Some historical references
A chapel dedicated to St Michael was probably built here as early as the 9th century. In the 11 th century it was rep!aced by a Romanesque church which became a “collegiale church” in 1047. The relics of St Gudula were transferred there. From then onwards, it became known as “the collegiale church of St Michae! and St Gudula”. In February 1962, it was given cathedral status, and since then it has been the seat of the Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, together with St Rombouts cathedral in Malines. The building of the present church in Gothic “Brabançon” style began with the choir in 1226. Works of art: stained glass window (16th century), confessionals (16th century), pulpit (17th century), carillon (1975). A thorough restauration of the cathedra! was carried out between 1983 and November 1999. Remains of a Romanesque church were discovered, as weIl as a Romanesque crypt under the choir.
Summary of the Architectural History
The building of the Cathedral (which used to be the collegiate church of St. Michael and St. Gudula) started at the beginning of the 13th century at the request of Henry I, Duke of Brabant. This period coincides with the appearance of the Gothic style in the region. It took about 300 years to complete this gigantic undertaking. It was finished just before the reign of the emperor Charles V. Its architecture shows the different characteristics of the Brabant Gothic style. The restoration of the nave from 1983 to 1989 returned the stones, vaults and windows to the splendour of former days. During the same restoration campaign, important and well-preserved remains of the eleventh century Romanesque church were discovered, which can now be visied by the public.
NAVE: The twelve columns of the nave are flanked by statues of the apostles. These baroque figures date of the 17th century and were sculpted by great Brabant sculptors of that time (Jérôme Duquesnoy the Younger, Luc Faid’herbe, Tobie de Lelis…) to refurbish the collegiate church sacked by the iconoclasts during the 16th century. They emphasise the apostolic origin of the Church. The capitals of the pillars are decorated with curled row-foliage cabbage leaves linked by crosswise ribbons showing the typical features of Brabant gothic. The triforium is made of delicate trilobate arcades. During the restoration, the bosses in the vault revealed their original polychrome. The pulpit was carved by H.F.Verbruggen in 1699 and qualifis as a fine example of “naturalistic” Baroque art. It depicts the fall of Adam and Eve and the Redemption, symbolised by the Virgin (standing on a moon crescent, her head crowned with twelve stars, as described by St.John in his Apocalypse) and the Infant piercing the head of the serpent with a long cross. The Grenzing organ hangs in a “bird’s nest” position and was inaugurated in October 2000.
The series of stained-glass windows was designed by J.B. Capronnier (19th century). The confessionals in oak were carved by Jean Van Delen (17th century).
Following the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the main altar was brought forward. Michel Smolders was commissioned to sculpt a new altar, which was consecrated in June 2000. On the left-hand side pillar, the Christ in ascension in beaten copper (1968) is a work by Camille Colruyt. Turning away from the altar, one can admire the large stained-glass window of the Last Judgement (1528). This unique Renaissance work depicts the prince-bishop of Liège who offered the work as a tribute to the emperor Charles V.
The stained-glass window was assembled by Jean Haeck (master glass-worker from Antwerp) who made them in 1537 after drawings by the Brussels court painter Bernard Van Orley. It depicts Charles V and his wife Isabelle of Portugal kneeling in front of the Holy Sacrament. They are accompanied by their patron saints Charlemagne and Elisabeth of Hungary. To the right of the portal is an elegant and tender statue of “The education of the Virgin by St Anne” by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Younger (17th century) after a painting by Rubens.
The stained-glass window is also the work of Jean Haeck (after a drawing by B. Van Orley) made in 1538. It shows Louis II of Hungary and his wife Maria of Hungary, sister of Charles V, kneeling in front of the Trinity, with St Louis and the Virgin with Child behind them.
This gothic construction (1225-1265) which was restored from 1990 to 1999 hosts the mausoleums of the Dukes of Brabant and Archduke Ernest of Austria (17th cent.) by Robert Colyn de Nole. The Choir stalls come from the old benedictine abbey of Forest. The gilded copper high altar (1887) by Lambert Van Rijswijck is no longer in use. The Romanesque crypt
Left of the choir
Chapel of the Miracle of the Blessed Sacrament (1534-1539). It was built in flamboyant Gothic style and houses the Treasure of the Cathedral.
Right of the choir
Chapel of Our Lady of Deliverance (1649-1655) built in late Gothic style. Its baroque altar was carved by Jan Voorspoel (1666). The image of Our Lady of Deliverance (1592) attracts up to today the devotions of people who visit the faithful.
Behind the choir
A baroque chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen (or Maes chapel, after the person who funded it in 1675) hosts the superb marble and alabaster altarpiece (1538) by Jan Mone depicting the Passion of Christ.
The archaeological remains
Already before the Second World War, during research works in connection with the railway connection North-South, a romanesque “Westbau” was discovered. The Westbau is the construction built on the west side of Romanesque churches which in the Middle Ages served as fortified refuge for the citizens. Its complete foundations as well as those of a Romanesque church which preceded the current Gothic building were found during the restoration works in 1983-1989. With the help of mirrors the visitors can see the foundations of the entrance to the romanesque church (1047), the Westbau (± 1200), the narthex (antechamber) and the foundations of the large arch which separated the nave from the narthex.
