Europe is blessed with the most amazing cathedrals, churches, and chapels, and nowhere in the world are there more beautiful churches than in Belgium. There are cities that have marvelous churches and abbeys, and while they may be close, for me, it's Belgium.
Belgium has been a very wealthy country for hundreds of years and that financial wherewithal has allowed the construction and reconstruction of her religious institutions. The amazing art found in the houses of worship is due in part to the "deep pockets" of wealthy parishioners and church leaders. The Church, quite corrupt at times, was given art treasures and other valuables as well as plain, old, everyday cash for "Indulgences." In effect, nobility and the wealthy bought their way into Heaven - or at least they tried. It would be interesting to know how many made it.
The wealth of Bruges, a city founded in the 9th century, came from trade and fabric manufacturing. By the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries money poured into Bruges and she became a financial center as well. The city was a cloth and fabric market for her own marvelous fabrics as well as a warehouse for cloth made all over the known world. All of Europe, the middle east, and the orient came to Bruges' doorstep, both through her port and also in overland trade into the Rhineland. Things declined in the !5th century as other larger ports were opened and eventually Bruges became the poorest of all Flemish cities. In the 19th century tourists discovered Bruges and the rest is history. Today, in the summer months, if you wait around one of the squares, you will probably meet half of your friends and all your enemies.
Bruges is said to be a Medieval city, but some dispute that because of all of the remodeling and renovations throughout the centuries. If that was true, they need to look at Germany and all of the cities that were rebuilt following WW II. But in the 13th century and forward for a few hundred years, Bruges was rich. Due to the wealth of the city during and after the Medieval era, Bruges was loaded with capital. Many made fortunes in the commercial trade and shipping; the nobility from land ownership and marriages had enormous wealth, bankers were very flush indeed, and the merchants of Bruges led very comfortable lives. Bruges had a 300+ year building spree. Great buildings were built including churches.
For the purposes of this story, I am concentrating on just two of the most important churches: the Basilica of the Holy Blood and the Church of Our Lady. They are famous for different reasons.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood is renown for one of the world's most famous relics - a vial containing a piece of cloth used to clean the blood from Christ after His crucifixion, and holding a drop of His blood. The relic is kept in a beautiful silver reliquary in the church and is available for personal veneration by the public. The relic is in a sealed vial which is, in turn, housed in a sealed rock crystal tube capped on both ends with crowns of gold and precious gems. For the veneration, the relic and a priest passing out blessings are on a raised dais specifically for the purpose. The faithful pause to touch or kiss the relic and receive a printed blessing from the Priest. The scene is touching.
The upper chapel itself is rather small. The background is very colorful with a vies of the Crucifixion uppermost and centered. A smaller chapel on the right has the reliquary and the veneration dais. The lower chapel of St Basil's is very plain, but has some interesting statues, which are also meaningful. The chapel is a 12th century stone construction and Romanesque in style. The Basilica is definitely on the "Do Not Miss" list.
The "Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk " (Church of Our Lady) is on the canal and a short walk for the "Grote Markt" and the "Burg." There is a small bridge over the canal that leads to the back of the church. Built from the 13th to 15th century, the spire is 396 feet tall and is visible from miles away.
Unlike the "Basilica of the Holy Blood," the "Church of Our Lady (which I have misidentified as the "Cathedral of Our Lady" in places) is anything but plain. The church is stunning in every way and is famous for a Carrara marble sculpture by Michelangelo. Known world-wide as the only piece of his work that left Italy during the artist's lifetime, the "Madonna and Child" is a marvelous example of the great artist's work.
The sculpture's setting is no less impressive with two sculptures on each side and a Painting above. I saw people who were moved to tears by the sculpture and its presence almost close enough to touch. Others just stand in awe.
The church is large, it's huge, but it has such majesty and splendor that I don't think that it can be experienced in any other way but in person. The "Madonna and Child" are certainly part of that emotion, but the rest of the church has no understated opulence. The splendor almost knocks the viewer over as one scene is more beautiful than the next. Tour group leaders seem to have difficulty keeping their groups together. Visitors just seem to wander off, in many ways oblivious to everything but where their eves are looking. The best story that I can tell is about the leader of a tour group who walked in the entrance with her group following. She got quite a distance away from the group because two guests had just barely passed through the entrance when they stopped - dead. For a few seconds no one else could get in. That would be my definition of "awestruck."
The included photographs of each church are identified by name and location.