The air of prosperity which is so apparent in Amsterdam and Antwerp is
missing in Bruges, once populated by a busy multitude of craftsmen and
weavers. Early in the seventh century, the city contained as many as
fifty thousand weavers, and this was probably the period of its greatest
splendour. For several centuries, however, Bruges held its position as a
trading town, and in the fourteenth century, under the rule of the dukes
of Burgundy, its market was known throughout Europe, and was visited by
the wealthy merchants of Italy and Greece.
If the greatness of the industrial power has long since declined, Bruges
can still boast of its ancient monuments, which invite visitors from all
parts of the world. The town is much visited by strangers. It is easily
reached from England by way of Ostend, and ships of five hundred tons
can sail up to Bruges on its wide artificial waterway.
For the causes of the decay of the town, we must refer to the early wars
that disturbed the country, to the penalty which the natives suffered
for rebellion against the Archduke Maximilian in 1488, when the trade
was transferred to Antwerp, and finally to the ravages of the Duke of
Peter Titelmann harried the burghers in the days of religious strife to
such an extent that the Catholic burgomasters and senators of the town
petitioned the Duchess Regent to protect them. They complained that the
Inquisitor of the Faith brought before them men and women, and forced
them to confess; and that, without warrant, he dragged his victims from
the church itself.
In 1583 the French, under Captain Chamois, having seized Ostend and
other towns, came to the gates of Bruges. The burgomaster refused to
admit the fifteen hundred troops, and rallying the townsmen, he made a
stand against the invading force, compelling Chamois to retire.
The city was famed for its workers in tapestry, an art known early in
the Netherlands, and probably borrowed from the Saracens. In 1606
Flemish artists, invited by Henri IV., introduced the working of
tapestry into France, and a few years later the industry was established
Philip the Good, of Burgundy, who died in 1467, was scarcely worthy of
his title of virtue. He was, however, in spite of his adroitness in
deception, an encourager of industry and commerce, and a protector of
the arts. He invited the brothers, John and Hubert Van Eyck, to Bruges,
and he patronised men of science and scholars. “Lord of so many opulent
cities and fruitful provinces, he felt himself equal to the kings of
Europe.” Upon his marriage with Isabella of Portugal, he founded at
Bruges the celebrated order of the “Golden Fleece.” This Order played a
great part in Flemish history. The symbol of the Golden Fleece was both
religious and industrial, and the Lamb of God, hung upon the breast of
the twenty-five knights, represented not only devotion, but also the
woollen trade of the country. Motley gives the number of the knights as
twenty-five, but another authority states that it numbered thirty-one,
and that the members of the Order wore a distinguishing cloak, lined
with ermine, and the cipher of the Duke of Burgundy in the form of a B,
with flints striking fire. The motto was: _Aute ferit, quam flamma
The memorials of the days of splendour are many in this city of the
past. The cathedral is not of the finest Gothic work externally, but it
is rich in monuments, and lavishly decorated within. Its earlier
portions date from the twelfth century, the fine nave is of a later
period. The pictures are not of much importance.
Notre Dame has a lofty spire, and many interesting details will be found
in its architecture of the early and the later Gothic periods. One of
the chapels contains the tombs of Charles, Duke of Burgundy, and his
daughter, Mary. The images are in copper, and recumbent on marble.
Memories of Charles the Bold crowd into the mind as we stand before his
effigy. His vast ambition led him into rash adventures, and his career,
if brilliant, was also tragic in its failures. Charles would have made
Burgundy a kingdom, but he lacked the essentials of a conqueror, in
spite of his courage. His rapacity was a drain on the resources of the
Netherlands; his love of power made him an oppressor, and caused
discontent and rebellion. Through his want of the true kingly qualities
he brought disaster upon the country, and destroyed the peace of the
In his forty-fourth year, in 1477, he died, leaving his people
impoverished, and the industries decaying. His realm was given into the
charge of his daughter, Mary, who married the Emperor Maximilian.
The monument of Mary of Burgundy is an example of the work of De
Beckere, an eminent sculptor. A painting by Porbus of “The Crucifixion
and Last Supper” is in this church. The carved pulpit is a good specimen
of this Flemish craft.
