Some Old Flemish Towns/Louvain

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Some Old Flemish Towns/Louvain by George Wharton Edwards
Louvain
(See Talk:Some Old Flemish Towns/Louvain for annotated version.)

Upon emerging from the rather imposing station, one sees the exquisite pinnacles of the Town Hall rising before the roofs, at the end of the long and uninteresting street, and half hidden by a tall, white, modern building seemingly given up to apartments, which quite spoils a vista that would otherwise prove a delight to the eye, and it is a sad comment upon the taste of the authorities, which view is later confirmed by their indifference to the rapid deterioration of some, if not all, of the really fine pictures by the early masters hung in the Museum on the second floor. The town itself is clean and well-kept, a small stream, the Dyle, running through it, and crossed by numerous bridges, offering an occassional pretty bit of old wall and mossy, red-tiled roof reflected in the yellow water. The streets are full of young priests, for there are many schools here besides those of the Great University, and I saw daily a number of them studying the tombs and paintings in St. Peter's Cathedral which faces the wonderful Hotel de Ville. There are good shops, the people are well dressed in the streets, and apart from the immense, blackened pile of the cathedral and the façade of the Hotel de Ville, an air of modernity is over all. The Brabantians are much more up to date than the people of Western Flanders; indeed, they pride themselves upon being different and speaking a different dialect. They think themselves really a suburb of Brussels in a way, and the small train takes them to and from that metropolis in very short time. But the Louvainese are really most provincial in many ways, for instance, they will dine heavily in the middle of the day at 12:30, taking light suppers at 7:30 in the evening, and after coffee or a glass of beer at one of the numerous good and well-kept cafés on the principal street, they will go home and to bed by half-past nine, and by ten o'clock the burgher has retired, the lights are out and the town "sleeps." I let a day pass before studying the Hotel de Ville, which is one of the greatest of the Flemish mediæval monuments. I felt that I must rest before seeing it, and it certainly answers all one's expections.

Schayes, in his "History of Architecture," Vol. IV, p. 39, says: "Not only is the Hotel de Ville of Louvain the most remarkable municipal edifice in Belgium, but one may seek in vain its equal in Europe," and while it was known that its designer's name was Mathiende Layens, nothing of his history could be found until in 1846 two historians, Van Even and Thys, discovered in a parchment that he was a native of Neufvilles in Hainaut, a small, obscure hamlet; that in 1445 he succeeded one Jean Keldermans, as a "Master Mason"; that he died in 1483 in his own house (de Koithoek), and was buried in St. Jacques, where no trace of his tomb can now be found. But what greater monument could any man have than this masterpiece in stone? I sat at a small café opposite studying its exquisite details now masked by much heavy scaffolding, for at least the authorities have awakened to the danger of its deterioration. The stone of which it is built is soft and yellowish and turns black with time, and the smoke of the town. Although only about twenty miles east of Brussels and on the main line to Liege, I had great difficulty in Antwerp in getting any information about the town. The Belgians are not great travelers and know very little about any save their own native cities or towns, and they regard the tourist as mildly insane. Therefore I was not greatly surprised at my difficulty in getting information about East Flanders. Louvain is the seat of the well-known University and the headquarters of the Clerical party of Belgium. Once a most important industrial center with a population of 200,000, it has dwindled to 45,000 or thereabouts. Like many of the Belgian towns its downfall is due to the oppression of the rulers of old, in this case the Dukes of Brabant, and to the spirit of independence shown by its inhabitants, which caused them to revolt and transfer elsewhere the fruits of their labor and industry. There is a most remarkable cathedral, St. Pierre, opposite the Town Hall, dating from the fifteenth century, which it is said suffered severely in a great gale in 1604, which blew down its spire and many of its statues. It has never been restored, and its huge doorways, its high exterior balconies, its narrow pierced windows, evidently for bowmen, all render it in appearance a vast mediæval fortress, which it undoubtedly was. Its interior is as remarkable, and contains many altars, statues, tombs, and in its nine chapels are great paintings, notably one by Dierick Bouts, "The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus." We wandered through the streets, some of them very narrow and winding, up to the ancient University, which was formerly the Clothweaver's Hall, and dating from the fourteenth century. It is very dilapidated and quite sinister-looking, and now contains a great library of inestimable value.

The decadence of Louvain began at the end of the fourteenth century, following the dissensions between the Nobles and the Artisans, always those turbulent Artisans, who objected to the Nobles living upon them, hectoring them and restricting their liberties, rude fellows they were, "unmannerly louts" the Nobles called them when they refused to submit to their "most reasonable" demands — as for instance, "Le Droit de Seigneur." Is it any wonder that they turned upon the aristocracy, one of the principal chiefs of the "Gens de Metiers" having been thrust forth and assassinated by some of these nobles at Brussels? When the news arrived, the people rushed in a fury upon the dwellings of the Nobles who escaped to the Hotel de Ville, but the crowd discovering their retreat, burst open the doors and seizing the aristocrats threw them from the windows where they were promptly "piked" by the burghers. Masscre succeeded massacre, and thus began the long series of wars and sieges which resulted in the downfall of Louvain. Wenceslas was Duke of Luxembourg, he who afterwards became the Emperor of Germany. A younger son of Jean of Luxembourg, this Wenceslas, blind king of Bohemia, who perished at Crecy, gathered an army with which to chastise the town which he attacked in January, 1382. In this he was so successful that the manufacture of linen cloth, for which the burghers were famed, was ended, and the workmen fled to England.

