claus we know today is from Thomas Nast in 1881. I added a picture of it below.

The American Santa Claus is probably a mix of Father Christmas and Saint Nicolaas.

So don’t go saying Santa Claus to Saint Nicolaas in Belgium, it is totally different.

Saint Nicolaas rides a horse, accompagnied by his helpers (Zwarte Pieten). Santa Claus has his sleigh with the reindeers and is helped by his elves. Common is the mistake people say Saint Nicolaas lives in Spain, but he only travels to Spain to get the gifts and sweets. Santa Claus lives on the North Pole.

I’d like to finish with a poem… Yes I know, it’s not my habit in doing this, but it’s such a known, and nice poem. In 1823 an unknown author published A visit from St Nicholas. Enjoy !

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

Jan van Eyck, our most important painter

Historical figures Posted on Thu, February 15, 2018 13:30:22

When you
visit the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, you can’t miss the painting by Jan van
Eyck; Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele.

Jan van
Eyck was one of the Early Netherlandish painters (Flemish Primitives). This
group of artists worked in the 15th and beginning of the 16th
century in flourishing cities as Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai and Brussels.
Some of the most known names were Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes,
Hans Memling, Dirk Bouts and Gerard David.
In those centuries the Southern part of the Netherlands was the centre of
economic and political power. With all those trading partners converging in
that area these artists soon made name and fame in all of Europe.

Jan van
Eyck introduced a style that was never seen before. With an unprecedented eye
for the tiniest detail, a perception-based view of the visual reality. It is
remarkable that the innovations of van Eyck run surprisingly similar with the
developments in Florentine paintings. There are a lot of speculations on the
ties between van Eyck and his Italian colleagues, but tangible proof is still

Portrait of a man (supposed self-portrait)

Jan van
Eyck is also the personification of the transition from an anonymous, modest
painter to an educated, self-aware and famous individual. He put his signature
and a date on many of works, on the frame or hidden in the painting. His motto
“Als ich can” (roughly translated to “If I can”) is found on several frames.
All this points to the fact he was proud and aware of his standing and
craftsmanship, an attitude that will become typical for the artists of the

Where Jan
van Eyck was born is uncertain. The family name could refer to the Belgian city
Maaseik. And it’s generally accepted that this could indeed be the birthplace
of little Jan. Some documents dating from the 16th century confirm
this assumption.

However the
Township of Arendonk has also strong arguments in which it claims to be the
birthplace of little Jan. Art-historical the exact birthplace or origin of a
painter was less important. Less important than the place where he learned his
profession. And when I look at the statements this Township makes, they could
be right.
In the Altarpiece of Ghent (Lam Gods) there is a prophet kneeling (centre
panel) with an open book. The text reads: “Iste
erat electus alios eligi nec licet testis deest et eis esto testis est igitur
Jan van der Moelnere ex Arendonca civitate
”. This handwritten text by Jan
van Eyck names the nickname Van der Moelen. This name that be found in the town
documents of Arendonk, next to the signature of Jan van Eyck…

Also when
Jan van Eyck was born is controversial. There are no authenticated sources that
can verify anything. So everything is done through interpretations of the
documented events during the life of Jan van Eyck. There is a document that
states that Hubert – the brother of Jan – was born around 1366 and that Jan was
considerably younger. Today the year 1390 is the most accepted date of birth
for little Jan.

The first
documents telling us where Jan van Eyck was, date back to 1422. Then he was
already named a “Master”, had one assistant and worked for Jan van Beieren,
Duke of Holland and living in Den Haag (The Hague). When Jan van Beieren died
in 1425, Jan van Eyck moved to Bruges. Documents tell us that on May 19th
1425 Jan van Eyck was the court painter of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (grandfather
of Mary of Burgundy, whom I mention several times during my walk).

In August
of 1426 Jan van Eyck is paid for two trips in order of Philip the Good. The
first is a pilgrimage he makes in the place of the Duke. The second trip
however is classified as a “secret mission”, bringing the artist to “distant
countries”. Nothing more is mentioned in the documents found. It is suspected
that Jan van Eyck travels to the Holy Land, passing Italy and further on to the
Ottoman Empire.

Jan stayed
in Tournai from 1427 until 1432. On May 6th 1432 the Altarpiece of
Ghent is ready. The son of Philips the Good and Isabella of Portugal, Joos van
Gent is baptised there on that day. Unfortunately shortly after, in 1434, Joos
van Gent dies. It is also in 1432 Jan van Eyck settled permanently in Bruges.
His house and workshop was in the Gouden Handstraat 6.

In 1434 he
paints the Arnolfini Portrait and it’s assumed he receives the order for Virgin
and Child with Canon van der Paele, that he finishes in 1436.
In 1436 he goes on another “secret mission” for the Duke of Burgundy. He must
have been a type of James Bond!
In the years that follow he makes more works. One thing I found strange… Next
to a couple of secret missions I also found a payment for “some panels and
other secret objects” in 1440. He really was a spy, I think.

Jan van
Eyck died on July 9th 1441 and was buried on St Donathian’s
Cathedral cemetery. In 1442 the body was moved to the choir inside the

bringing name and fame to Bruges, it is safe to say Jan van Eyck was one of our
most important painters ever.

