Jovial, approachable, and of immense physical strength and energy, Charlemagne epitomises the early mediaeval prince who ruled by force of personality. Confident of his grip on his sprawling empire, in later life he settled his court at Aachen. Though it would be hard to argue that the rise of the great trading cities of the Netherlands could be traced directly to the favour Charlemagne showed the area, the two occurrences are not without connection.
The empire didn’t last, and little survives of the capital monuments from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. The palace chapel at Aachen is the most prominent survival, and well indicates the quality of what has been lost, as does the great collegiate church of Ste-Gertrude at Nivelles. The metalworking centres of the Meuse made a most significant contribution to the Romanesque era. Tournai cathedral is not only one of the seminal buildings of twelfth-century Europe, but also preserves one of the masterpieces of mediaeval reliquary art.
But the touchstones of southern Netherlandish culture are to be found among the monuments of the later Middle Ages, in the prodigious energy generated by her urban and mercantile instincts, and in the range and quality of her artistic ambitions. This can be seen at a number of levels – in the unruffled calm of the Beguinhof at Mechelen, or the Late-Gothic invention of Ste-Waudru at Mons or St-Jacques at Liège; in the brilliance and virtuosity of the town halls of Brussels and Ghent; and in the cool naturalism of the painting of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Dirk Bouts.
The arts of sculpture, metalwork and tapestry were no less important to a late-mediaeval audience, and in the museums and church treasuries of Brussels and Liège lie some of the finest collections of Late-Gothic and sixteenth-century work in northern Europe.
Emperor Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500, on the cusp of the modern world. During his reign Habsburg control of this area was consolidated, the once mighty and independent city states of the Netherlands subordinated within the largest empire in Europe since Charlemagne’s.
Brussels. Take the Eurostar at c. 11.00am from London St Pancras to Brussels. See the work of goldsmiths, sculptors and painters in the Low Countries throughout the mediaeval and Renaissance periods in the Musée Cinquantenaire, which has staggering collections of Carolingian ivories, Mosan and Rhenish metalwork, furniture, tapestries and retables. Continue to Maastricht for three nights.
Aachen (Germany), Maastricht (Netherlands). Cross into Germany to visit Aachen (Aix-en-Chapelle), Charlemagne’s favourite capital, where the Centre Charlemagne museum places his legacy in context. The cathedral has a remarkable rotonda based on San Vitale in Ravenna (for Charlemagne symbolically important as the last capital of the Roman Empire) and the Treasury has outstanding mediaeval works of art. Return to Maastricht, the pretty capital of Limburg to visit St Servaaskerk, a vast Romanesque edifice with crypt of c. 950, burial place of the last of the Carolingian Kings, and the Church of Our Lady, which has an ambulatory around the apse and a defensive west front.
Liège (Belgium). Spread along the valley of the Meuse, Liège was for over a thousand years the seat of a powerful bishopric at the junction of France, the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire, and a mediaeval centre of metalwork production. There are fine buildings in the spacious centre: St Jacques is one of the most elaborate of Late Gothic churches; Eglise Ste-Croix is Belgium’s only hall church; in St Barthélemy, the bronze font rests on oxen by Renier de Huy (1118). There are good collections in the Museum of Religious Art and the Curtius Museum.
Mons, Nivelles, Mechelen. At Mons (Bergen) are the untrumpeted Late-Gothic splendours of the collegiate church of Ste-Waudru. Ste-Gertrude at Nivelles (Nijvel), with its spatial clarity, is one of the great buildings of early mediaeval Europe. Continue to Mechelen for the first of three nights.
Tournai. The nave and transepts of the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Tournai constitute one of the supreme statements of 12th-cent. architectural thinking to survive in the Low Countries (the exterior is undergoing renovation). Its Rayonnant choir, 13th-cent. wall paintings, 16th-century choir screen and Nicolas of Verdun’s superb shrine, constitute a most important ensemble of mediaeval work. Visit the late 12th-century parish church of St-Quentin and the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Mechelen, Ghent. Mechelen boasts one of the finest market squares to survive in Brabant, lined by 16th-century guild houses, the cathedral and the Stadhuis. See the west tower of Sint Romboutskathedraal, the founding statement of Netherlandish ‘Florid Gothic’. In Ghent, visit the restored shell of the Gravensteen, Flanders’s greatest feudal redoubt, and the luminous interiors of Sint Baafskathedraal, abode of Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (currently being restored, not all panels are visible at once).
Leuven, Brussels. By coach to Leuven (Louvain) where the church of St Peter contains a triptych within by Dirk Bouts. Continue to Brussels and the Grote Markt (Grand Place), the most ebullient town square in the Low Countries, and the cathedral of St Michel-et-Gudule with a recently rediscovered 10th-cent. church under the central space. The late afternoon Eurostar arrives at London St Pancras at c. 6.00pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,280 or £2,070 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £2,570 or £2,360 without Eurostar.
Train travel (1st class, standard premier) on Eurostar; travel by private coach throughout; accommodation as described below; breakfasts and four dinners with water, wine or beer, soft drinks and tea or coffee; all admission; all tips for restaurant staff, drivers; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Beaumont Hotel, Maastricht: a modern and elegant 4-star hotel, conveniently located. Mercure Mechelen Vé, a comfortable 4–star hotel, centrally located. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is a lot of walking and standing around. Coaches are often not able to access the historic centres. Average distance by coach per day: 77 miles.
Between 12 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.