Religious mysteries (and a hint of surrealism) in Belgium: the relics of the Blessed Idesbald

Engraving of the Blessed Idesbald

Good Blessed Idesbald, patron saint of fishermen, sailors and the Flemish coast

Consternation in the newspapers and a mayor speaking on national radio about the relics of a long dead saint: no, this is not the plot of a new Dan Brown mystery novel. This is something actually happening in Belgium right now.

So, what is this about? In the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Potterie church in Bruges the lead coffin of the locally venerated Blessed Idesbald was opened and scientifically examined. It was more or less expected to find the relics of this 12th century abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Duinen in Koksijde inside it. The thing is, research has now shown that these remains actually belong to somebody who died roughly between 1470 and 1623. Conclusion? These are not the relics of the Blessed Idesbald!

The scandal! The mockery as well, as a gloating mayor of Koksijde proudly announced on the radio that in Bruges, they had been worshipping the ‘wrong’ relics for centuries. Did I spot some old rivalry between the cities of Koksijde and Bruges? Could it be that it had long been a frustration of the good people of Koksijde that ‘their’ saint (actually Idesbald was only beatified, not canonized) was buried amid these arrogant folks from Bruges?

We can only guess at what sentiment inspired the mayor. Since relics, or at least the 17th century veneration of relics is within my research area (yes, I have a profound interest in dead people, as all historians do), I feel the need to explain a few things.

Firstly, it does not matter one bit that these relics are not ‘authentic’. On the website of Ter Duinen (unfortunately the full text is only given in Dutch, whereas information on the colloquium about this discovery amongst others is also given in English) it is stated that the discovery “raises questions about the centuries’ long devotion for these relics in Bruges”. It does not.

According to the catholic church, what Catholics worship when they pray to these relics, are not the relics in themselves. Even more, they shouldn’t even be ‘worshipping’ a saint anyway… A saint, or in this case, a ‘blessed’, is not god. The only ‘being’ a Catholic is allowed to worship is god. Hence, a saint is nothing more than a ‘conduit’. You actually expect or ask something from god and you invoke the ‘help’ of a saint to get it. Why would you do that? A saint is somebody that has received god’s special grace, a person that was recognised and touched by god, usually because that person lived a ‘saintly’ life, or was martyred, and often because miracles happened around his or her grave, relics, or alternatively, statue (remember what I said about statues in my previous post?). Because of this, these saints have a, let’s say, personal and privileged relation to god. This relation enables them to plead with god for the saviour of whomever is invoking their help.

Complicated isn’t it?

This means that it doesn’t matter what you pray to, as long as you invoke the saints’ help to reach god, who will ultimately decide if you get what you want or not. If you like to pray in front of a truly hideous neon coloured plastic statue of the Virgin, then that’s fine too. By the way, I have no special interest in Bruges, nor Koksijde, nor good old Idesbald. I only get annoyed at stupidities (this happens regularly by the way). In any case, purely religiously speaking, these nice people from Bruges can go ahead and worship ‘their’ – now completely mysterious – relics for another couple of centuries. God doesn’t care.

Now, historically speaking, what happened? Again, on the website of Ter Duinen, they are amazed at the discovery, since historical documents were adamant about the identification of these relics. How could they have been wrong? Call Dan Brown! There must be a catholic plot in here somewhere! The historical documents they are talking about are probably the 17th century reports about the first discovery of Idesbald’s relics in 1623 and the interest the Infanta Isabella took in them. Moreover, it seems that poor Idesbald was reinterred in Bruges in 1894, so I suppose there are a lot of reports documenting this event. Now, I cannot speak for the 19th century, but I can speak for the 17th.

You see, I work on archival documents a 17th century duchess left behind, and what do you know, she loved to collect relics! So I have several of these documents, usually from high ranking church officials (think bishops, even the pope himself in some cases) who all state that the particular relics the pious old duchess just bought for an insane amount of money are without doubt of a said saint, martyr, whatever. She was especially fond of her relics of the 11.000 Virgins, who never even existed. Just to say, it might not be the best idea to trust these documents? In defence of these (sometimes ridiculously pious, excuse my French) 17th century bishops: how would they know if these relics were authentic or not???