Traces of the outside walls, the transept and the pillars of the nave as well as the “Westbau” and its towers have been indicated on the floor with lighter-coloured flagstones (white stone originating from Vinalmont) in contrast to the grey flagstones originating from Tournai. The pavement of the Romanesque church was 1.70 m. below the level of the existing Gothic church. The foundations of the “Westbau” show clearly the base of the round Romanesque towers, as well as the ground on which the lime for the construction of the Gothic church was prepared. The existence of two burial vaults of the 17th or 18th century attests to the fact that the foundations of the Romanesque church were used as a burial place during the Gothic period.
The Grenzing great organ
The great organ of the Cathedral is an impressive instrument, both in its quality and its beauty. You may be surprised by its “bird’s nest” position which meets the specific needs of the acoustics of a gothic Cathedral. This position is also linked to an old but little known tradition among organ-builders in this part of the world. You will see organs installed in similar places in other famous Gothic Cathedrals such as Chartres, Cologne or Strasbourg. The instrument has a total of 4,300 pipes, 63 stops, 4 keyboards and the pedal-board. In the middle the organist’s console is big enough to accommodate soloists. This versatile instrument is capable of interpreting compositions in numerous styles and from many different musical eras. The overall impression is one of great lightness and harmonious integration in the surrounding architectural framework, thanks to the inclusion of gothic elements. This very beautiful instrument has been created by the daring genius of the German organ-builder, Gerhard Grenzing, based in Barcelona, in collaboration with the English architect, Simon Platt.
The new high altar
This new high altar, placed at the crossing of the transept, marked the end of the restoration work at the Cathedral. It was consecrated by Cardinal Danneels on Ascension Day, 1st June 2000. The altar is more than a very beautiful object and more than a work of art – it is a mystery, a presence. In fact it takes us as close as possible to the mystery of the person of Christ and his work. It is the sacrificial table, calling to mind both the last supper and the cross. It is the table of the Lord’s Eucharistic banquet to which He invites His people and announces to them the eternal banquet. This stone altar was cut by the sculptor, Michel Smolders, in the Avins quarry east of Huy. The three-ton monolith is made of light granite, a very special substance which is grey and white when wrought but which turns black when polished. Its wrought sides therefore have variations in their design, while its polished surface is beautifully black and is marked in its centre and its four corners by the crosses of its consecration. Its predominantly horizontal composition is inspired by the symbol of the tree which has one half pointing upwards and the other downwards. In the tree symbol Heaven and Earth unite.
Important events celebrated in St Michael and St Gudula
Throughout its history, the Collegiate Church and Cathedral has witnessed numerous national religious celebrations :
1312 October : Funeral ceremony of John II, Duke of Brabant
1330 July : Funeral ceremony of the Duke’s wife, Margaret of York, daughter of the King of England
1435 : Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, convenes in the Cathedral a Chapter of the Golden Fleece
1446 August : Funeral ceremony of Catherine of Valois, wife of Charles the Bold
1480 January : Baptism of Margaret of Austria, daughter of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria
1498 November : Baptism of Eleonora, sister of Charles V, the future Queen of France
1516 March : Charles V, Prince of the former Netherlands, is proclaimed King of Spain
1568 June : The bodies of the Counts of Egmont and Hornes, Knights of the Golden Fleece, are brought to the Cathedral
1599 September : Joyous Entry into Brussels of Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, governors of the former Netherlands
1622 March : Funeral ceremony of Archduke Albert
1650 January : Funeral ceremony of Archduchess Isabella, who died in 1633
1745 December : Funeral ceremony of Archduchess Marie-Anne, wife of Charles of Lorraine
1780 : Funeral ceremony of Charles of Lorraine 1803 july Te Deum in the presence of Napoleon and his wife
1815 July : Te Deum to celebrate the victory of Waterloo 1926 november Wedding of Prince Leopold and Princess Astrid
1934 February : Funeral ceremony of King Albert l 1935 september Funeral ceremony of Queen Astrid
1959 July 2nd : Wedding of Prince Albert and Princess Paola
1960 December 16th : Wedding of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola 1965 30 november Funeral ceremony of Queen Elisabeth
1993 August 7th : National funeral ceremony of King Baudouin
1995 June 4th (Pentecost) : Visit of Pope John Paul II
1999 December 4th: Wedding of Prince PHILIP of Belgium and Lady MATHILDE d’ Udekem d’Acoz
2003 April 12th : Wedding of Prince LAURENT of Belgium and Miss Claire Coombs.
2013 July 21st : Last Te Deum celebration of King Albert II
2014 December 5th: National funeral ceremony of Queen Fabiola
The Miracle of the Holy Sacrament
“In 1370, the Jewish community of Brussels was accused of the profanation of the Holy Sacrament and punished for this act. It was claimed that on Good Friday, 1370, Jews used daggers to stab communion wafers which had been stolen from a chapel. Blood was said to have flowed from these wafers.
