The Church of Our Lady of Bruges or Notre Dame is a reliquary itself. This Gothic structure with the second highest tower in the world built of brick keeps inside the tombs of the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgundy and Brabant, as well as the heart of Philip the Handsome and a very well-known Michelangelo’s sculpture, Madonna and Child.
In the same location where stands the Church of Our Lady, there was formerly a Romanesque church. The current church was built between the 13th and 15th centuries, and the most remarkable element of the church, its tower, was erected between 1270 and 1340. The tower, 122.3 metres high, is the second highest brick tower in the world, the first one being the tower of St. Martin’s Church in Landshut, Germany.
This church seems to follow a common tradition among the Belgian churches, and more specifically the Flemish ones. It is a Gothic-style building with a Baroque decoration inside. The original decor was Gothic too, but in the early 16th century, two circumstances favoured the distinction between architecture and religious furnishings inside churches: first, the new Protestant currents began to proliferate among the Flemish population; on the other hand, King Charles I of Spain and V of Germany, who ruled the region directly, was less and less appreciated. He was considered a foreign king despite having been born and raised in the nearby city of Ghent. The protests led to the destruction of everything related to Spain, and a good example were the churches, since the Spanish Empire was the greatest protector of the Catholic Church.
For this reason, the churches were empty, stripped of its original decoration, leaving the buildings as real skeletons of what they were once. The altarpieces, choirs, benches and even the windows were destroyed during this period. But the Protestant Reformation was followed by the Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation in the mid-16th century, which was intended to renew the Church and curb the scope of the Protestant doctrines. In this attempt to revive the Catholic Church, churches were re-decorated with all the elements that had been destroyed. And the new predominant style by that time was the Baroque.
The Baroque is a much more ornate, decorative style, depicting figures with more drama and some use of optical effects in the sculptures. The new decor had not only a decorative function, but also an educational one for a mainly illiterate population. The Baroque altarpieces, choirs and pulpits represented Bible passages.
THE GRAVES OF CHARLES THE BOLD AND MARY OF BURGUNDY
On the main altar, in front of a simple altarpiece consisting of a triptych composed of three paintings, lie the tombs of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and Brabant, and her daughter, Mary of Burgundy. But these graves, like the church and its furnishings, do not share the same artistic style.
Interestingly, the tomb of Mary of Burgundy is about sixty years older than that of her father despite having died only five years after him. While Charles the Bold died in the French city of Nancy during a battle in 1477, his daughter Mary died at the age of 25 while practicing her favorite sport in Bruges: falconry on horseback. She fell from the horse and was crushed by the animal.
But then, how can there be so much difference in years between the two graves, being the grave of Mary’s father more recent? Basically, the remains of Mary of Burgundy were deposited in a grave with a decoration typical of that time. It is an ornate, refined and delicate Gothic tomb where the artist took great care of every single detail. Her father, however, was buried in France, where he died, but over half a century later his remains were taken along with her daughter’s, in Bruges, where they rest today. It was then when it was decided to bury Charles the Bold in a Renaissance tomb, the predominant style by that time. The sculpture of this grave is much simpler, realistic, sober and austere, not only because the Renaissance was not as ornate as the Gothic style, but also because some decline could already be seen in the city of Bruges and its economy. Interestingly, these graves tell the story of the city, a rich and prosperous Bruges and a decadent Bruges, which will end up almost forgotten only a few centuries later.
THE HEART OF PHILIP THE HANDSOME
The curious fact that the tomb of Mary of Burgundy is older than his father’s is not the only thing that defines this grave. The remains of the Duchess of Burgundy do not lie alone, because in the same tomb is the heart of Philip the Handsome, his son, inside a lead box with inscriptions in his honour.
Philip was born in Bruges in 1478, inheriting the title of Duke of Burgundy of his mother at the age of only four. He became Philip I of Castile after marrying the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, known as Joanna the Mad, as her inability to govern caused her husband to take over the government of the Kingdom of Castile. It is said that to some extent her madness was due to the constant absence of her husband, his untimely death and her forced confinement enforced by her father, Ferdinand of Aragon, and his son, Charles I of Spain and V of Germany.
Philip the Handsome died in Burgos (Spain) when he was still very young, only 28, in a sudden way. According to History, he died while playing ball, when he drank cool water on a break, falling sick and dying shortly thereafter.
While his body now lies next to his wife Joanna in the Cathedral of Granada in Spain, the truth is that his body was stripped of his heart. It was then brought to his birthplace, Bruges, thereby ensuring that Joanna the Mad did not have the heart of his beloved Philip neither when he lived nor after death.
MADONNA AND CHILD
For art lovers, this church keeps another treasure. This is the "Madonna and Child" of the Florentine artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti. It is the only work of the artist which was sent out of Italy while Michelangelo was still alive.
The main feature of this piece of work is that both the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus are looking towards the floor. This should not be that way originally, but when the sculpture was created in 1504, it was designed to be exposed in a high position in the Cathedral of Siena, so it should not seem to look towards the floor, but to people. This changed when the sculpture was brought to Bruges by two Flemish merchants, Jan and Alexander Mouscron, ten years after it was carved.
This work suffered throughout history two robberies, the first by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1794, and 150 years later it was also stolen by Nazi troops in 1944. Fortunately it always ended up in its original place, thanks to which we can admire it today in the Church of Our Lady of Bruges.
You can learn much more about the history of the Church of Our Lady of Bruges on our tour of Bruges.
Mariastraat, 8000, Brugge.
HOW TO GET TO THE CHURCH OF OUR LADY OF BRUGES
The church is located between the St. John’s Hospital and the palace-museum Gruuthuse, just within a 5 minutes’ walk from the Lake of Love. Leave the Beguinage through the door on top of which there is a statue of St. Elizabeth. You will see a small bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake of Love or Minnewater, where we can see a lot of swans and ducks. Continue along the same path and turn left in the first street, Wijngaardstraat. Continue along this street, then take the second street on the left, the Katelijnestraat, and follow the same street for about 200 metres. You will then find a small square where there are linden trees, pruned in a curious way, beside which is the impressive Church Our Lady of Bruges.
SOME NEARBY PLACES
- St. John’s Hospital (10 m).
- Palace-museum Gruuthuse (60m).
- Groeninge Museum (150 m).
- San Salvator’s Cathedral (200 m).
- Minnewater (300 m).
- Grote Markt (600 m).
- Burg Square (700 m).