The church was dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myre (now in Turkey), the patron saint of merchants and sailors. The construction of the church began about 1200 and lasted for about two centuries, displaying an exemplary regional style called Scheldt Gothic (named after the nearby river) in one variation or another. The interiors were eventually gutted, and a Baroque style was utilized in the interior spaces and the west gateway to the Korenmarkt up until about 1681.
The church fell into disrepair for ages and campaigns to restore the building have had moderate degrees of success. Currently there are still parts of the church undergoing repairs, namely the nave. The interior is relatively quiet and not too crowded with tourists, a perfect place for meditation or just quiet appreciation of the ecclesiastical architecture. There are several interesting exterior views of the “back” end of the church, the east end towards the Belfort. If you climb to the top of the Belfort, there is a postcard-type shot of St. Nicholas for you to marvel at.
St. Nicholas Church faces the Korenmarkt (Cereal Market), a busy area with cafes, tram traffic, and shoppers on the go. On the other side, the facade of the Masons’ Guild Hall stands out. The building dates from the 16th Century, but the eyes are drawn to the six dynamic figures delicately perched atop the recently renovated facade. The figures were created by Walter de Buck, a versatile local who is a sculptor and folk singer. The elevation also features a relief of the Maid of Ghent and the lion, a pair that is a recurring symbol of Ghent.
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From journal Bill in Belgium - GHENT
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October 26, 2003
An older church stood here until the 12th century, when it burned down. Because of their growing wealth, the citizens of Ghent were able to build a new and much bigger church. The present-day St Nicholas dates from between 1220 and 1250. In the 14th century, they stabilised the tower, which required enlarging the church.
The tower had a brief spell of glory as belfry and watchtower until the real belfry was ready. Functioning as treasury and watchtower, it represented the real power in the city.
The style of Saint Nicholas is the so-called "Scheldt Gothic Style." It differs from the later Brabantine Gothic Style because of the use of the blue-grey stone from the Tournai area. The city of Tournai with its stone quarries in southern Belgium lies at the river Scheldt. In the Middle Ages, other cities at the river, such as Ghent, received stone from Tournai by water shipments. Also typical for this style is that the main tower stands above the crossing of the church, instead of above the western entrance, the latter being more typical for the Brabantine Gothic Style.
The church did not survive the centuries without damages. In 1566, during the Iconoclasm, a group of Protestants destroyed the Gothic decorations because they no longer believed in worshipping statues and paintings. During the French Revolution, when the French revolutionary army attacked Ghent, they used the Saint Nicholas church as a stable. After many discussions, restoring the church started in the 19th century. The building looked like a ruin and nobody was sure what the church originally looked like. This reconstruction continues today, but the Saint Nicholas church now once again counts among the most impressive monuments of Ghent. It however lacks the rich endowments of artwork owned by many other Belgian churches and cathedrals.
In studying a leaflet available in the church I came across these words, which describe the church better than I can.
"When you enter through the side door you are in a space of rich symbolism:
High walls and vaults, arches and domes draw our attention upwards.
The beautiful floor and raised altar keep our gaze on the earth.
The windows admit the natural light abundantly and at the same time are a look-out to the outside world.
The church has been built facing the east, because of the rising sun, symbol of Christ: in this position you will find the sanctuary.
On the right hand side in one of the chapels is the baptismal font, source of new life.
In the left-hand chapels the statues of our Lady and St. Nicholas signify the invisible Church, the communion of saints."
From journal Ghent – showcase of Flemish Wealth & Architecture
March 22, 2001
From journal A day with a monk in Ghent