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