Going to see processions might be an unlikely travel tip. However, if you want to get to know the ‘real’ culture of Belgium, it’s not enough to eat chocolate and drink beer. No matter how secularised Belgian society might seem today, religion still plays an important, albeit somewhat hidden, role. Alright, I’ll be completely honest, at the ‘kermesse’ following these processions we do drink a lot of beer, and eat fries, and drink some more, and eat some chocolate…
A few weeks ago on 10 May I went to see the Hanswijk procession in the city of Mechlin (Mechelen in Dutch or Malines in French). The Hanswijk procession, or Procession in the honour of Our-Lady-of-Hanswijk, is reported to be the eldest procession in Belgium, dating from the 13th century.
Its origins lie in the devotion for a statue of the Virgin Mary, which supposedly ‘chose’ to stay in Mechlin around the year 988. Although the devotion itself for Our-Lady-of-Hanswijk – as it was subsequently called – started much earlier, the processions with certainty started around 1272 and are still going out every year on the Sunday before the Feast of the Ascension . Every 25 years there is a jubilee year, in which the Ommegang is also celebrated. The last one was held in 2013, with king Philip as an honoured guest, so you will have to wait another 23 years to see that again!
The devotion for the Virgin in the form of various miraculous images or statues frequently shows striking similarities. A good example of this is for instance the statue of Our-Lady-of-Scherpenheuvel (or Montaigu in French) which hung inside an oak, and which played an important political role against the backdrop of the religious troubles of the 16th century. Miraculous healings in Scherpenheuvel were frequently reported around the turn of the 17th century and were quickly picked up by the catholic rulers in their attempt to fight back Protestantism. The same connection between the Virgin and an oak tree was made in the village of – what was later to be called – Foy-Notre-Dame. A statue of the Virgin was found inside an oak tree by a carpenter in 1609. There too a lively pilgrimage culture emerged, as like in Scherpenheuvel. In the case of Mechlin, the statue of the Virgin was linked to the river Dijle, an important river for the city’s trade network. Although you wouldn’t guess it today, Mechlin was actually an important harbour city. That a miraculous statue was brought to Mechlin in a boat is thus not surprising.
The Basilica of Hanswijk is a builing dating from the 17th century, it was designed by the well-known sculptor-turned-architect Lucas Faydherbe. His presence is felt in almost every church in Mechlin. The Basilica is also well worth a visit.
The procession itself departs from the city centre, in the Keizerstraat, and ends at the Basilica. It consists of several representations – or “tableaux vivants” – of scenes in the Old as well as the New Testament, followed by a folkloric depiction of the Burgundian and Habsburg courts (which had a strong connection to the city of Mechlin). There was one awkward moment when the tableau vivant recounting the birth of Christ showed Christ having an older brother. Or maybe the older boy was Christ, in which case he had a younger brother, or maybe the older boy was John the Baptist (who was decidedly not present at the birth of Christ) and the younger child was Christ, or…
Towards the end of the procession the shrine with the relics of Saint-Rumbold, an Irish or Scottish saint who was martyred near Mechlin, was prominently carried through the streets of Mechlin.
Finally the most important element of the procession, the Monstrance holding the Eucharist, was carried beneath a canopy of state, heralding the end of the procession.
All in all, this is a notable event and well worth a visit, although it’s not the best known procession in Belgium. Other processions that are a must-see for tourists or for people possibly staying a bit longer (I’m looking at you expats!) are:
- Easter Monday each year: the Horse procession of Hakendover dating from Medieval times. In the small village of Hakendover near the city of Tienen thousands of people witness this spectacular event when hundreds of horses gallop through a field to be blessed.
- Feast of the Ascension, every year (next on on 5 May 2016): The Holy Blood procession in Bruges, since 2009 UNESCO World Heritage, in which the relics of the Holy Blood of Christ are venerated. Unfortunately it was cancelled this year due to bad weather. Admittedly, if we were to count all the relics of Christ circulating on the planet, our Saviour would have at least 24 heads and 37 liters of blood. That being said, the blood in Bruges is authentic, of course it is, it’s Belgian.
- Feast of the Holy Trinity, this year on Sunday 31 May (Oops! Just missed this one!): The ‘Doudou’ or Procession du Car d’Or in the city of Mons, this year’s cultural capital of Europe. It involves a golden chariot being pushed up a hill and people fighting dragons. Need I say more?
- 31 May 2020, every ten years: the Ros Beiaard in Dendermonde, featuring one of the most challenging conditions, namely to find four brothers to play the ‘Heemskinderen’. UNESCO World Heritage. The poor kids can hardly walk after the procession, but hey, they will be honoured for the rest of their lives… You’ll have to wait another five years for this one, but if by chance you travel to Belgium in 2020, make sure you see it 😉
- Sunday on or after the Feast of Saint-Peter and Saint-Paul (June 29): the Fisherman’s procession and the Blessing of the Sea in Ostend. As usual the city of Ostend apparently does not consider this a tourist event, so I haven’t been able to find a website. But trust me, it exists.
- 26 July 2015: The Penitential Procession in Veurne. This is a procession dating from the 17th century, with very severe and typically counter reformatory elements (their website unfortunately is a complete mess), like people dressed as Capuchin monks (no these are not members of the Ku Klux Clan). If you want to feel thoroughly depressed, but very pious, go and see it!
- August 2017, every seven years: the ‘Virga Jesse Ommegang’ in the city of Hasselt in the province of Limburg. Strictly speaking ‘Virga Jesse’ means ‘branch of the Tree of Jesse‘, so it does not refer to the Virgin herself, although a 14th century statue of the Virgin (the Virga Jesse Virgin) does play the starring role in the procession.
- From May to October, every year: Les Marches de l’Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse (south of the city of Charleroi). UNESCO World Heritage. 15 different processions in honour of various saints form this ensemble of Les Marches. They have a striking military character, with several thousand Marcheurs in Napoleonic uniforms protecting their saint against ‘thieves and robbers’.
- Sunday after All Saints Day, each year: the Candle Procession of Scherpenheuvel, in honour of Our-Lady of-Scherpenheuvel. This is one of many processions originating in the recurring plague epidemics. Since the Virgin protected the city of Scherpenheuvel against the plague in the 17th century, it was decided a procession should go out every year to thank her.
Now these are just a few (!) of all the processions going out in Belgium. There are many, many more, since almost every little hamlet in Belgium boasts its own procession, and of course, a ‘kermesse’ to celebrate. If you want a procession on this list, let me know in the comments and I’ll list it. If you’ve ever been to one, let me know what you thought about it!