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 😉


Travel Tip: Processions in Belgium

Hanswijk procession in Mechlin

The procession in honour of Our-Lady-of-Hanswijk in Mechlin


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.


Hanswijk Procession

Heralding the start of the procession. Blue and white: the colours of the Virgin.


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.


Hanswijk Procession

The boat that carried the miraculous statue of the Virgin to the city of Mechlin


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.


Hanswijk Procession

Model of the Basilica of Hanswijk


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…


Hanswijk Procession

Those retched Romans…


Hanswijk Procession

And of course Margaret of Austria was also present.


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.

Hanswijk Procession

The shrine of Saint-Rumbold


Hanswijk Procession

The statue of Our-Lady-of-Hanswijk


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.


Hanswijk Procession

The monstrance


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!