They usually did try very hard to find out the truth, but without modern technology, who was to say how old a body or a sack of bones actually were? To make matters worse, under church floors coffins were often stacked one atop of the other. After a few centuries, these coffins had all shifted, some coffins had long been decayed, making an identification almost impossible. If they had to rely on reports of even older periods identifying the exact burial place of an abbot dead for 400 years, all they could do at best, was guess, and hope, and rely on their faith. Now, I don’t know the circumstances of this case in detail, only what newspapers (not really known for their accuracy maybe?) have reported and what it says on the website of the Abbey of Ter Duinen. But I cannot believe that any historian would accept these “historical documents” at face value.

And then there were politics involved. 17th century politics were all about religion. These are the Low Countries, there is a war going on, in essence a war between Catholics and Protestants. The Infanta (or Archduchess) Isabella is ruling the Southern Netherlands (more or less nowadays Belgium only a lot bigger). She is the Infanta, meaning a princess of Spain, and an Archduchess of Austria, a Habsburg, a zealous Catholic, battling to recatholocize her territories, which are now caught up in one of the most devastating wars Europe has ever known: the Thirty Years’ War (and she is also one of my favourite people in history but that’s a detail). I cannot even begin to list all the relics they ‘found’ (Isabella herself had the largest collection of relics in the Low Countries), the bodies of martyrs they tried to ‘save’ from these heretics overrunning old Catholic territories. And along comes abbot Idesbald, and miraculous healings start to happen…

It took the church another 200 years to get Idesbald beatified, and then they never followed up on that to get him canonized. In essence, this is a locally venerated person, of which relics were supposedly found in the 17th century. Miracles started to happen only after the discovery of these 17th century relics. If these are the same relics that were later transported to Bruges to be reinterred in the church Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Potterie, and if miracles only happened around these relics, than it seems the people of Bruges have the right relics after all 😉 So, dear mayor of Koksijde, chill a little…

In any case, my little intervention is of course not directed at the scientists studying this corpse and the multitude of graves found in Koksijde some years ago. The scientific importance of this find cannot be underestimated. Investigations like this and the one that was reported in the newspapers a few days ago, are hugely important. Without thorough research like this, with the investment in time and money that this calls for, our understanding of our own past will remain fragmentary at best. So yeah for the scientists! And yeah for the investors!

And a big hooray for history of course 😉

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10 tips for visiting museums with children: part 2

I’m going to dive right into this, and continue with the next 5 tips!

 

  1. Take some toys with you

 

I’m probably stating the obvious when I say: never leave the house without a toy, a book or whatever else that makes your child happy. I could personally live in a museum, but every now and then everyone just needs to play.

If your child has a favourite doll or teddy bear, why not play a new game: “toy museum guide” 😉 Ask your son or daughter what Teddy, Barbie (or whatever) would like to see and suggest it explains things for it. It’s basically role playing, and I don’t know a lot of kids that don’t like role playing!

When you’ve finished visiting the museum, you can ask your child how Teddy felt about the visit. It’s an indirect, and probably easier, way for your offspring to communicate if it actually appreciated the visit. I’m not saying you will necessarily appreciate the answer 😉

 

  1. Don’t underestimate walking distances

 

Museums might not always be very large buildings, they will still mostly consist of several halls, which you will explore from every angle. Whichever way you look at it, in the end you will cover a much larger distance than you would expect.

Unfortunately, in many museums places to sit and rest are scarce. I sometimes wonder if the idea is to chase visitors through the building as quickly as possible. More people = more money. So if you get the chance to let your child have a rest, don’t hesitate.

 

  1. Museum visits are as great a challenge to your brain as a marathon is to your body

 

Yes, I do mean this. The amount of information you have to process in most museums is huge. Now as an adult, you are probably used to ‘information overloads’. From Facebook or Twitter, to Pinterest and TV and even the background noise at our jobs, we’ve learned to cope with too much impressions by ignoring half of what we hear or see.

