We recently returned from a week in Germany and Belgium – our first trip outside of Italy since October 2019.
We had planned a trip to Ghent, Belgium, on April 2020 to attend a major Van Eyck exhibit, centered around the recent restoration of his famous altarpiece. Obviously, that trip didn’t happen. The exhibit is gone now, but the restored altarpiece is still there. And since we had to get on a plane anyway, we decided to add a few other places to our itinerary.
We flew from Rome to Frankfurt, and on our first night stayed in the Schlosshotel Kronberg, built in 1889 by the dowager German Empress Victoria, the eldest daughter of England’s Queen Victoria and widow of the German Emperor Frederick. Despite its imposing appearance, this was actually a friendly, welcoming place, set in the middle of what is now a public park, with some fantastic art from the Empress’ collection in its public rooms.
The US military used the palace during the post-war American occupation – Eisenhower liked it so much he had a golf course put in. The golf course is still there.
The next day, we traveled to Burg Eltz, a castle whose oldest sections date from the 13th C. It’s notable for the fact that it’s been in the same family for nearly 800 years. At one point, three branches of the family co-owned the castle, and each branch developed its own residential areas – one reason for the sprawling architecture.
Of particular interest was a council chamber, where members of the various branches of the family could meet together to resolve disputes. Jester’s heads placed around the wall (somewhat difficult to see in the photo) symbolized that people could speak freely, since traditionally court fools were allowed to say anything. Above the door, a “Rose of Silence” reminded people that, just as in Las Vegas, anything said in that room stayed in that room, and was not to be repeated elsewhere – an early version of “free speech” that I had been totally unaware of previously.
We spent a couple of days in Trier, which was an important city in the later Roman Empire and was used as a base for a while by the Emperor Constantine. In the late Roman period, the city had a population of 40,000, making it one of the largest cities in the northwestern Roman Empire.
The city is filled with Roman ruins, the most famous of which is the Porta Nigra, one of the gates to the Roman city. The walls were originally built from local gray sandstone. The color darkened for unknown reasons (the local tourist guide says, unhelpfully, that it was due to “microorganisms”) – hence the name, which means “black gate.” After the fall of the western Roman Empire, local inhabitants used most of the stones for building their own structures – an early example of recycling. This gate survived because it was used as a refuge by an early saint, and later became part of a church. When Napoleon conquered the area, he ordered the destruction of the church, but also ordered that the original Roman gate be converted back to its original form.
Another Roman-era building is known as “Constantine’s basilica.” In Roman times, “basilica” was used to denote a large public space, not a church – although these days the building is, in fact, a Protestant church.
There is also a small museum featuring some outstanding 4th C frescoes. (Although they look like mosaics, they are actually frescoes painstakingly pieced together.)
Trier’s strategic location on the Moselle River meant that it remained an important market town throughout the medieval and early modern period. Its shopping areas are still active and lively.
Trier was ruled for many centuries by an Archbishop, and perhaps for that reason the city has a lot of churches.
The Cathedral, begun in the 4th C, is the oldest Christian church in Germany. Destroyed by the Franks and again by te Vikings, the present structure was finally completed in the 11th C. Despite the austere Romanesque lines of the exterior, most of the interior decoration of the cathedral is in the ornate Baroque deign of later centuries.
The cathedral is home to the Robe of Christ, a garment said to be the one that Jesus was wearing when he died, and that the Roman soldiers gambled for at the foot of the Cross. How the Robe got to Germany is not stated – presumably some of those Roman soldiers were posted later to the German frontier? As with most relics, you have to take it on faith.
The Robe is kept in a large chest and only exhibited on special occasions. The rest of the time, you can only view the chest through a grate, inside its own special room.
Somewhat unusually, the interior of the Cathedral is filled with monuments to Trier’s various bishops rather than the traditional saints. Each bishop seems to have tried to surpass his predecessor in the elaborateness of his design, although one guy did remember to include a version of the Grim Reaper in his funeral monument.
Next door to the cathedral is the church of Our Lady, begun in the 13th C, and one of the earliest Gothic cathedrals in Germany. The church suffered heavy damage during World War II, and while the frescoes of Christ and the Apostles were carefully restored, the stained glass in the windows were replaced with more modern designs.
The church of Saint Paulinus, built in the 18th C, is almost the definition of over-the-top Baroque.
The Archbishop of Trier was one of the historic Electors who selected the Holy Roman Emperor. Although the Electors selected candidates based solely on their merit, of course, the beauty and opulence of the Bishop’s Palace suggests that successful candidates made valuable “donations” to their supporters.
The private gardens of the palace are now a public park, though.
