While my semester abroad in western Europe is drawing to a close, there are still a few adventures left to be had!
As the title would lead you to believe, today’s adventures took us from our temporary home base in Bruges, Belgium to Ghent! Our primary goal was to have class at the Saint Bavo cathedral so that we could see the famed Ghent altarpiece, but thankfully I got to do and see a couple of other things in a city that seems well loved based on other travel blogs.
A Morning Walk through Bruges
After another peaceful breakfast in our hotel’s dining room, we set off for the bus that would take us to Ghent. Luckily, this required a walk through Bruges, passing by an area with more canals that I hadn’t gotten to see during our exploration yesterday.
Canals in Bruges
As we walked along the street at the water level, I had to pull my sweater a little closer, as the chill of winter is really starting to set in. As a result, the trees lining the canals are fading into oranges and yellows. Combined with an occasional church poking up through the leaves, it’s a gorgeously peaceful little walk. And if it wasn’t picturesque enough, a flock of swans in the canal seemed to think we had bread with us, and followed us in a little formation until we got to the bus.
Bruges charm, swans and all!
Getting to Ghent
Ghent is a super easy, short trip at just an hour’s bus ride southeast from Bruges. We got to and from Ghent with no issues.
Saint Bavo Cathedral
The only planned stop on our class agenda was to see the Ghent Altarpiece at the Saint Bavo Cathedral. Like most every European city’s cathedral so far, it was magnificent. Complete with a looming front tower, I had to break out my well honed “crane-my-neck-to-see-the-tower” skills in order to take it all in from my standing spot.
Saint Bavo cathedral, a tall one to be sure!
As far as Saint Bavo’s interior goes, it is pretty standard for a gothic-style catholic cathedral. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside. Its main draw is the Ghent Altarpiece. I’m not sure why, but our class has been buzzing with anticipation to see this altarpiece in particular, despite the many others we’ve seen, so we excitedly filed towards the Principle Chapel where it’s kept. The Ghent Altarpiece is another work that is under restoration at the moment, but we were still able to see it inside of a glass case and observe the restoration in progress.
This magnificent, 11.5 foot tall and 15 foot wide altarpiece was crafted by the Van Eyke brothers, and its considered their best work. As is typical of the other paintings we’ve studied by the Van Eyke family, it contains exquisite detail despite its massiveness. These details also add a mesmerizing layer of depth to the figures and scenes portrayed, and they are full of symbolic meaning to boot!
So let’s dive into all of that! (if you’d like to skip the analysis, scroll until the 'Lunch' subheading!)
Analyzing the Ghent Altarpiece
Like most altarpieces, different scenes are visible depending on whether the altarpiece is open or closed.
The first series of panels we observed was from the viewpoint of a closed altarpiece (the altarpiece is currently displayed open, but you can see the closed-form scenes by walking behind it).
No pics sadly, but at least our professor got us these paper models!
On the bottom left and right panels, the patron (who commissioned the altarpiece) and his wife are shown deep in prayer. They are unusually large and prominent when compared to other altarpieces in which patrons are painted into the scene. However, the patrons are in separate panels from the divine figures, such as angels and prophets, that appear in the upper panels. Such a placement may have been a way for the painters to avoid making the altarpiece sacrilegious (by implying humans are on the same level as the divine). The figures in the panels between the patrons are grisae, which means they are religious figures painted as sculptures. There are even niches painted behind them, furthering the illusion of crafted marble.
We discussed how this altarpiece was painted during a time when the superiority of painting versus sculpture to depict humans was being debated, so I guess Van Eyke decided: why not have both?
Next, we walked to the front for a look at the open panels:
Did I mention the model is double sided? An awesome souvenir, thanks Prof.!
In the upper center panel, there are three prominent figures. In the middle dressed in red is Jesus, with a golden monarchal crown as opposed to the commonly shown crown of thorns. Not only that, it is the strangest crown I’ve ever seen! It appears to be superimposed upon itself, giving Jesus and ethereal kind of authority. This could be Van Eyke’s way of communicating to the viewer that Jesus is both human and divine. To his right is Mary in blue, and John the baptist is on the left dressed in green. I was struck by the hyper-realism created from the detail that Van Eyke put into painting Mary’s wavy hair. The rest of her, however, is depicted less realistically but equally detail-rich and beautiful. The draperies on all three are just… iridescent! Like jewels, really. While I suspect that the red, blue, and green are symbolic, I am not sure what they could symbolize. Maybe they are the most eye-catching colors available. What do you think?
In the bottom panels, four groups are approaching the sacrificial lamb, who is on the altar in the very center panel. The people appear to be a mix of pilgrims and scholars/clerics, gathered around a baptismal font (symbolic? probably).
The lamb has blood pouring out of it like a spigot, but it appears calm despite being mortally wounded. This is a direct reference to Jesus, as the Bible describes him as ‘the lamb of God’. Above him in a ring of light is a dove, almost certainly a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. With the Son and the Holy Spirit, I was left wondering, where is the Father? Then, I started to wonder if the Jesus in the top panel may represent God in the context of the lower panel? It’s unlikely, but if this were the case, I would be dazzled by Van Eyke’s cleverness.