The Town Hall and Palace of Justice contain several important pictures,
and both buildings are architecturally instinctive; the former is very
highly decorated Gothic, with a fine façade, and several statues of the
Flemish counts. There is a library in the town hall with a beautiful
roof. Here are some missals and manuscripts, and a large collection of
The Palace of Justice has been restored, but parts of the older building
remain. It has a spacious hall, and an elaborate fireplace, with statues
of some of the rulers of Burgundy.
La Chapelle du Saint Sang is finely decorated, and has an ancient crypt,
containing early treasures.
We must now visit the academy of painting, and inspect the pictures,
though not without regret that there are so few works of the
illustrious artists of Bruges, the brothers Van Eyck, in the collection.
There is, however, one of J. Van Eyck’s greatest pictures in the
academy. This is the famous “Portrait of his Wife,” a rarely finished
piece of work, with a singular history, for it was found in one of the
markets of Bruges, thickly coated with filth. The permanent quality of
the colour used by the Flemish artists of this period is instanced in
the case of this portrait, which has been most successfully cleaned. The
tints are in splendid preservation.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the art of Flanders
flourished, and the brothers Van Eyck were the pioneers of oil painting.
Many painters had tried oil as a medium, but none succeeded till Hubert
and Jan Van Eyck discovered a suitable oil. Working with this new
medium, they produced wonderfully durable pictures. It is supposed that
the medium was a mixture of oils and resin, which dried rapidly. The
colours of our modern artists cannot compare with those of the old
Flemish school in respect to durability, which is seen in some of the
works of the Victorian period in England.
The other paintings by Jan Van Eyck are “The Virgin and Child, with St
George and St Donatus,” and “A Head of Christ,” dated 1440. Of these two
pictures, the former is by far the more representative of the painter’s
J. Van Eyck died, and was buried in Bruges, in a church which the French
destroyed. There is a poor statue of the painter on the ground whereon
the church stood.
Memling’s altarpiece is in the collection, a much restored painting of
“St Christopher and the Infant Jesus.” For other works of this artist,
we must visit the Hospital of St John, which stands near to Notre Dame.
The pictures are very remarkable and marvellously preserved. “The
Adoration of the Magi,” “The Virgin and Child,” “The Head of Zambetha,”
“The Virgin,” and other examples are in this collection.
Memling and his school used landscape, as seen through windows, in many
of their portrait works, and his architectural backgrounds were painted
from the houses in Bruges. We may still see houses that recall his
period. Hans Memling was probably born in 1425, and appears to have
lived in the town until 1495. His statue is in the Place du Vieux
Among the old houses of the town is the Prissenhof, though now it is
only a ruined memorial of its past grandeur. Here Charles the Bold
wedded Margaret of York, and here lived several of the counts of
An idea of the fortifications of the town in the Middle Ages is gained
by a walk around the ramparts which enclose Bruges. The many canals,
that intersect the city, lend beauty to Bruges. Besides the great
waterway to Ostend there are a canal to Ghent and other streams.
Lace-making is one of the industries of Bruges, and there is a trade in
linen and woollen goods and pottery. The city to-day is not a bustling,
commercial place, as in mediæval times, and to some visitors it may
savour of sadness.
Mr Harry Quilter is a traveller who finds the Gothic towns “more than
ordinarily depressing,” by reason of their monotony. “Perhaps it is the
effect of the angular roofs and windows, wearying to the eye as the
diagrams in a book of Euclid. Perhaps it is the low-browed shops, the
irregularly paved streets, the dull unrelieved brown and grey of the
houses. But for whatever reason, the effect is certainly dreary.”
If we do not find Bruges a town of dull aspect it is due to personal
temperament and taste. There may be greyness in these old Gothic towns,
there may be a suggestion of decay in Bruges; but there is also a strong
fascination, a charm that appeals to those whose eyes have grown weary
of modern streets with their regular outlines and monotonous
architecture. These tortuous lanes of Belgium and Holland, the gables,
and the tall irregular houses, are steeped in an old-world atmosphere,
and every corner suggests a subject for the painter’s brush. Certainly,
the term “picturesque” may be used in speaking of Bruges.
It is still a large town, with a big population; but the thoroughfares
seem rarely thronged, and there is slumber in the by-lanes. There
appears to be no demand for new houses, and no indication that Bruges
will grow. Its hotels prosper through the number of strangers that visit
the city. Few tourists in Belgium neglect to visit this old town.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan