Heaven and Hell—in Bruges

by Leanne Ogasawara


“Every night God takes his glittering
merchandise out of his showcase–
holy chariots, tables of law, fancy beads,
crosses and bells–
and puts them back into dark boxes
inside and pulls down the shutters: “Again,
not one prophet has come to buy.”
–Yehuda Amichai

Jerusalem: utterly obssessed by the place, I even love finding copies of the holy city– both imaginal and real. There are, for example, William Blake's rural England of his imagination (Ah, Jerusalem) and the Puritan's “city upon a hill” in America. There are also the real Jerusalems built of brick and stone.

Such real-life copies can be found mainly in European cities, from Cambridge to Bologna. My own favorite “new Jerusalem” is the holy city of Lalibela in Ethiopia, however, where it is believed that pilgrims receive the same blessing visiting that city as they would if they had visited Jerusalem itself. It is a place I long to see someday.

Despite knowing that copies of Jerusalem can be found dotted around Europe, I never really expected to find one so far north as in the Flemish city of Bruges.

In Bruges.

Belgium's greatest poet Guido Gezelle referred to the city as a “copy of the holy land.” But, in the movie In Bruges, the mob boss Harry calls the town a “fucking fairy tale.”

(Ray, however disagrees).

In any event, my astronomer and I were visiting the city on a van Eyck pilgrimage. Starting in Paris, we looked at van Eyck pictures in the Louvre, in Ghent and then in Bruges –and I was struck over and over again by the way time was conflated in the paintings. Like a wormhole connecting discrete and distant points in time, these late Medieval and early Renaissance pictures were stunningly transportive in terms of time and space so that, for example, Mary and the baby or the Lamb were depicted side-by-side with contemporary figures. Contemporary donors appeared in the paintings accompanied by their patron saints, who thereby formed a link between these two worlds. The church authorities not surprisingly clamped down on this practice and the early Renaissance donor portraits disappeared –but it was in Bruges that I realized how wonderful it would be to see oneself in a picture like that. If I lived back then, I certainly would have desired a picture of myself like that, depicted alongside saints, pilgrims and God. Is it not the ultimate selfie?

In summer, I had written here in these pages about relics and their long-lost power to emotionally and spiritually transport and spiritually move a person, asking:

I wonder if things have the power to move us in this way anymore? I mean, there was a time (the time Umberto Eco likes to write about) when people were obsessed by fantastical maps and with great quests for objects that held much power. Like mountains, certain objects had the power to draw people in. Relics, for example, were big business. Think of Sainte-Chappele, built to house the Crown of Thorns or recall the mystery surrounding the quests for the Holy Grail. Eco's Baudolino is almost entirely taken up with the relic trade and the role played by faith (faith in the fragrance of these relics–where it is the perfume that is true– not necessarily the relic itself). This kind of devotion to relics is famously practiced by Catholics and Buddhists, and probably harkens back to an ancient propensity for becoming enchanted by things.

It is also a commitment to remember, right? (Poor, dear Henri Fontal!)

Believe it or not Bruges happens to be in possession of one of the Top Ten Relics Associated with Jesus Christ. This came about when the Count of Flanders, Thierry of Alsace, was given a relic of the Holy Blood by the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin III of Anjou (who I think was also the count's brother-in-law). Given as a reward for his courage during the second crusade it came with the approval of the patriarch of Jerusalem. In all probability the relic was obtained during the sack of Constantinople a hundred years later –but whatever the fact, this relic was to put Bruges on the map big time (transforming the town into a holy city)– and the adoration of the relic is the main reason that Bruges came to be seen as a little Jerusalem.

The blood of Christ was seen by some as being what is commonly referred to as “the Holy Grail.” (Sang Real, etc.) Interestingly, the man credited with starting the legend of the Grail romance, Chrétien de Troyes, stated that he had found the story of the Grail in a manuscript supposedly given to him by Philip of Alsace, who was the son of Thierry of Alsace–the very man who brought the vial of blood back from Jerusalem in 1150. Or so the legend goes.

Remember in the movie In Bruges when Ken and Ray go to visit the relic of the Holy Blood? Instead of going to the Basilica of the Holy Blood where the relic is actually housed, the two characters visit an altogether different church. It seems crazy not to film such a famous relic in the church where everyone knows it is kept and yet how could the director resist Jerusalem Church? So, we see Ken and Ray in Jerusalem church, preparing to view the relic of the holy blood.

It is such a great scene in what is such a great film!

Filename-jerusalem-churchStepping inside Jerusalem Church in Bruges is like slipping into an Umberto Eco novel. Did I mention it's real name is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?

It all started around the time that van Eyck was painting his Mystic Lamb altarpiece (un sospiro~) that two members of the illustrious Italian banking family, the Adornes, returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Deeply impressed by the beauty of the Christ's tomb in Jerusalem, the two brothers immediately began work on their own chapel based on the design of the Holy Sepulchre upon their return to Bruges.

With its rounded dome and Jerusalem cross atop, it is reminiscent of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem–but what awaits one inside is what is the real surprise. The clip from the film describes the feeling best, I think. Here it is again.

Beneath soaring crosses and a dark and morbid altar of skulls and bones, along with whips, nails and hammers, lies the the crypt of Anselm (who died while engaging in intrigues in Scotland) and his beloved wife Maragaretha. It is Golgotha. The scene of Ray and Jen talking in the church is classic. Instead of the holy blood, however, in reality when one ascends upstairs there one fins a splinter of the True Cross, also brought back from the holy Land. Un unexplained mystery, as described here, it is not prominently displayed nor was it being worshipped (compared to the massive crowds at the Holy Blood relic). It's my favorite scene in the movie and in many ways perfectly depicts the gloomy or morbidly medieval mood of Bruges. For there were orders of men (knights?) that grew up around the crusades–orders such as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (of which Anselm was a card-carrying member) and the Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, who had toyed with the idea of turning Bruges into a “New Jerusalem,” which could serve as spiritual HQ of Europe, should Jerusalem and the Sepulchre fall again to “the Moors.”


The Dead City (Glück das mir verblieb). I am now reading George Rodenbach's Bruges-La-Morte. Believe it or not, I had never heard of the book (nor the opera which some say inspired the making of Hitchcock's Verigo). Filled with beautiful black and white photographs, it is one of the most stunning portaits of a city that I have ever read. Rodenbach indeed insisted that cities reflect different states of the soul. And, in the author's introduction to the novel, in his poetic and evocative prose he writes:

In this study of passion our other principle aim has been to evoke a Town, the Town as essential character, associated with states of mind, counselling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act. And in reality, this town of Bruges, on which our choice fell, does seem almost human. It establishes a powerful influence on all who stay there.

It molds them through its monuments and its bells.

Devastated at the loss of his beloved wife the main character chooses Bruges as the perfect place to mourn. So much like in Mann's Death in Venice, the city is portrayed like death itself. With cold and still, unmoving waters filling the city's canals, the swans themselves become images of decay and death; while the famous bells of the belfy toll with the stagnation and weight of the church (or maybe like in Pamuk's Istanbul, it seems to be crumbling by the sheer weight of its own glorious history?) Before long the story becomes a stage for the character's fight between darkness and light as he obsessively struggles with the allure of a young dancer with whom he confuses with that of his beloved lost wife (“even their voices are identical”). The story does not end well. In fact, it ends in the death of the novel's title…

But Bruges is not simply a “dead city,” like Mann's Venice or Pamuk's Istanbul. Because Bruges is both about heaven and hell.

The mind is its own place,
and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell,
a Hell of Heaven.
– John Milton

Burning in hell— this city after all was the inspiration for the “Dante of the painters” Bosch's images of hell. For as Joel Bleifuss says, it is a city with a dark past.

While the sleepy, medieval backdrop to Martin McDonagh's hitman comedy certainly appears like the setting for a fairy tale, it also hides a very dark past, one full of fundamentalist depravity and dank dungeons as well as knights and ladies. It was a city of contradictions-host to one of the most spectacular banquets in medieval times and the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch's hellish visions

The movie is very much taken up with these images of hell and of purgatory. It is a place where nothing works and everyone dies. As Ernest Mathijs says,

The key to In Bruges is its nothingness. Nothing works, nothing is sacred; every action misses its goal; everyone is misunderstood; and no one escapes.

HellWhat a strange fate for a city said to be holy; a city housing a relic of the True Cross and a vessel containing drops of the Holy Blood. But I think it is perhaps this dual quality of heaven and hell that most ties the place to Jerusalem. As I said about Jerusalem here, maybe Bruges too exists as a heavenly city lying on the same axis as purgatory AND heaven — as not just the center of the world, but also the heart of the world? Less a city of fanatics and never-ending conflict, Bruges reminds me so much of the poem by Yehuda Amichai at top…a sleeping city, where all the fancy beads, crosses and bells are on display in wait. Like Venice and Jerusalem, Walking around the city, I could not help but think of Dante's great allegory of the soul's journey to find God. Down, down, down…Time and space warp…on Dante's Holy Mountain.

Wonderful movie, wonderful book, wonderful poem, wonderful city.

For more: a great article on “El Bosco” here. Also my earlier post: The Walls of Jerusalem