BELGIUM – A visual and gastronomic feast!

 Elizabeth Handley visited this country filled with treasures



On to Antwerp…Our coach trip to Antwerp the following day took us through farmland and orchards criss-crossed with canals, and ablaze with pink and white blossom.

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The landscape here is completely flat, with great towering wind turbines flailing against the windswept horizon – strange modern giants more efficient but less picturesque than the windmills – apart from a few quaint reminders of an age without electricity.

This once-great port was badly damaged during both World Wars, and thus has a mixture of architecture, ranging from an abundance of medieval historic buildings in the centre, to the ultra-modern further out.

Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady)

Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady)

The old centre of Belgium’s second largest city is concentrated around the Grote Markt and the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal – a magnificent seven-aisled structure under the lofty vaults of which three of Pieter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640) most powerful paintings can be seen. These include two triptychs, The Raising of the Cross (1610) and The Descent from the Cross (1612). This great Gothic cathedral was begun in 1352, and has a graceful tiered spire which rises high above the winding streets of the old medieval centre. Carvings around the massive west door depict scenes from the Last Judgment.

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RUBENS: The Raising of the Cross (1610) Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady)

All around the Grote Markt are numerous souvenir stalls, and shops selling the usual beautiful hand-made lace and chocolates, and memorabilia of Belgium’s famous comic strips, such as Peyo’s legendary Smurfs and Hergé’s Tintin and Snowy.

Antwerp began as a settlement on the banks of the River Scheldt during the 2nd century, and became part of the Duchy of Antwerp in 1106. Today this once-thriving hub of the cloth trade is undergoing extensive rebuilding and renovation – the stench of unearthed, medieval drains competing with the delicious aromas of chocolate, vanilla, and freshly griddled waffles. Antwerp’s golden age took place during the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs (1515 – 1713) – Rubens’s principal patrons. Apart from the strong element of Catholicism, still in evidence today, no trace of Hispanic culture remains, either in the language, cuisine or architecture.

 BREUGHEL: Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1562)

BREUGHEL: Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1562)

The Museum Mayer Van Den Bergh was the home of a wealthy 19th century trading family, and today houses magnificent tapestries, furniture, stained glass, sculpture and paintings – including Pieter Breughel’s famous Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1562) – a powerful image of a chaotic world. Unlike some of the galleries and museums we visited in Belgium, all the labels in this museum were in Flemish, and I was grateful for my thorough grounding in Afrikaans, the similarity to Flemish of which enabled me to understand them.

450px-RubenshausMost fascinating was the Rubenshuis, the famous painter’s home and studio for the last 29 years of his life, from 1611 – 1640. Much of this museum is today the result of extensive renovation and careful restoration, equipped with period furniture, and featuring the gallery where Rubens exhibited both his own work and that of other artists, and where he entertained his wealthy patrons, such as the Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella.

Our last stop in Antwerp was the innovative Museum Aan de Stroom (MA, situated in the old docks area just north of the old centre, and which was recently opened in 2011). There we enjoyed an exhibition titled “Masterpieces in the MAS. Five Centuries of Images in Antwerp”.

Terrible afternoon traffic on the ring-roads out of each city slowed our return to our hotel in Ghent each evening. But we passed the time in the coach by sharing our views of each day’s sights, and learning from one-another’s different perspectives and knowledge.

One topic of conversation was the current Belgian royal family: the hereditary monarch, Albert II, is the head of state, and officially called King of the Belgians. Belgium is the only current European monarchy that does not apply the tradition of the new monarch automatically ascending the throne upon the death or abdication of the former one. According to the Belgian Constitution, the monarch accedes to the throne only upon taking a constitutional oath.

The present king did not become monarch on 31 July 1993 (the day his brother died), but on 9 August 1993 when he took the Constitutional Oath. In all other European monarchies, the monarch assumes the title the moment the predecessor dies or abdicates. His wife is Queen Paola (Paola Ruffo di Calabria.) They have three children: Prince Philippe,Princess Astrid (the “Princess Diana of Belgium”) and Prince Laurent. (Prince Philippe and his wife, Princess Mathilde, have four children: Princess Elisabeth, Prince Gabriel, Prince Emmanuel and Princess Eléonore. Princess Astrid and her husband Prince Lorenz, have five children: Prince Amedeo, Princess Maria Laura, Prince Joachim, Princess Luisa Maria and Princess Laetitia Maria. Prince Laurent and his wife, Princess Claire, have a daughter, Princess Louise, and two sons, Prince Nicolas and Prince Aymeric.)

