Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Architecture moment: Town Hall, Leuven, Belgium

Flanders was the wealthiest and most populous area of Europe in the late Middle Ages. Leuven was a very prosperous small city, due to it’s hosting of the hottest newer university of the era. Even though the University of Leuven was many centuries younger than the more august institutions of Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Cambridge or Padua, the new university (founded 1425) attracted many of the brightest academic stars: Erasmus, Thomas More, Mercator, Lipsius and numerous other great minds flocked to the university in the late 15th and the 16th century. The university was much favored by the Popes (including Adrian IV, who was the chair of theology there before ascending to the papacy) as well as the Hapsburgs. Appropriately, the burghers of Leuven announced their prosperity by building perhaps the finest town hall of all the middle ages.

There was a great deal of building during the 14th-16th century in Flanders, much of it elaborate, due to the great wealth of the region. However, the churches of late medieval Flanders closely imitated those of France (rather than the more interesting architecture of Germany to the east or England to the west), and largely are uninteresting. The secular architecture of Flanders has considerably more interest – the towns of Flanders wished to announce their wealth and status by building extremely fine town halls, guildhouses, hospitals, belfries and other structures. These structures were also designed to host the court of the nominal prince over the region – the dukes of Burgundy, with whom the leading towns often had very strained relations. Thus, these structures were partially designed to impress upon the ducal court that the towns were well organized and well provisioned to fight against him, if need be. The ducal court of Burgundy (and various neighboring lesser princes closely imitated them) had extremely fine artistic taste – it was the patron of such artists as Van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden, the composer Dufay, the sculptor Claus Sluter, the historian Froissart and many others, it’s only rival the most fine princely courts of Italy for artistic patronage. Later, the towns had similar relations with the Hapsburgs, who were great patrons of the arts as well. Leuven in particular was often visited by such dignitaries.

The Leuven Town Hall is a lush and extreme example of these town halls. Four stories high of sandstone, the exterior is literally dripping with 236 statues and elaborate decorations. These statues represent a highly complex scheme of religious and political history (as befitting a university town): political figures from the town’s history, saints, historic feudal overlords and religious scenes are all depicted on the town hall walls. Note: most of the actual statues are from the late Nineteenth century, but follow along the lines of the original scheme.

The town hall was constructed from 1448-1469 by the prominent architect Matheus de Layens, who also designed Leuven’s town fortifications, the principal church of Leuven, a number of other churches in Flanders and later the very fine but more spare town hall of Mons.


Blogger Campaspe said...

I am flattened by these pictures. What a spectacularly beautiful building, and I had never even heard of it. My in-laws are in Paris and maybe we could organize a train field-trip to see this.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

It's not very far from Paris. It's only 1.5 hours from Paris to Brussels on the fast train, and not far at all from Brussels to Leuven. Of course, you can combine this jaunt with trips to many other towns in Belgium or Northern France: Bruges or Ghent being the biggies, but cities such as Tournai, Mons, Malines, Liege, Merlebeke, Namur, Oudenaard, Sint Truiden and Aalst all have exemplary medieval and Renaiisance architecture, as well as some very excellent museums, particularly the one in Bruges. Also, the cooking is much better in the French parts of Belgium than on the Holland or German side.

There are many other things to see in Leuven, it's well worth a visit. Bruno Dumont films most of his movies in the region, as do the freres Dardenne (who are from Liege). I like Leuven very much and I'm thinking of retiring there (well, there or Madison, Wisconsin or Marburg) whenever that actually happens in 30+ years.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home