Friday, April 29, 2016

Belgium Part 3 - Time Traveling to Ghent and Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

I had a good post written for this, one that I spent a lot of time on, but it disappeared, and though I've tried to rewrite some of it, it just isn't the same. My disappointment is such that I don't want to write any more posts. But I will. But I won't check for typos here. I won't.

On the third day we went to Ghent. I had never been, though I expected great things. Ghent is a well-preserved medieval city that has recently seen an infusion of restoration funds. Well worth the expense, let me tell you. The main sites were built in the 13th century before the European Enlightenment and during a time when people of Europe believed in dragons. (But what if there were dragons and they became extinct because knights were always slaying them? They used to have lions in Europe, you know!)

St. Michael's Church

The belfry

I guess they renamed Book Street to Facebook Street. Groan.

Not so old post office.

The Middle Ages were dark times for Western civilization. Europe was wallowing in religious superstition, deadly plagues, and little technological or scientific advancement while the Islamic world was flourishing in mathematics, science, medicine, technology, and literature, that is, until the Mongols destroyed the Middle East, effects we still feel today. The Crusades changed Europe’s fortunes, as soldiers were exposed to new places and new ideas. Blah blah, something about the Crusades destroying feudalism because the feudal lords fought and died, leaving their serfs free to start new lives, and returning soldiers brought back new goods to sell, ushering in a new economic system that we'd come to know as mercantilism, point being the European Enlightenment couldn’t have happened without the Crusades. I'm not going to rewrite this textbook stuff. By the thirteenth century Europe began to emerge from the darkness, and Ghent became one of the most important cities on the continent. The belfry, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, and St. Nicholas Church are some of the buildings that date back to then.

The belfry we'd go up

St. Nicholas

The stairway up the belfry...we only had to walk 55 steps to an elevator. I would have done the full staircase if not for Chris!
Gargoyle view

Theater from above


View of St. Nicholas

This is how narrow the walkway is

Gravensteen Castle in the distance

The bell room

The bell chimes. We waited until the clock struck 1pm to watch it play.

Clearly not the original clock

Rocks for weights

This dragon used to be at the top. Medieval Europeans believed in dragons.

Theater from below

Belfry from the ground
When you're walking beneath blue skies, camera in hand, dodging trams instead of bullets, it can be hard to believe that these buildings have survived Europe’s multiple suicide attempts (with apologies to Kurt Vonnegut) or that World War II was anything but a subject of Hollywood movies. The chapters of Europe's history books are divided by the war of the time, each more brutal than the one before it, the last nearly destroying it entirely. It didn't, though. There's something to be said for the resilience of human beings, taking themselves to the brink time and time again, only to come back renewed and ready to try again for peace. That's us common folk keeping the species alive. If not for us, the feudal lords of wealth and power would have destroyed themselves long ago. But with each passing generation, it seems a little more humanity is lost, and one has to wonder how much time is left before the last drop tumbles to this fragile little rock we live on and we cease being anything other than flesh and bone and cold steel set securely in our hands.

Juxtaposition of modern tram line and 700 year old castle.

Moreover, Europe has successfully fended off American attempts to export its wasteful mentality, where you tear buildings down so quickly that one generation’s town is not recognizable to the next. I suppose that's a kind of war, too, but I don't think it's better. Europeans adapt. They run tram lines down streets so narrow our American vehicles could not fit. We tear down our buildings and change the names of things and lose our identities in the process. It's a spiritual crisis. I'm not talking about the kind of "spiritual" that religious people think they have. I'm talking about the core of our humanity, the compassion and suffering and all the things that make us human, our essence of being. When psychopaths shoot up movie theaters and schools, when suburban teens are dying from a heroin epidemic, when people are arming themselves for fear of the boogeyman, that's a societal illness. These are all symptoms of a greater disease. We've let them become normal. We're going to die if we leave it untreated.

This has been a bar for 700 years.

Clearly the chairs are not 700 years old. But the person who designed them may have had 700 year old eyes.
 Although our American history is wrought with some of the worst things human beings can do to each other, we also have managed some of the best. The American experience is different for each group that came - willingly or unwillingly (largely unwillingly, yes, white people included) - to participate. Each one of us, whether our ancestors came from Europe, Africa, the Muslim World, Asia, or even Native Americans, whose ancestors also migrated to this land, albeit at a much earlier time, find ourselves experiencing something very different than what the people of the old lands experience. We don't have 13th century buildings or Roman ruins or a thousand year old Hindi temples or dozens of generations that have lived in the same place looking at the same things and developing strong identities. That doesn't mean we have to constantly tear down what we have built. It doesn't mean we have to change the names of things that are a part of our history. It doesn't mean we have to experience neo-feudalism (yes, a bank actually owns your house, and your mortgage is just a form of rent) to find ourselves. We are experiencing an identity crisis. Americans don't know who they are and how can they? They've torn down our childhood memories, those which made us us, and replaced them with something we don't recognize, and when we finally get to know that, they tear it down, too. No wonder everyone's running around afraid of everything. 

Inside St. Nicholas's been here for 700 years.
Ghent was largely spared during World War II, but it does have a significant place in its history. One of the highlights of the city is the Altarpiece of Ghent in St. Bavos Cathedral that Americans know from the Clooney movie The Monuments Men. It had been taken by the Nazis as so much European art was, but this wasn’t any ordinary piece. This was the painting Hitler wanted above all else because he believed it was the key to him winning WWII. 

If you’ve ever watched the History Channel (or as some of us call it, the Hitler Channel because half of their programming seems to be about him), you know that Hitler was fascinated by the occult. Well, he thought that the altarpiece contained a map that would lead him to the Holy Grail and other treasures of the Arma Cristi, which would give him supernatural powers to take over the world. A lot of Nazi resources were dedicated to tracking down and taking the altarpiece (formally titled "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"), and a lot of lives were risked in trying to hide it from them.

The altarpiece is undergoing restoration but we were able to see most of it behind air conditioned glass, although several of the panels were located in another place (including the Adam and Eve panels you see in black and white.) One of the appeals is the use of bright colors, which was innovative at the time (most paintings of the Flemish and Dutch masters are so dark and dreary and the people look so unhappy and the children are like miniature adults which just makes them look creepy,) and it was the first painting to use primarily oil-based paints. While it didn’t inspire me to buy paints or go to mass, I found it fascinating because of its history. As one of the most famous and important works in history, it has been stolen a number of times, moved around all over Europe like something out of a Dan Brown story, and in a small way was responsible for World War II itself. After all, the Nazis started out as a fringe occult fraternity before growing into a political movement. That stuff is so weird. So. Weird.

Unfortunately, we could not take photos of the altarpiece or of the cathedral itself, though I did steal a couple. Here is the altarpiece from the internet followed by my stolen photos that are crooked because I couldn't hold the camera to my eye.

And finally, some pics of Graslei part of Ghent. This city was truly a gem.

St. Michael's Church

No comments:

Post a Comment