Almost opposite the Hotel de Ville is the immense fabric of the Church of Sainte Pierre, against which is nestled a motley collection of small houses and chimney stacks, the smoke from which begrimed its walls. Workmen are busily engaged in tearing these away and while the old church gains in dignity by having these removed, I must say that a certain picturesqueness is lost. I am glad I saw them before they were torn away, and was able to make a sketch of them. They were intensely Flemish in form, with fantastic gables and low-toned, red-tiled roofs which accorded admirably with the immensity of the church walls, and formed a picture at once interesting and unique. The porch is large and their are two stages of windows of good design; the gables of the chapels and the pinnacles are all in keeping with the picture. Of the interior, one can only say that it is most majestic and very rich in monuments and works of art. There is a great Gothic "Jubé," a Tabernacle, many tombs which will well repay study and really good, modern, painted glass. A large and elaborately-carved wooden pulpit is famous, but I did not care for it particularly. It represents Saint Paul (life size) falling from the back of a horse; the whole is carved in oak. The most singular object in the old church is a figure of Christ clad in a dark, plum-colored robe of what seems to be velveteen. This figure is greatly venerated, because, says the legend, "It disengaged one arm from the cross on a certain occasion and seized the thief who attempted to steal the Chalice from the Altar." A richly-dressed woman was on her knees before this figure which is in the gloom at the side of the altar, and as we studied the figure with its arm hanging hidden in the long sleeve, she raised her hands high above her head and remained in this attitude of supplication. I could not see her face, for her back was towards me, but her hands were small, white and beringed. Although we were in the church for fully half an hour, when we had made the circuit and studied the paintings, the altar, the beauties of the heavy-carved, bronze rails, and the remarkable Gothic Tabernacle, I saw her still in the same kneeling, supplicating attitude before the awful, hanging figure on the cross. It is recorded in the archives that, formerly, an enormous tower stood beside the portal of this church, and this was "the highest tower in all of Europe, measuring one hundred and seventy-five meters without the cross, and that on the 31st of January, 1604, a terrible storm came over Louvain and overthrew this wonderful tower, which, falling, pulled down its neighbors, so that all three tumbling upon the central pavilion, an immense ogival doorway or portal, with a crenelated gallery flanked by turrets — the whole was almost destroyed." At the right is a sixteenth-century gable, and on the left the ruined façade of what must have been a magnificent specimen of mediæval architecture, its sculpture broken and only fragments of balconies and niches remaining to show what it must have been. The remains of a handsome turret at the angle of an "estaminet," and some poor-looking shops mask the former impressive proportions and belittle its dignity. Elsewhere great windows filled with brick, wretched plaster repairs and great gaps in the masonry, show how outrageously the palace of Charles V suffered in the sieges. The pavement all about, below the walls, is strewn with fragments of broken glass, and upon looking at the long high windows above I could not discover that new glass had been put in the windows recently, for many of the small panes were broken and others missing, so these broken fragments ground into the pavement and between the stones, must have been there for many years. We were followed about by a most importunate cab-man who used every endeavor do induce us to hire him for a drive, and finally when he found that his efforts were in vain, became first abusive, then tearful. It was only by motioning towards a small, fat policeman, who was dozing on the corner opposite that I succeeded in getting rid of the fellow. We found Louvain most amusing, very clean, with good shops, well-dressed people and all that goes toward the equipment of a progressive town.

The exquisite Hotel de Ville reminds one of the caskets or Reliquaries which Kings and Queens used to give to be placed upon the high altars of cathedrals. There is the same simplicity of design, the same beauty of line, a rectangle with gables emphasized by a graceful tower at each pinnacle, and another at each angle, the whole finished with a crowned spire, tipped with a golden "flèche." Constructed in this model then, it really serves its purpose of reliquary, enclosing the memories of a great and golden past, and shining in the sunlight as I first saw it, its many windows ablaze with golden and ruddy light from the sky, which seemed like jewels and enamels on the casket, the vraismeblance was complete and satisfying. One feels that this exquisite piece of work should be enclosed in a museum. The foliations which cover it, the purity of style, the amazing design fromo tower to base fills one with wonder and enthusiasm. Three stages of tall windows, between which are "colonnettes," a series of statues under "dais" most beautifully chiseled, lead the eye to the roof along which a crenelated gallery runs, protected by a flamboyant balustrade. The towers at each angle are also in two stages of platforms of open work like gray lace, and finished by a gilded iron flèche shining in the sunlight. Over all is a most prodigal lavishment of lace work in stone, and the result is bewildering. Again and again one examines it only to find new wonders, fresh delights.