In the heart of Ghent stands Saint Nicholas Church, one of the oldest churches in the city. With the Belfort tower and St Bavo cathedral tower, St Nicholas tower dominates the medieval centre of the city. The church belonged to the powerful traders of Ghent, who did their business in the nearby harbour. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of traders.
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."