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Bruges: the Jerusalem of the North

Off the beaten tourist track in the Venice of the North – Bruges – stands a small chapel, commonly known as the Jerusalem Church. Built by a rich Italian merchant family, the chapel is one of the city’s most enigmatic gems and might hold one of its most precious relics.

Philip Coppens


Bruges is often described as the Venice of the North, but one could make the argument that it could equally be labelled the Jerusalem of the North. It was definitely seen as such in the eyes of Guido Gezelle, one of Flanders’ most adored poets, and a man who was born and who died in that very city. Amongst the items he listed as to why he felt Bruges was so like Jerusalem, he identified a church commonly known as the Jerusalem Church, a rather unknown gem in Bruges’ collection of intricate churches.

For any visitor to Bruges, the Jerusalem Church is off the beaten track. Visitor attraction wise, it is merged with the Lace Museum, making it hard to figure out what part of the attraction is the – small – crowd puller. At first sight, there is little that would make the Jerusalem Church worth the visit. Also – and more correctly – known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was built in the 15th century by the Adornes family. To this day, it remains in private hands.
The Adornes were a rich Italian merchant family. The first Adornes, Oppicino, settled in Bruges, from Genoa and died here in 1307. Oppicino Adornes befriended the Count of Flanders, Guy of Dampierre. At the time, Bruges and Flanders as a whole were involved with fighting for independence from the French and the Count was at the very heart of these troubles, often imprisoned as a consequence. The most famous battle that occurred in this campaign was the Battle of the Golden Spurs, which was fought on July 11, 1302. Today, the date of the battle remains the official celebration day of Flanders, underlining the importance of the battle.
In 1300, the French king Philip IV, the man who would engineer the dissolution of the Knights Templar, appointed Jacques de Châtillon as governor of Flanders and took Guy of Dampierre hostage. In May of 1302, the citizens of Bruges killed every Frenchman that crossed their paths. With the momentum on their side, the Flemish troops continued their march south, with other forces joining them from Ghent and elsewhere, leading to a battle with the French troops on July 11, in which Flanders was victorious. Though a tremendous victory, Guy of Dampierre’s troubles were not over; he would die in prison in 1304.

In the early part of the 15th century, the Italian Renaissance brought great benefits to Bruges, which saw the arrival of Florentine bankers like the Portinari family, the local representatives of the powerful de Medici family. The Adornes prospered in their role of middlemen, as they traded in the wool from Scotland that arrived and which was enriched into the luxury products that were sold in the Italian cities. It is why Bruges became known as the Venice of the North, even though it was largely ruled by merchants from Florence, not Venice.
With its increase in wealth and the new breeze that was the Renaissance blowing over the city’s canals, the Adornes family decided upon the construction of a new chapel in front of their home, to replace a wooden chapel that had become derelict. A Papal Bull of Martinus V, dated May 12, 1427, detailed the pope’s consent.
Size-wise, the new construction would remain small: a nave with a central tomb, with a small crypt at ground level, with two steep stairs leading to the choir that was placed at a mezzanine level. It is separated from the rest of the chapel with a metal separation and two oak wooden little doors, that have been dated to 1484. Such two level chapels were quite common, as is in evidence in the Chapel of the Holy Blood, in the centre of town.

The exterior of the new chapel is dominated by an octagonal tower, which is topped with a Cross of Jerusalem, with on top the wheel and the palm of St Catherine, to commemorate the trip to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai that Anselm and his son undertook in 1470. The two turrets are crowned, one with the sun, the other with the moon, somewhat echoing the two different towers of Chartres cathedral, which also represent the sun and the moon.
Tradition has it that Jacob Adornes and Peter II (the former dying in 1465, the latter in 1464) also went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where the ground plan of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inspired them for the design of their family chapel in Bruges. However, whether it is or is not conform to the “real” Jerusalem Church remains the subject of intense speculation. The actual church in Jerusalem was devastated by fire in the 16th century and there are no sources available that could illuminate us about its construction.
The interior of the church is primarily a large open space, dominated by a mausoleum in the centre of the main space, behind which rises an altar surmounted by three gigantic crosses. Behind the altar is the crypt, at the back of which is a very low entrance into what is a representation of the Holy Sepulchre, in which the body of the dead Christ was placed. It is this feature – quite unique in Flanders and more in vogue in Mediterranean countries, thus betraying the country of origin of the Adornes family – that gave the church its name, whether or not its floor plan is conform to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Though not his creation, the church is mostly associated with Anselm Adornes, born in 1424 and the son of Peter II, who completed the building. The central mausoleum was created by the master mason Cornelis Thieleman and was made for him and his wife, Margaretha Van der Banck, who died in 1472. Anselm was friends with the Duke of Burgundy and spent much time abroad as the Duke’s emissary, especially with the Scottish King James III, for whom he began to work in 1472. Coincidentally – though some might argue perhaps not – his chapel in Bruges was constructed while one of James III’s closest Scotitsh aides, William Sinclair, was erecting the infamous Rosslyn Chapel.
It was also while in Scotland, in 1483, that Adornes was killed in a battle near the town of North Berwick. He was buried in Linlithgow, inside St Michael’s Church, but his heart was placed in a leaden box and brought back to Bruges, where it was placed next to his wife, inside the central mausoleum.