But I don’t think children are capable of processing all these new experiences all at once. At least with our daughter M. we notice that too many people in a museum or too much information at once makes her nervous.

Two years ago we visited the old part of the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. M. absolutely refused to listen to anything I said, and instead walked up to the (by the way excellent) guide, instantly promoting her to surrogate mother and best friend of the moment.

Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgaria)

The old ‘City of the Tsars’ at Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria

 

 

We had the impression she couldn’t care less about the old fort and everything around it. That is until we boarded our bus again and she started drawing a chapel that we had visited, with a particular architectural feature. It had a horizontal red brick line in the middle of it which indicated from what level the chapel had been rebuilt. And so my daughter starts explaining her drawing to us, complete with details on the red line. We were baffled. She hardly spoke for two hours and mostly smiled to her newfound guide-friend, but she had grasped more than we’d thought anyway.

 

  1. Prolong the experience: make a travel diary or buy books

 

Point 8 actually brings me to this: try to have your children ‘translate’ their experiences. When M. was younger and she couldn’t write yet, she drew a lot. But now that she can write, we try to stimulate her to keep a record of what we do when we travel. This works just as well with museum visits. You can keep a special diary in which your children make a short summary of every museum they’ve visited or the things they’ve learned there.

M taking notes in her travel diary

M taking notes in her travel diary while visiting Kronborg Castle.

What we’ve also started doing a while ago, is allowing M. to take her own camera with her. Her grandmother gave her a VTech camera some years ago (no, this is not a sponsored post ;-)) and we take it with us almost everywhere we go now. If your child is not such a ‘writer’, this might be a good alternative.

M taking pictures with her VTech

M. taking pictures with her VTech camera in Tongeren, the oldest city of Belgium

A lot of museums have excellent storybooks or colouring books for children. When the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reopened, they published “Het grote Rijksmuseum voorleesboek”, for which several writers wrote a story focussing on the top pieces in the Rijksmuseum. It’s a wonderful storybook which brings to life many of their best-known paintings.

Usborne, the well-known publisher of children’s books, also has a great “Art sticker book”. We bought it in Dutch (the original is in English), but Usborne books are published in several languages and this sticker book for instance also exists in a French version.

 

  1. Remember: art = experience, not knowledge

 

I guess this is a tricky one. What I mean to say is this: if you want your child to appreciate art, teach it to look at a painting or sculpture, not to memorise who actually made it.

If you do insist on telling your child more about the artist, at least mention why that is important. Because honestly, for me personally art is more about feelings and impressions and historical context, than about the who, the when and the what.

The same thing could be said about architectural styles of churches or palaces. Although that does hit a bit closer to home – I am after all specialising in religious history and the nobility –  I don’t think I ever insisted on teaching M. the finer points of gothic architecture or renaissance gardens. I have on the other hand tried to teach her how she could ‘experience’ these buildings, for instance the need for certain architectural features in forts. In my previous post I mentioned we went to Kronborg Castle, and just walking through the casemates and looking at the impressive walls was enough to explain to her that Kronborg had an important military function as well.

 

I hope these 10 tips are helpful when you plan your next family trip to a museum. I’d love to hear your tips for travelling with kids!

10 tips for visiting museums with children: part 1

 

 

A lot of people comment on the fact that we take our daughter everywhere we go. She quickly turned into a mini-me-globetrotter, since we always felt there is just no truth in the idea that children don’t enjoy travelling.

The thing is, we never took it for granted that she was with us. We knew (and are still frequently reminded) that a child is not going to spend 4 hours in a museum unless it has something to do there as well. And then again, sometimes, despite all your preparations, things can still go terribly wrong. Right in front of Michelangelo’s David, your child might decide it’s had enough.

And that’s OK. “Never expect too much” has more or less become my motto over the years. Because every time I really did cherish unrealistic expectations, a museum visit quickly turned into a hellish nonsensical discussion with hysterical offspring.

