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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.