Mechelen is a small and picturesque city that is big on charm and history, thriving with quaint shops, car-free areas and pleasant little squares. The grace of centuries-old palaces and majestic churches appeals to everyone. There are no less than 336 listed buildings and monuments, including eight gothic and baroque churches from the 14th-17thcentury. The Begijnhofkerk is especially unique, with its feminine art schemes and pastel colours. Mechelen is a city for all ages. Young people can actively enjoy themselves in the Toy Museum or the Tivoli Children’s Farm, whereas the young at heart can entertain themselves at the Anker, one of the oldest operating breweries in Belgium. Students from all over the world come to learn to play church bells at Mechelen’s carillon school. Sitting outside on the terrace of a cafe sipping a local beer while listening to the bell music coming from the sky is nothing short of delightful. It is also home to one of the last remaining places in the world that restores and repairs antique tapestries, at Royal Manufacturers De Wit.
SAINT RUMBOLD’S CATHEDRAL
St Rumbold’s Cathedral was built in the thirteenth century. From the outset it was larger and more impressive than all the other parish churches and later on it became ‘the church of the archbishops’. Originally there was a triple-nave cruciform church on the site of the vast cathedral. Only after a series of building campaigns did the church become our city’s star attraction. In the religious wars in the sixteenth century the church took some hard knocks. Much of the old interior was lost to iconoclasms and plundering. Calvinist rule at the end of that century removed all references to Catholic worship. But the church had even more storms to weather. In the Second World War Mechelen was bombed and in 1972 a huge fire broke out. St Rumbold’s Cathedral withstood them all. The inside of the cathedral is breathtaking. You can admire Anthony van Dyck’s painting ‘Christ on the Cross’, along with works by (among others) Michel Coxcie, Gaspard de Crayer and Abraham Janssens. The real showpiece, however, has to be the high altar by Lucas Faydherbe which dates from 1665. It’s also possibile to rise up the tower and admire the fantastic panorama.
CHURCH OF OUR LADY-ACROSS-THE-DYLE
At the end of the steep street called ‘t Plein is the Church of Our Lady-across-the-Dyle. It was built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries on the site where Mechelen’s first parish church probably stood. The tower contains a complete carillon with no fewer than 49 bells. The Dyle church houses some wonderful art treasures. Rubens painted a work for this church just as he had done for St John’s. The fishmongers commissioned him to illustrate the wealth of their guild as they had done by building ‘De Grooten Zalm’ on the Zoutwerf. The large triptych entitled ‘The miraculous draught of fishes’ tells the story of the same name from the Bible. The fourteenth-century sculpture ‘Our Lady with the Crooked Hip’ is one of the glories of the church. It is the only free-standing sculpture in Mechelen from that period and it takes its name from Mary’s characteristic stance.
THE LARGE BEGUINAGE
Around 1560 the beguinage outside the city walls was destroyed. The beguines re-established themselves inside the city walls, where the Large Beguinage grew up. They bought up existing buildings and built new dwellings, which explains why the Large Beguinage is rather different in character from beguinages in other cities. Because of its typical Flemish character and unique architecture, the Large Beguinage was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The little houses are listed. Kindly respect the privacy of the residents as you stroll along the quiet, picturesque streets of the beguinages. Beguinages were small towns within a town. They had their own bakery, brewery, nursing home, church and bleaching fields. Beguinages were founded in the time of the crusades. Many of the men who left on a crusade never returned, which resulted in a surplus of women: widows, orphans and women who failed to find a suitable husband. Going and living in a convent was one solution, but many convents only took aristocratic or well-to-do women. Women who didn’t enter a convent for whatever reason, went to live together and together were able to sustain themselves. The main difference with convents was that the beguines did not take the life-long vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. So they were not tied to the beguinage for life, though most did live out their life there. Initially the church treated them as heretics, but gradually they were accepted on condition that they led a devout life. This was how beguinages in Flanders originated. A beguinage was headed up by a Grand Mistress, who was assisted in the organization and coordination of daily life by mistresses. Rich, usually aristocratic beguines would build their own house or buy one in the beguinage. Less well-off beguines rented a room from these homeowners and took charge of the housekeeping. Beguines with no possessions were taken into small convents, usually founded by benefactors, to guarantee that prayers were said for the occupants or their deceased family member. Beguines in the convents had to work for their living, which is one reason lace-making became one of the most important activities in the seventeenth century. So the beguinage played a crucial role in Mechelen’s lace industry.
CHURCH OF OUR LADY OF HANSWIJK
This baroque pilgrimage church designed by Lucas Faydherbe was one of the first domed churches in the Low Countries. The dome was to have been even higher, but the substructure proved not to be sufficiently robust. Architect and church engaged in a bitter battle about additional reinforcements. Inside under the dome are two huge reliefs, also by Faydherbe, believed by everyone to be sandstone until the bombing raids in the Second World War. But sandstone would have been too heavy, so the resourceful Faydherbe had used gypsum. Only when the damaged reliefs were repaired did the deception come to light.At the front of the church is a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary which is carried in the annual Hanswijk procession. In 1985 the late Pope John Paul II prayed in this church, whose status was elevated to that of a basilica two years later. The Hanswijk Procession takes place on the Sunday before Assumption.