Trier was the birthplace of Sant’Emidio, who according to legend converted our city of Ascoli Piceno to Christianity and is now the patron saint of Ascoli. There are many references here in Ascoli to Emidio’s German origins (he is always depicted with blond hair). Sadly, we could find no references to Sant’Emidio in the modern German city.
There was, however, a small museum to the city’s other famous son, Karl Marx, located in the house where he spent most of his childhood. Wisely, the museum focuses on the continuing influence of Marx’s economic theories, rather than the failed 20th C political systems created in his name.
We have always enjoyed the wines of the Moselle Valley, which are hard to get in Italy, so as part of our tour, we scheduled a visit to the Selbach-Oster winery, whose wines we had enjoyed while we were living in the US.
We stopped at Bernkastel, which was pretty but a bit too touristy for our taste. The town of Kues on the other side of the river was the birthplace of Nicholas of Cusa (the Latinized name of his birthplace), a 15th C Catholic cardinal, Papal legate and philosopher, who first suggested that the earth was not a fixed object at the center of the universe, but a moving body.
We continued to the town of Zeltinger, which was convenient to the Selbach-Oster winery. Barbara and Johannes Selbach had graciously scheduled two tastings during what was normally their vacation – one in English for us and and another American couple, and another in Germany for a German-speaking group. They even added a few extra wines to the scheduled tasting. (Fortunately, the wines of the Moselle, in addition to being delicious, are relatively low in alcohol.) We ate dinner that evening at the restaurant associated with our hotel, where to our surprise the Selbachs provided not only much of the wine, but also some of the food (although whether it was the venison or the wild mushrooms we weren’t completely sure.)
One of the vineyards from which their wine is produced is called Sonnenuhr, after the sundial that before the invention of portable watches used to let vineyard workers know what time it was.
Our final stop in Germany was Aachen. We added Aachen to our itinerary as a convenient spot to drop off our rented car before entering Belgium. But it was quite a bit more interesting that we expected.
The Cathedral of Aachen was started by Charlemagne in 796, and its design was based on the church of San Vitale in Ravenna and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Charlemagne himself was buried there in 814.
The cathedral, which has always attracted a lot of visitors and was the site of the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperior until the 16th C, has been dramatically remodeled and expanded over the centuries. The oldest part of the interior, called the Palatine Chapel, features 19th C mosaics which were based on some of the older medieval designs. For those wondering why a pelican was used in a religious context, during the Middle Ages the pelican was often used as a symbol of Christ’s passion because it was believed that a mother pelican would feed their young with blood from her own breast when no other food was available.
There is also a Gothic-era chapel featuring magnificent stained glass windows.
Next door to the Cathedral was the Treasure House, which included hundreds of religious art works, many of which were originally created to house relics of various saints, which were highly prized in the Middle Ages. These days the reliquaries are of broader interest than the relics they were designed to house. Many were worked in silver, gold, or ivory, and decorated with precious gems, and represent an astonishing level of craftsmanship.
The existence of these highly sophisticated works of art, some dating back to the 10th and 11th Centuries, suggest that the social and economic system that created a demand for skilled artisans, as well as the trade networks that sourced the raw materials, wasn’t quite as primitive as the Dark Ages of popular imagination.
We also attended a special exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the journey of Albrecht Durer from Aachen to various cities in Holland and Belgium, including the cities of Ghent and Bruges, which we were about to visit. When we planned this itinerary, we had no idea that we were following in the footsteps of this illustrious German painter.
Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed inside the exhibition, but you can get a sense of what the exhibit was like here. Click on the link to see Durer’s remarkable etching of a walrus.
Ghent, today a charming small city, was one of the centers of the Flemish wool trade in the 15th C, and very prosperous. Like nearby Bruges, it is full of charming old houses and criss-crossed by canals. It has a large student population, which makes it a bit grittier than Bruges, and more of a real place than one created as a tourist illusion. We liked it.
The original impetus for this trip, planned for spring of 2020, was to visit a special exhibition of Van Eyck paintings, in connection with the restoration of Van Eyck’s magnificent altarpiece. The special exhibit is gone now, but Van Eyck’s masterpiece is still in the church of St. Bavo, where it has spent most of the past 600 years. Napoleon brought it to the Louvre, but after Waterloo it was returned to its original location. It was looted again by the Nazis, but rescued by the Monuments Men.