In 1968 in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the authorities of the archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, in the light of historical research on this subject, drew attention to the tendentious character of these accusations and to the legendary nature of the ‘miracle’”.
Commemorative plaque in the Treasury of the cathedral, formerly the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, inaugurated in 1977 by the Cardinal L.-J.Suenens – Translation.
The bronze plaque bears a statement on the so called miracle, which until shortly after World War II had been venerated in the chapel that today serves as the cathedral museum and treasury. In 1370, according to the legend, holy communion wafers began to bleed after being stabbed with daggers by Jews at the synagogue in Brussels. The remains of the hosts were venerated for centuries as the Miraculous Sacrament (Sacrement du Miracle/Sacrament van het Mirakel). It is a fact that in May 1370, six Jews living in Brussels and Leuven were burnt at the stake after being accused of the theft and desecration of the Blessed Sacrament (the so called ‘Blood Libel’). We know that Jewish property was confiscated, and that from the very beginning it was believed that the holy hosts had actually bled. Later on, in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, it was asserted that in 1370 all Jews had been expelled forever from the Duchy of Brabant. The guilt of the Jews was never established.
On the contrary, it has never even been proven that the hosts had in fact been desecrated. Belief in the alleged miracle was the only justification for executing the Jews. Accusing the Jews lent credibility to the miracle. Moreover, the alleged miracle offered a sought-after opportunity to dispose of the Jews. For the faithful the ‘miracle’ served as a material sign and proof of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Similar ‘Eucharistic Miracles’ connected with the presumed culpability of the Jews occurred elsewhere as well during the Middle Ages. Traces of red mildew on holy wafers were taken for traces of blood, the blood of Christ. The legend of the Miraculous Sacrament is presented in many works of art in the cathedral. Especially to be mentioned are the XVIth century stained glass windows in the Sacrament chapel, which today holds the Cathedral treasury, where the reliquaries for the Miraculous Sacrament from different periods are on display.
There are also the XVIIIth century tapestries in the choir, but these are not normally on display. Further, note the impressive series of fifteen XIXth century stained glass windows in the cathedral aisles. The last five windows of the northern aisle, near the chapel of the Miraculous Sacrament, portray the devotion to the Miraculous Sacrament from about 1436 till 1870. The first ten windows, eight in the southern aisle, starting at the front, and two in the rear of the northern aisle, represent the legend as it was handed down in Brussels since the middle of the XVth century. The legend runs as follows. In autumn 1369 a prominent Jew from Enghien took the initiative of bribing a Jewish convert to Christianity to steal communion wafers, in order to desecrate them. Shortly afterwards he was murdered (windows 1-3). His widow passed the hosts to the Jews in Brussels, who stabbed them with daggers in their synagogue on Good Friday 1370.
The sacred hosts began to bleed (windows 4 and 5). A Jewess who had converted to Christianity was bribed to conceal the hosts among the Jews of Cologne. But she repented and confessed the whole story to the rector of the “St. Mary’s Chapel” church in Brussels, giving him the miraculous hosts (windows 6-7). Based on the testimony of the Jewess (window 8) and after being judged by the Duke of Brabant the Jews were publicly burnt at the stake. The remaining Jews were expelled by the Duke from the Duchy of Brabant and their property confiscated (window 9). The miraculous sacrament was subsequently transferred in procession to the chapter church of St. Gudula (window 10).
The relic of the Miraculous Sacrament played a significant role as a national symbol for the Catholic identity of the country. The veneration of the relic served in public as a support for the struggle against Jews, Protestants and liberals. Charles V and the Habsburg family gave the XVIth century stained glass windows of the chapel of the Miraculous Sacrament. In the XVIIth century, Archdukes Albert and Isabella enriched the chapel with numerous gifts. Albert and Isabella are buried in front of the altar of the Miraculous Sacrament. Leopold I and Leopold II, the first Belgian kings, offered the first two XIXth century stained glass windows in the southern aisle. The other windows were given by the Belgian nobility.
After 1870 the relic was no longer of national significance. The local devotion to the Miraculous Sacrament however survived up to the Second World War. Moreover, the stained glass windows, paintings and tapestries kept the alleged history of the ‘blood libel’ alive. Only after the tragedy of the Holocaust, and under the influence of a more enlightened mentality, was a critical attitude with regard to this anti-Jewish medieval legend adopted in Catholic circles.
For a critical-historical approach to the legend, see: Luc DEQUEKER, ‘Le Sacrement de Miracle. Notice historique’, in Anne VAN YPERSEELE DE STRIHOU, Le trésor de la cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule à Bruxelles, Bruxelles 2000, pp. 13-19. Luc DEQUEKER, Het Sacrament van Mirakel. Jodenhaat in de Middeleeuwen, Davidsfonds Leuven, 2000.