PALACE OF MARGARET OF AUSTRIA
Margaret of Austria was regent of the Habsburg Netherlands between 1507 and 1530. Her residential palace was the Hof van Savoye (Court of Savoy), the first renaissance building in the Low Countries. The renaissance spread from here. Note the magnificent renaissance frontage and the charming garden. From 1616 to 1796 the palace was home to the Great Council, the highest court of law in the Southern Netherlands. The façade still features Margaret’s coat of arms, alongside the coat of arms of Charles V and a figure of Lady Justice (Justitia). Today the building is the court of law. Margaret’s life was turbulent from the outset. She was given in marriage no fewer than three times. The French crown prince sent her back at the age of eleven because he found a better match. Then the Spanish heir to the throne Don Juan died a few months after they were married. And Philibert of Savoy, the love of her life, died after three years of wedded bliss. The twenty-fouryear-old Margaret dressed as a widow ever after and refused to remarry. Margaret was appointed regent of the Netherlands and settled in Mechelen in 1507. She took responsibility for raising (emperor) Charles and his sisters. According to her contemporaries, she ran the country with tack and foresight. One of her greatest successes was the ‘Ladies’ Peace of Cambrai’, which she engineered in 1529 through tough negotiation with Louise of Savoy, mother of the French king and sister of the late Philibert. In the meantime the arts and sciences flourished at Margaret’s court. Notable artists and philosophers stayed at the palace. Polyphonic music was the regent’s great passion. Her original gradual is preserved in Mechelen city archive and features on the list of ‘Flemish highlights’.
PALACE OF MARGARET OF YORK
Opposite Margaret of Austria’s palace you can see all that remains of Margaret of York’s palace. Originally the Bishop of Kamerrijk (Cambrai) resided in the building when he was in Mechelen. Margaret chose the vast Court of Kamerrijk as part of her settlement when she became a widow. It is also known as the imperial court because Charles V resided here from 1500 to 1515. Just above the little door in the tower is her diamond-shaped escutcheon, alongside that of her spouse, Charles the Bold. The former reception hall of the palace in now the City Theatre (Stadsschouwburg). King Edward IV of England offered his sister Margaret in marriage to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who had just been widowed. This arrangement suited Edward since it gave him a rich ally against France. Charles had a daughter from his previous marriage. Mary of Burgundy was just eleven years old when Margaret became her stepmother. The two got on very well together. Charles was killed on the battlefield and his daughter Mary succeeded him. She was nineteen, young and inexperienced and found herself up against the rich and assertive Flemish cities which were striving for greater independence. Margaret advised and assisted her but was a thorn in the eye of the cities. Margaret was banished from the court and moved to the estate she had inherited from her husband in Mechelen.
SAINT JOHN’S CHURCH
The parish where St John’s Church is located was one of the richest parishes in Mechelen because the members of the Great Council lived round about. The Great Council was the highest court of law in the Low Countries from the fifteenth century (first under the name Parliament of Mechelen) and it remained in existence until the French Revolution. Those elected to the Council had studied law at university and were appointed by the sovereign. So the parish was not short of money. This is reflected in the wealth of treasures housed in St John’s Church. Built in above the altar is Peter Paul Rubens’ famous baroque triptych. The beautifully executed panel in the middle depicts ‘The adoration of the three wise men’. Behind the side panels is a mechanism for turning the paintings at regular intervals so that all the scenes can be admired. The churchwardens’ benches are particularly noteworthy because of the exquisite woodcarving. This is where the wealthy sponsors of the parish sat. The richest members of the Great Council were also responsible for building on the Sacrament Chapel in 1548. The chapel is as big as the original chancel and houses the tomb of the man who commissioned it (Lambert de Briaerde, the then Chairman of the Great Council) and his wife.
CHURCH OF THE BEGUINAGE
The seventeenth-century Beguinage Church has a magnificent baroque façade, after the Italian example. At the time Mechelen’s beguines had capital and so were able to commission well-known architects. The plans were drawn up by the Jesuit Pieter Huyssens, but the actual work was overseen by Jacques Francart, who was from Brussels and was court architect to archdukes Albrecht and Isabella. The young Lucas Faydherbe from Mechelen can claim partial responsibility for the interior decoration.
Mechelen actually has three town halls: the old Schepenhuis, the Huis De Beyaert and the present-day town hall. Behind the latter you also have the brand-new administrative centre called the ‘Huis van de Mechelaar’. But to return to the present-day town hall on the Grote Markt, it consists of two parts: the cloth hall with unfinished belfry and the Palace of the Great Council. Why wasn’t the belfry ever finished? The cloth trade went into decline in the fourteenth century and there wasn’t the money to complete the building. For two hundred years the belfry was no more than a shell, until it was eventually provided with a temporary roof in the sixteenth century. Temporary? That roof is still there. The belfry is now a UNESCO world heritage site. On the right of the belfry you can see the oldest part of the town hall, the remains of the earlier cloth hall. On the left is the Palace of the Great Council. The Great Council? It never actually met here, because this wing was only completed in the twentieth century in accordance with the original sixteenth-century plans of the then leading architect Rombout Keldermans.
A massive and imposing building dating from the thirteenth century, Brussels Gate – or Brusselpoort – stands in the middle of the ring-road round Mechelen. Originally the gate was called ‘Overste Poort’ or ‘Superior Gate’ because it was the highest of the city’s twelve gates. At the time there was another gate called the ‘Brusselse Poort’, but it was demolished when the Nieuwe Steenweg (road) leading to Brussels was laid. At that point, the ‘Overste Poort’ was renamed. Over the years the building has served many different purposes. For example, at one time it was the studio of artist Alfred Ost. It has been the home of the Flemish theatre company Het Firmament since 2010. The Brussels Gate is not accessible to visitors.