Still, there are a few things I believe you can do to make the experience easier, more fun, and especially more relaxing.

 

The Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg

A photograph of the Hermitage in 2013

1. Always think about their basic needs: food, drink, toilet and play

 

OK, so this is a give-away. Truth is almost no parent I know ever leaves the house without a banana stashed away in an oversized handbag. Also, I don’t know any parent who actually believes a child that claims it doesn’t need to pee. The few times I actually let myself be persuaded, I came to regret it when the exact second I stepped into that one room in that one museum I had always wanted to see, she suddenly decided it was now time to go… You know what I’m talking about.

On a related note, I have to admit some museums are better at catering for the needs of their younger visitors than others. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more child-friendly than the British Museum in London.

 

2. Plan your visit: choose what you really want to see before you leave

 

Again, for most people probably a give-away. This is actually a lot more difficult than you might think. If you believe this is the only chance you will get in your life to visit the Louvre, The National Gallery or the Prado, you might be tempted to see as much as you can. My advice? Don’t.

Talk to your children to find out what they might want to see. Focus on one exhibition, one time period, one art style, whichever you prefer, but make clear and simple choices.

Two years ago we visited the Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg. My daughter was 5 years old. It was a guided tour, so we didn’t have a real choice in the halls we visited. Actually, we hardly saw more than a few of their top pieces and the ‘Belgian’ and ‘Dutch’ halls. But the Hermitage is fantastically huge, it’s overwhelming, even for an adult it is almost too much to grasp. So it turned out my daughter couldn’t take much more than what was offered anyway.

 

3. Always put yourself in your child’s position

 

I mean this quite literally. Does your child see what you see? This might be strange advice, but it is often taken for granted that children experience museums in the same way adults do. But the adults writing museum guides – even special guides for children – tend to forget children are smaller.

Try getting on your knees before a painting and check if your child actually sees the whole image. Chances are it doesn’t. In fact, the lighting in museums is such, that it offers visitors the best experience, but children can be really bothered by it.

When we visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, we noticed that the kids could only see the bottom half of the paintings. No wonder we saw a lot of disinterested children. They literally don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. So get on your knees, check, explain the painting/artwork to them and pick them up to show them.

 

4. Check out the special programmes for children

 

I’ll be brief about this point. Most museums have a special tour for children, often with a special museum guide or plan. These programmes help to make a museum visit more pleasant and easier to process. Children can go on a ‘treasure hunt’ throughout the museum, look for clues with which to solve some mystery, the options are endless. You can find an example of these children-friendly activities on the website of the Bozar in Brussels.

To be quite honest, we rarely use them. Not because I don’t think they are a good idea! It’s just that we’ve become so used to explaining things ourselves, that we don’t really have to rely on them.

 

5. Take a break!

 

Most museums will understand that the average human might not be capable of expertly judging thousands of artworks without the occasional pause. That’s why they have restaurants, or tearooms, or something else to cater to your culinary wishes of the moment. So give your kids a break. Who says you have to see everything in an hour and then leave for the next museum? Take your time. See a few halls, take a break, let your child play, run around if possible, and make sure you eat on time.

To be honest, I never quite understood the urge to visit as much as possible in a single day. I have a confession to make. I’ve been to Venice only once. We stayed there for 5 wonderfully long days, and no, I did not see the Academia. Shocked? Don’t be. I enjoyed every second in Venice, but instead of checking off a list of museums to see, I walked around the city in the evening, went to see a concert at night, took the time so savour the local cuisine and yes, I even fed the birds.

In my humble opinion, one museum is more than enough for one day. Make sure you take a break during your visit. My daughter survived a 4-hour visit to Castle Kronborg in Denmark just a few months ago. Yes, 4 hours. In which we took our time to see the rooms, play around, invent games, eat a wonderful soup and took plenty of silly pictures of it all.

 

Castle Kronborg-Holger The Dane

My daughter desperately trying to wake up Holger Danske!

 

I hope you found these helpfull. These are just the first 5 tips, expect the following 5 in my next post!