Adam and Eve’s figures on the upper left and right panels provide the most fascination for art historians, as there is so much that can be taken from their depiction here. The first observation of the pair that I could gather here was their shame. They are covering themselves and their eyes are downcast, yet they are looking towards God/Jesus with hesitant hope, so much emotion conveyed in this little section of the altarpiece! I’d go so far as to say that Van Eyke is the Donatello of painting. For the most part, Adam and Eve are portrayed with realistic features and proportions. Something that is not so natural, however, is that Eve is holding a lemon. Why? It’s usually an apple or pomegranate! Well, since this is my analysis, I’m going to guess that it’s… symbolism!! I think that the lemon is allegorical for the bitter reality of her situation as a result of the decision that she made according to the story.
Note: after reading this notebook entry, my professor let me know that, while this theory is absolutely not correct, he appreciated the train of thought. A nice consolation I suppose, ehehe.
Lunch: a french fry surprise
By the time we left the Saint Bavo cathedral, it was far past lunchtime, and so my friends and I embarked on a search for the closest, most budget-friendly food. What we found first appeared to be a twist on Tex-mex food. I ended up ordering something resembling a mix between a quesadilla and a calzone, but imagine my surprise when I bit into the sandwich to find that it was filled with french fries! Overall: not bad, though it’s tricky to go wrong with cheese and fries.
Here’s the street where we searched for lunch, unfortunately I neglected to take a pic of the “calzone-fries-a-dilla”
Walkin’ in Ghent
After lunch, we had about an hour and a half of free time, and a quick internet search revealed that there was a medieval castle surrounded by an actual moat just two miles away. Since we’d done a lot of walking these past few days, my friends understandably opted to rest at a nearby cafe.
I was a little nervous to make the trip by myself due to my poor navigation skills, but figured it was better to see it than regret not trying, so I took off into the streets of Ghent! Despite the jitters of getting used to being by myself, I enjoyed the little journey. Taking me over bridges, along canals much wider than those in Bruges, and past the tall, narrow buildings topped with the spindly stair-stepped roofs that have become my favorite part of Belgium.
Belgium’s exterior architecture is probably my favorite in the world!
Finally, I made it to my destination, Gravensteen!
Gravensteen is the name of that aforementioned castle with a moat, otherwise known as the ‘Castle with the Counts’. The castle is especially medieval looking with its rounded towers and stepped-trim, but there’s also a few Belgian details such as those stair-stepping roofs mentioned before. The moat is provided by water from the nearby Lys river, which weaves throughout the city.
Yes, I did check the moat for crocodiles. They must be well hidden.
It’s honestly a little startling, one minute you’re walking down the street, and then BAM! The Gravensteen. I didn’t go inside because you need to reserve tickets in advance, but it really is a formidable sight, as if it was pulled directly from an Arthurian tale. After taking in the sights, it was time to head back.
I was happy that I made the trip, the walk was pleasant and the Gravensteen castle was definitely worth seeing in person.
Walkin’ in Ghent pt. 2
While wondering how to make my way back to the cathedral square, I spotted that ridiculously tall church spire in the distance, and was able to make my way back using that as a pinnacle. Needless to say, I was pretty pleased with myself for making that elementary deduction. And turns out, that path was less than a half hour for my starting point, riddle me that google maps!
On the way back, I took a detour through a small but crowded market where chunks of meat were hanging from the ceiling.
Cool little market, definitely would have made a good lunch spot
Our Last Night in Bruges
Normally, this is where I would end my post, but guess what, there’s more!
After arriving back in Bruges, we made a quick turn around between getting changed and going out to dinner as a class. The restaurant we were taken to was on the Market (Markt) Square, and very cozy with hearty wooden tables and friendly staff that asked us about our adventures in Belgium so far.
We had the choice between wine and beer. I picked the beer based on intuition. It was an extremely dark ale and it tasted like flowers!!! Legitimately, I have no clue how they made it taste that way but it is the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Also on the docket was a beef stew, and for desert, chocolate, of course!
What an amazing last meal to round out our time in Belgium.
Our class left the restaurant laughing, and talking, and enjoying Bruges’s Market square at night. It really is a beautiful city that’s left me with such a cozy feeling that I just know I’ll have to return someday.
Nighttime in Bruges’s Markt
After dinner, there was a roommate dance party, there was packing, and there was an early bedtime with the anticipation of our final class session in London the following day.
Belgium may have been my favorite country we’ve visited on this trip. That’s because it’s the perfect storm of delicious food and drinks, charming and cozy atmosphere, and lots of sights without being overwhelmed with coursework. Ghent was a fantastic day trip, and I’m glad we got to see a bigger Belgian city. It is lively, and I could envision another day or so could be well spent exploring all there is to see. The Ghent altarpiece was a majestic piece that was fun to pick apart, and I especially liked my mini solo adventure, the Gravensteen castle was awesome, the canals were beautiful, and I got a little confidence boost to boot!
Still, I feel the looming cloud of gloom that signifies that this incredible semester abroad is almost over. We have one final class in London, and I fly home the very next day. It will also be Halloween, and so while I’d love to do something in London, I am not sure how widely its celebrated. I suppose we’ll find out!
Until then, see ya!