That evening was “independent”, and, having determined to have a quiet evening (and much-needed early night) with room service, I capitulated when Sarah our tour manager suggested taking a small group to a local restaurant for an “ethnic” meal. The Kaiserhof Restaurant was crowded with local diners enjoying a Friday evening’s relaxing meal with friends, and wolfing down huge portions of spaghetti bolognaise and basins of mussels. We found a table on the upper level of what must have been a double-storied home, reached by a narrow old wooden staircase. Sated as I already was with a number of rich meals on this trip, I regretted later not indulging in the local speciality which was a beef stew made with rich, Belgian beer. I settled, instead, for a grilled sole with salad and French fries. But I did order one of the famous Belgian beers, originally made by the Trappist monks.

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(Above left) Sir Anthony Van Dyck: Self Portrait 1613-14 (Centre) Van Dyck: Charles I, King of England at the Hunt: ca 1635 This painting, commissioned by the King, is one of the masterpieces of the artist.(Right) Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria with Charles Prince of Wales and Princess Mary: 1632

The next morning, in Ghent, we made our way on foot to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts). Ghent’s largest collection of fine art is displayed in this beautiful, Neo-Classical building. Inside, a rotunda divides the exhibits, with the older art works displayed in a series of rooms on the right, and the 19th and 20th century art to the left. Here a highlight for us was Van Dyck’s (1599-1641) Baroque masterpiece, Jupiter and Antiope (c.1620).

Dinner that night – our “last supper” together, and a most convivial affair – took place in the Korenhuis Restaurant. The set menu for our group included spiced spring salad with slices of smoked duck breast, grilled lamb cutlets with broad beans, wilted lettuce, garlic, celeriac and potatoes, and a generous cheese plate, served with slices of crusty French bread and biscuits. This excellent, but terribly slow meal, was finished off with coffee/tea and delicious, hand-made Belgian chocolates.

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The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium  (Right) Robert Campin’s Annunciation

Brussels was our last city to explore, the following afternoon, before we all returned to our home destinations. This beautiful city rose to prominence later than the other cities we visited, and only began thriving during the 19th and 20th centuries. Nevertheless, it boasts many splendid palaces and guild houses, especially around the Grand Place.

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium (Right) Robert Campin’s Annunciation

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, which we visited first, is one of the best in Europe, and presents the most comprehensive of all collections of Netherlandish painting, as well as international works.

Again Emma Rose focused on a few, significant works, beginning with (“Workshop of”) Robert Campin’s Annunciation (c.1414 – 25). One of the most celebrated early Netherlandish paintings, particularly for its detailed observation, rich imagery, and superb condition, this triptych belongs to a group of paintings associated with the Tournai workshop of Robert Campin (c.1375 – 1444), who is sometimes referred to as “The Master of Flémalle”. Documents indicate that he hired at least two assistants, the young Rogier van der Weyden (c.1400 – 1464) and Jacques Daret (about 1404 – 1468). Emma Rose made reference to Panofsky’s observations about this painting, and its interesting symbolism.

Erwin Panofsky (1892 – 1968) was a German art historian, whose pursued his academic career in America, after the rise of the Nazi régime. Panofsky’s work remains highly influential in the modern academic study of iconography. Many of his works remain in print, including Studies in Iconology: Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1939), and his eponymous 1943 study of Albrecht Dürer. His work has greatly influenced the theory of taste, as developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in books such as The Rules of Art or Distinction. In particular, Bourdieu first adapted his notion of habitus from Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

The symbols in Campin’s painting include an unlit candle (representing the transience of life), tiny carved lions on the wooden bench next to which the Virgin is kneeling (representing justice and the wisdom of Solomon) a broom (purification), lilies (the Virgin’s purity) and a small kettle (domesticity). The two mousetraps are thought to allude to a line from the Sermons of Saint Augustine, “The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught, was the Lord’s death.”

In the left wing, the kneeling donor appears to witness the central scene through the open door. His wife kneels behind him, while a town messenger stands at the garden gate. As was common practice in those days, the owners would have purchased the triptych as an aide in private devotions. Moreover, an image of Christ’s conception, in an interior not unlike the one in which they lived, may have reinforced their own hope for children. Not uncommon at this time, stylistic and technical evidence suggests that the altarpiece was executed in phases, with the wings being added at a later stage. These also appear to have been painted by two different painters.

Next we focused of Dirk Bout’s (c. 1410 – 75) The Justice of Otto – Martyrdom (or Execution) of the Innocent Count (c 1478). Again we see “gormless” bystanders watching a gruesome scene (the beheading of the victim). Perhaps the intention was to leave us free to form our own opinions on the justice of this event.