Decoration wise, the chapel has remarkable stained glass windows, which alas “only” date from the 16th century. They represent members of the family, each accompanied by their patron saint. The walls are graced with two triptychs from the 15th century: one is a Madonna with St Catherine and St Barbara, the other a Christ on the Cross with Jean de la Coste Adornes, his wife Catharina Metteneye and their sons and daughters.
Though it is often the small room in which the body of the dead Christ is placed that is believed to have earned it the name of Jerusalem Church, in truth, the entire interior of the church is rife with references to Jerusalem and the death of Christ. The main altar is weighed down by three enormous crosses, representing Golgotha. On the altar itself are depictions of skulls – Golgotha translates as Place of the Skull – as well as ladders, bones, whips, the crown of thorns, nails, hammers, even dice – as the Roman soldiers were said to have been gambling while the Lord was dying behind them on the Cross. The various instruments of the Passion have been depicted on the altar as if chaotically heaped together.
One final ingredient of this church is connected with the Crucifixion, though this object that was once in the Jerusalem Church, now resides in the Basilius Chapel, the lower level of the Chapel of the Holy Blood: it is another statue of the dead Christ, this time worked into a wooden open casket, created so that it can be carried. And carried it is, during the annual Procession of the Holy Blood, which treks through the streets of Bruges, replaying the legendary arrival of the Holy Blood relic in Bruges.
The artefact is exquisitely painted, illustrated with some of the instruments of the Crucifixion, specifically ladders, crosses and spears. On top of the “open coffin” sit three pelicans, which symbolise the suffering of Christ: the pelican was said to peck his own body open, in order to feed its children from its own body. It was meant to drive home the Christian teaching that Jesus Christ had died for Mankind. The pelican is also prominently on display in the Basilius Chapel, making the processional coffin quite at home there.

Finally, there is one very present image inside the Jerusalem Church: a coat of arms, though not of the Adornes family, but of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. It can be found once in the floor of the crypt, and twice on the altars: once in the nave, once in the crypt. It underlines a strong link between the family and an order far more interesting, but far less famous than the Knights Templar.
The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is a Catholic chivalric order of knighthood that traces its roots to Godfrey of Bouillon, the leader of the First Crusade that liberated Jerusalem in 1099. Of course, the crusades were organised so that Christians could visit the sites of Christ’s Passion and though Jerusalem would later once again “fall” into Muslim hands, it did not stop several generations of the Adornes family from making pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
The order is considered to be the oldest of the military orders of knighthood, given a charter by papal decree as early as 1099. It is also the fourth oldest order in the Catholic Church. As such, the order very much had first choice and it thus developed the practice of bestowing knighthood at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem itself. Even after the loss of Jerusalem, the order continued this practice.
The presence of the emblem of the order inside the Jerusalem Church is not a coincidence. Anselm Adornes was a member of the order; he was knighted in Jerusalem in 1470, on his pilgrimage there. Interestingly, Anselm was one of the chief supporters of Charles the Bold when he tried to organise a new crusade in 1473. Anselm’s support was either short-lived, or alternatively, we should perhaps see his new interest in Scotland as part of a larger plot. If so, it has so far passed below the historians’ radar.
Shortly after Anselm’s death in 1483, in 1489, Pope Innocent VIII suppressed the Order and ruled that it was to be merged with the Knights Hospitaller. However, in 1496, Pope Alexander VI reversed that decision and restored the Order of the Holy Sepulchre to its independent status. Alexander VI also decreed that the Order would no longer be governed by the office of a custodian and that the senior post of the order would henceforth be raised to the rank of Grand Master, reserving this title for himself and his successors.

The Adornes family therefore had a hand in many pies: local Bruges politics, Scottish interests, links with noble orders with ties to Jerusalem and, who knows, perhaps much more, for despite their local prominence, much of the Adornes family history remains obscure. Unexplained, for example, is a “treasure” of the Jerusalem Church: a silver cross, said to contain a piece of the wood of the True Cross. How the family would have gotten such a precious relic in its possession, is a good question. Why it is so little-known, or hardly worshipped at all, is an even bigger question. In fact, so little pomp and attention is given to this relic that one might almost conclude that its origins could not easily be explained and that it might perhaps be the real deal? Not necessarily that one could ever prove it is a piece of the real cross, but that some organisation strongly believed as much, and that only very few families were privileged enough to own such a relic. And it would explain why the Adornes family constructed a chapel that would have, as theme, the Holy Sepulchre and whose interior would be dominated by three gigantic crosses, the central one symbolising the True Cross.
Only the future will tell. For the moment, the chapel remains largely the obscure twin to the more illustrious Holy Blood Chapel in the centre of the city. In the much quieter St Anne quarter, the remains of Anselm and his wife lie facing Golgotha, while nearby lies the body of the dead Christ and a relic said to be of the True Cross. Though we could perhaps call it the Jerusalem of the North, somehow, the question needs to be asked whether some people back then were not shaping Bruges into a New Jerusalem.