The old collegiate church of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule shares with Mechelen the title of cathedral for the archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels. This “ship anchored in the heart of Brussels” is a superb building which is unusual for the combination of several different architectural styles, ranging from the Romanesque to the full splendor of 16C Gothic. The cathedral has been used for all major ceremonial events since 1312 when John II. Juke of Brabant, was buried here. In 1993, the funeral of King Baudouin I was held in this church and it was here that he married Dona Fabiola de Mora y Aragon on 15 December 1960. The cathedral was the scene of other royal marriages such as that if Prince Albert (now King Baudouin II) with Dona Paola Ruffo di Calabria in 1959 and of Prince Philip and Mathilde d’Udekem d’Acoz in December 1999.
The Name – In 1047, Count Lambert II founded a church on the Treurenberg hill and dedicated it to the archangel Michael (see The Brussels coat of arms below), who is not a local saint. Veneration for the archangel came originally from the Orient and spread northwards via Italy. It was prevalent in Flanders in the mid-8C. As to Gudula, she is a Carolingian saint who was born in Moorsel in Eastern Flanders. Her relics lay in the chapel dedicated to St Géry (see Quartier de la VILLE ANCIENNE) near the castrum built by Charles of France. Duke of Lower Lotharingia. Lambert II had the relics transferred to the Eglise Saint-Michel because, as Count of Leuven. He was hoping to retake the title of Duke of Lotharingia. In the end, it was Godfrey I who acquired the title, in the early 12C.
Detail of the western front of the Cathedral Saints-Michel-et-Gudule
The West Front – Visitors emerging from the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways around Grand-Place or Quartier de la Monnaie are always amazed to find themselves confronted by this huge stone construction, which has regained its original whiteness as a result of recent restoration. A superb monumental flight of steps (1860) leads up to the entrance to the building. Together they form a delightful parvis.The presence of two towers like those seen on French churches is exceptional because in Brabant architectural custom required a single tower to be placed to one side, in theory at least. Supported by powerful piers, the towers here date from the 15C. Jan van Ruysbroeck (early-15C to 1485), who designed the wonderful tower on the Town Hall. was undoubtedly involved in this building and was probably commissioned to design the spires, although he died before his task could be completed. At the foot of the towers are three doorways with ribbed arches. At gable height, there is a delicately traceried balustrade resembling fenestration. Topped by a tall window with Flamboyant Gothic tracery, the 15C central doorway is elegantly decorated with the Three Magi (Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar) on the central pillar whereas the tympanum contains six statues of the Apostles (19C). The remainder of the series can be seen to each side of the central doorway. This decoration undoubtedly has a great deal in common with the altarpieces, consisting of a central panel flanked by side panels.
The Interior – Entrance by the right door.
Visitors are immediately struck, walking towards the nave, by the austerity of the decoration despite the fact that the cathedral dates mainly from the Baroque period. The nave was completed in the 14C up to window level. Its enormous columns, topped with capitals decorated with crockets, are backed by statues of the Twelve Apostles carved in the 17C. These sculptures were the work of Luc Fayd’Herbe, Jérome Duquesnoy the Younger, J van Meldert and Tobie de Lelis (known as Tobias), some of the most brilliant artists of the century and all of them natives of Brussels. To the left are Simon the Zealot, Bartholomew, James the Less, John the Evangelist, Andrew and Peter: to the right, Thaddeus, Matthew, Philip. Thomas, James the Great and Paul. The pulpit (1699) is a masterpiece by Henri-Francois Verbruggen (1655-1724), a sculptor from Antwerp. It depicts Adam and Eve being chased out of the Garden of Eden and, on the top, the promise of Redemption illustrated by the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception on her crescent moon stamping on the head of the serpent. This piece of furniture is so audaciously decorated that it is an unfailing source of surprise; it was brought here from the church in the Jesuit convent of Saint-Michel in Leuven. The triforium and clerestory date from the 15C. The vaulting, which was completed in the early 16C, has some fine keystones, still with their original paintwork. On the west side, the stained-glass window depicting the Last Judgement (1528. J de Vriendt) is outstanding for its dazzling colours. The greens and blues are particularly deep and intense. The south aisle (14C) was built in the radiating style. The ribs in the vaulting are supported on engaged columns, whereas the Flamboyant Gothic north aisle (second half of the 15C) is unusual for its clusters of colonnettes. The aisle leads to the Romanesque remains uncovered during archeological digs beneath the nave in the 1980s. The visit below ground level gives an excellent idea of the original Early Romanesque church (c 1047-1150) with its two round towers flanking a massive projecting avant-corps or “Westbau” (second half of the 12C). The chancel is flanked by an ambulatory and is the oldest part of the present building. It was completed in 1280 in the Early Gothic style. The stained-glass windows by Nicolas Rombouts, who lived in Mechelen, a master glass-painter to the Court of Margaret of Austria, date from the 16C. The hexagonal Chapelle Maes (17C) which was built in line with the chancel was once used as the burial crypt for the family after which it is named. It houses the superb Passion Altarpiece, attributed to the French sculptor Jean Mone.
Above the north side of the ambulatory is the Flamboyant Gothic Chapelle du Saint-Sacrement (16C), embellished with Renaissance windows designed by J Haeck to sketches by Bernard van Orley. Others are by the painter Michel Coxie and the central window above the altar, representing the Glorification du Saint-Sacrement was the work of JB Capronnier. The chapel currently houses the Cathedral treasure. 0 It contains religious works of art, including an Anglo-Saxon reliquary-cross (c 1000). The fine sculpture of the Virgin and Child is attributed to the German sculptor Conrad Meit employed by Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. The Legend of St Gudule by Michel Coxcie, known as the Flemish Raphael, is also worthy of note.
To the right of the ambulatory is the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-la-Délivrance, built at the request of the Infanta Isabella in 1649. It too has magnificent stained-glass windows, this time by J De Labaer to sketches by Theodore van Thulden, one of Rubens’ pupils; they depict the main episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. At the back of the chapel is a black and white marble altar with an Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the centre. The work was by JB de Champaigne. Philippe de Champaigne’s nephew.
The Brussels coat of arms The coat of arms consists of a golden figure of St Michael slaying a black dragon on a red background. The shield is supported by two yellow lions. one of which is holding a banner bearing the coat of arms of Brabant and the other the city’s coat of arms. Brussels dates back some 1 000 years but its coat of arms was not designed until 25 March 1844 in accordance with a decree from King Leopold I. A statue of St Michael the archangel has, however, been on the top of the tower of the Town Hall since 1455. The saint has also featured on the town’s seal since 1229.Legend has it that Lambert II. Count of Leuven and Governor of Brussels (1041-63), was sentenced to death by his father. Henry I. for having kidnapped his father’s fiancée In order to escape his fate, Lambert II prayed to St Michael who enabled him to escape, altogether miraculously. The Count is then said to have proclaimed the archangel patron saint of the town.