International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
A lot of the Groeningemuseum’s great works were once in the city’s churches and cathedrals. Hugo van der Goes’ St Hippolyte Triptych was restored by the museum, but is now back in its original home, St Saviour’s Cathedral. The painting is a transfixing and completely weird depiction of a saint about to be torn in four by men on horseback. The scene is painted within an inviting landscape, and there’s this beautiful sky in the background. It’s odd and makes you ask how something so horrible could be happening in such a peaceful place. Another one of my favourites is Death and the Miser, by Jan Provoost. It’s a fantastic picture of a Flemish Scrooge-character being paid a final visit by a skeletal Death. In the background are bottle glass windows, still seen in Bruges today.
There was a tendency among Bruges’ painters to set everything in the present day – in their own world. For example, you might be looking at a painting of the nativity story, and the Holy Family will be wandering not through Bethlehem but Bruges. It’ll be a Bruges innkeeper saying, ‘Sorry, no room at the inn,’ and there’ll be a dog barking at them from the doorstep of a little gabled house. Because Bruges has been so carefully preserved as a medieval city, when you’re walking its streets you can feel like you’re walking within these paintings. Particularly at night, when the streets tend to be emptier of day-tripping tourists – in the semidarkness, the illusion is more convincing.
A place of pilgrimage: The St-Janshospitaal
You can really sense the city’s past at St-Janshospitaal, a 12th-century hospital building which is a wonderful mix of Flanders’ Middle Ages culture. Now a museum, it’s a reminder that although the canals were good for business, they also brought the plague to the city, and the way Bruges ministered to their sick was through religion. The hospital’s chapel was a pilgrimage site. It held the relics of St Ursula, a virgin killed by Huns people around the 4th or 5th century while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome.
In the 15th century, the hospital commissioned the artist Hans Memling to create a shrine for the relics. Memling was described by the art historian Erwin Panofsky as ‘the very model of a major minor master’, which is a highbrow joke taken from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. In other words, he was the perfect second-rate artist. But his shrine really is wonderful, bridging the gap between the medieval foundations of the hospital and its Renaissance incarnation. Memling took the old reliquary containing Ursula’s remains – a wooden box, which people had been coming to touch for hundreds of years – and then housed it in a sort of dolls’ house in the shape of a miniature church. On this he painted the whole story of Ursula’s journey: her life and death.
Flemish oil painting was born out of manuscript illumination, of which Bruges was a great centre. Walking around Memling’s shrine, it’s clear to see how one gave rise to the other. It’s a bit like the pages of a story book, put onto the outside of a box. It’s no surprise that Belgium also produced the artist and comics writer Hergé; Memling’s box is almost like a Renaissance Tintin tale, unfolding frame by frame. Ursula even dies being watched by her little dog, like a mournful little Snowy. The paintings are full of such wonderful details. The pope, as well as looking serious, receiving all these virgins in Rome, has the appearance of a naughty schoolboy. The characters are wearing these fantastically fine fabrics, so even when you’re watching Ursula being killed, you’re also checking out what she’s wearing. Narratively, this isn’t terribly convincing but it is very revealing of the contemporary culture.