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Rogier van der Weyden’s (1399/1400 – 1464) beautiful portrait, Anthony of BurgundyLucas Cranach’s (1472 – 1553) Venus and Cupid (1531),

Portrait of Antoine, bastard of Burgundy, c 1460
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Venus and Cupid Robbing Honey, 1531
Oil on panel on canvas – 176 x 80 cm
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Other paintings we concentrated on included Rogier van der Weyden’s(1399/1400 – 1464) beautiful portrait, Anthony of Burgundy (one of the illegitimate sons of Duke Philip of Burgundy), and his Descent from the Cross, Hieronymus Bosch’s (1450-1516) Crucifixion with the Donor (1480-85) – the donor wearing jazzy pink-and-black striped hose. The background landscapes seem to have been painted by other hands, and are interesting in that they precede landscape painting, which only became a genre in itself during the 17th century. It was common practice in those days for experts in their fields to focus on different aspects of a painting, such as hands, faces, or miniature background landscapes. The little figures behind the Crucifixion link the Holy figures in the foreground with the common man – us.


Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1558), famous for relegating the fall to a scarcely noticed event in the background

We also analysed Lucas Cranach’s (1472 – 1553) Venus and Cupid (1531),and Pieter Breughel’s (1527/28? – 1569) The Fall of Icarus* (1560’s?), The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1652), and his Winter landscape with Skaters and Bird-trap.

After a quick snack in the Museum restaurant, I hastened to the Museum of Musical Instruments. This museum is very well laid out, with different sections allocated to the various instrumental “families”: strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and keyboard instruments. Headsets, which could be plugged into sockets on the display cases, allowed one to listen to recordings of the various instruments on display. I found this not as effective as the excellent museum of musical instruments on the outskirts of Paris, in the Parc de la Villette. Here simply walking past certain displays triggers music and commentaries (in one’s own language) through the visitors’ infrared headsets. The Belgian museum was once a department store (designed in 1899) in a building called Old England, a striking showpiece of Art Nouveau architecture. It was begun during the 19th century, and now, after many donations, boasts more than 6000 pieces, from medieval times to the present day.

All roads in Brussels, it would seem, lead to the Grand Place – the geographical, historical and commercial heart of the city. This is the tourists’ first rendezvous, and still the civic centre. It is surrounded by fine examples of Belgium’s decorative architecture, dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Open-air markets took place here as early as the 11th century, and still do.

The magnificently elaborate town hall, which dates from 1449, was once surrounded by highly ornate guild houses in a medley of styles. But after bombardment from French forces in 1695, the guilds were encouraged to rebuild their halls in a style approved by the Town Council, resulting in the harmonious unity of Flemish Baroque that can be seen there today.

Here I was jostled by crowds of elbowing tourists and gypsy beggars (and pickpockets), and experienced an aural assault of multilingual cacophony, while enjoying the ambrosial scents of Belgian fare: chocolate, vanilla, and freshly griddled waffles.

200px-Bruxelles_Manneken_PisOf course I had to make a pilgrimage to the iconic symbol of Brussels – the Manneken Pis. That Sunday afternoon I found the poor little fellow clad in a ghastly black suit, with bow-tie, and sporting a false moustache. The nearby chocolate shops sold boxes of images of this little figure, and were crowded to capacity with Oriental tourists. This cupid-like character is apparently based upon the 12th century son of a duke who was caught urinating against a tree in the midst of a pitched battle, and was thus commemorated in bronze as a symbol of military courage.

The many narrow streets leading off the Square are filled with dozens of shops selling the typical Belgian products: beautiful, gossamer-fine hand-made lace, chocolates and cartoon books, and were jam-packed with Sunday afternoon visitors. Whilst the other cities we visited spoke predominantly Flemish, Brussels is more a Francophile environment.

In danger of succumbing to a succulent waffle for lunch, I instead availed myself of the healthy buffet offerings of EXK – “natural fresh and ready”: soups, salads, fruits juices, breads and cakes (cheese, chocolate and rhubarb.)

There was no more time to explore this fascinating city further, and, regretting not seeing some of the many beautiful churches and gardens, I made my way to one of the city’s two airports, and thence back home to Stockholm.

But there is much more to be seen here, and to look forward to, in another trip to this once-flourishing artistic and musical centre of Europe.

* WH AUDEN’S poem inspired by Breughel’s painting, The Fall of Icarus

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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This article was first published in

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