Today, his
works can be found all over the world. In Belgium there are two works in
Bruges, two in Antwerp and the Altarpiece in Ghent. But in Berlin, Dresden,
Frankfurt, Vienna, Rotterdam, Paris, Madrid, London, Turin, Sibiu, New York,
Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington you can admire his works. Except for
Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and London I haven’t seen other works. Have you noticed
them and did you know it was a Flemish artist you were looking at?

I’ll be telling you more about a couple of his works, as the symbolism is sometimes really fun!

Bruges La Morte

Historical figures Posted on Tue, February 13, 2018 20:39:37

Georges Rodenbach and Bruges La Morte

Georges Rodenbach was born in Doornik in 1855, son of a family with German origins.
Patriarch Ferdinand (1714-1786) was a chirgan with the Austrian army, who
settled in Ypres after the marriage with Catharina Vanden Bossche.

The name Rodenbach may sound familiar to the beer lovers amongst you, and you are right. One of the grandsons of Ferdinand was the founder of the known beer Rodenbach.

Georges lived in Ghent, went there to school and university. He graduated in law in 1878, but before passing the bar in Ghent he first went to Paris to improve his legal competences. In Paris he mostly spent his free time in literary salons to make friends with numerous poets and writers. It was no secret that Georges was a writer of poems and novels himself. In that year in Paris he wrote 21 “Lettres Parisiennes” (Letters from Paris) for the catholic Brussels weekly “La Paix”.

Feeling homesick he returned to Ghent and started working as a lawyer. Disappointed in his work, his love for the literary arts prevails. He keeps close contacts with the Brussels literary circle “L’Union Littéraire”, where he becomes friends with Caroline Popp, writer and publisher of “Journal de Bruges”. This friendship is so strong he spends the entire summer of 1884 with her in Bruges, getting the important impressions of the city of Bruges.

Georges is so disappointed in his work as lawyer in Ghent, that he moved to Brussels to work there as a lawyer. But again is love and passion for the literary arts wins and in 1888 he leaves Belgium and moves to Paris to become a fulltime writer and poet. He moved in different artistic circles where he made friends with some prominent people; Mallarmé, Daudet, Rodin…

He also started working for the liberal newspaper “Le Figaro” where he wrote several serials on cities as Ghent, Middelburg and… Bruges.

It is in the format of a serial that Rodenbachs most known work is published for the first time. Bruges La Morte tells the story of widower Hugues Viane, looking for the shadow of his deceased wife and is attracted to Bruges. One of the rooms of his house on the Rozenhoedkaai is devoted to his wife; with several portraits and in a glass shrine a lock of hair of her. To pass the time he made long walk through the city. During one of these walks he meets a woman whom is the spitting image of his wife. He becomes friends with her. Turns out she’s an actress and her name is Jane Scott.
During their dates Hugues seeks the traits of his deceased wife. Somehow he has her moving in to one of his houses just outside the centre of the city.
However, soon Jane gets bored in this bizarre relationship and goes out in
search for more enjoyable company. In Bruges gossip about this widower and actress starts. With months passing by, Hugues discovers more and more differences between Jane and his wife. When Jane discovers the room with portraits and lock of hair, she confronts him with this and everything goes wrong. He strangles her with the lock of hair.

What made this work special? The main character in this book isn’t Hugues Viane, but the city. The bells of the Belfry, the Beguinage, the atmosphere of the city… It all plays an important part in the setting.

But the people of Bruges didn’t appreciate the book! It was published on February 4th – 14th 1892. This was the moment Bruges took on the plans to
(re)connect with the sea and expanding its harbour (Zeebrugge). Just then this writer from Paris wrote a book with “dead” in the title! Also the colorless setting isn’t something the people of Bruges liked.
Also there was the language in which it was written; French. The Flemish-fanatics accused the writer of immoral, obscene and anti-religious
thoughts, having the descriptions of the relationship between Hugues and Jane in mind. Maybe difficult to understand today, don’t forget that people had a totally different view on love and relationships in those times.

While Rodenbach didn’t want to put a 100% accurate realistic image of the city on paper. He only wanted to vent his personal feelings, feelings of melancholy in which Bruges formed a perfect frame for this.
It is however without a doubt that Rodenbach –maybe unwillingly and without realizing- boosted tourism in Bruges. It is a paradox but Rodenbach didn’t want to depict Bruges as a dead city. He fought this controversy by adding a foreword in reprints of Bruges La Morte, trying to explain his intentions.

Georges Rodenbach died in Paris on December 25th 1898. And even after his death there was protest coming from Bruges. The Flemish catholics and
conservatives remained opposed, depicting him as “French”, who made Flemish people as fools and mocking Bruges. The symbolism used in the book was misinterpreted, taken too literally and considered too bold. Creating an image of a dead could be blocking the expansion of the port of Zeebrugge and this would be ill-fated form the economic growth of Bruges.

Still today, if you go looking for anything on him in Bruges, the only reminder is a plaque on the house ‘De Rode Steen’ at the Jan van Eyck Square.

It is clear that Rodenbach was and still is a misunderstood figure in the history of Bruges. Except for the controversy of those times it is impossible to recognize the major influence the book had on Bruges and its tourism.

With the book being translated in several languages (English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Finnish and Dutch) it attracted many people from all over Europe, and today the world. After all the misinterpretations maybe it’s time we recognize what Georges Rodenbach did for the city.

What do you think the city of Bruges could do to remember and commemorate him?