The altarpiece, completed in 1432, is an early oil painting which exhibits many of the features associated with the Italian Renaissance, which notionally began a few decades later. This is not really surprising. Ghent and the nearby Flemish cities of Bruges and Antwerp were centers for the wool trade in the 15th C, and Italian bankers resident in these cities provided much of the financing for this trade. Both the Italians and the Flemish were very interested in the pictorial arts, and many paintings traveled back and forth between the regions. (An early oil painting by Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes caused a sensation when it arrived in Florence later in the century, at a time when Italian painters were still using egg-based tempera paints rather than oils.)
The Van Eyck altarpiece is a symbolic representation of the sacrifice of Jesus, with the sacrificial Lamb of God surrounded by contemporary notables and clerics in 15th C garb. Other panel of the altarpiece depict God the Father, Mary the mother of Jesus, St. John the Baptist, heavenly angels playing musical instruments, and Adam and Eve, whose original sin is being atoned for under Christian doctrine.
Before seeing the work, we took advantage of an “augmented reality” introduction (basically an audioguide with holographs) which explained the work and pointed out its key features. This provided a way of navigating the work, which is very large and can be a bit overwhelming.
One aspect of the recent restoration which generated some controversy was the face of the Lamb, which was disturbingly lifelike. The restorers, using modern X-ray and infrared technology, determined that this lifelike face was intentional. It is disturbing, but in some sense it was meant to be. The Lamb is a symbol of sacrifice, but it also represents a real, suffering human being.
Despite its relatively small size in relation to some of the other figures in the painting, the face of the Lamb is the real focal point of the work. Your eyes are drawn to it, and the intensity of the emotion is probably more apparent to your human eye than to the camera.
I love the way the city decided to feature the face of the Lamb in its poster advertisement.
Modern technology has also revealed that, in the jewel on the cape of one of the angelic musicians, is an accurate reflection of the window in the chapel where the altarpiece was originally placed. (Although the work is still in the same church for which is was made, it has been moved to another chapel to allow you to walk all the way around.) Clearly Van Eyck did this intentionally, but it’s not something that could be noticed with the naked eye, or even a camera phone.
It was a spectacular work, and viewing it was worth a trip to Belgium all on its own.
Other than the Altarpiece, the only other work by Van Eyck still left in Ghent is this drawing of St. Barbara, who according to legend was imprisoned by her father in a tower for converting to Christianity and later cruelly martyred (a macabre legend that I suspect is unknown to many of the residents of the pleasant California town that bears her name).
The local art museum also had several portraits and still life paintings by 17th C Dutch artist, and an early depiction of a smoker. There was also a delightful painting by Brueghel of creative anarchy in a lawyer’s office – not much has changed.
Bruges is a city whose focus on tourism dates back to the 19th C, when city government decided that houses in the historic center could no longer be torn down, and had to be restored as much as possible to their initial state. Despite an economy that relies heavily on tourism, Bruges has retained its charm – no easy feat.
The city is also known for its spectacular works of art.
The Michelangelo Madonna, completed around 1504, is the only work by Michelangelo to have left Italy during his lifetime. Like the Ghent Altarpiece, it was looted by the Nazis during the war, and rescued by the Monuments Men. (In fact, if you saw the recent George Clooney movie of the same name, it was one of the featured works.)
Bruges has several works by Van Eyck, including this Madonna (again with spectacular detailing on the clothing) and a portrait of his wife.
Bruges also has a museum based in what was once a public hospital, featuring many works by local artist Hans Memling. In the 15th C, public hospitals were a form of charity. The state of medicine being what it was, there wasnàt much they could do for most of their indigent patients except to keep them as comfortable as possible until they passed away. They were, however, surrounded by magnificent art.
I particularly liked this Memling triptych dedicated to the hospital’s two patron saints, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, especially the Evangelist’s acid-trip Revelation on the right.
The Groeningemuseum features works by later artists, including this delightfully wacky Last Judgment by Hieronmyus Bosch, and a depiction John the Baptist preaching to a surprisingly international group of pilgrims, with some folks wearing what looks to be like Peruvian garb.
The Gruuthuismusem, once the home of a prosperous local citizen, displays many objects related to daily life in the city from the 15th to the 18th Centuries.
Bruges is a wonderful city just to walk around. This evening landscape, where you can’t quite tell whether it’s day or night, reminded us of some of the surrealists paintings by Magritte – perhaps not a coincidence, since the artist was born in Belgium and spent most of his life there.
On our last day, we climbed the belfry, partly to prove to ourselves that we could still do it. In addition to the wonderful view, we saw the inner workings of the carillon system. In addition to chiming the hours, the bells play tunes – 4 different ones throughout the day – which are programmed by what appears to be one of the world’s largest piano rolls.
As to the food? Let’s just say, lots of shellfish was eaten.