Times are bleak in Bruges in the early 17th century. The religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants have hit Flanders hard. To make matters worse, the Zwin, which provides access to the sea, is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. Bruges is no longer the bustling trade metropolis it once was.
Nevertheless, the inhabitants do not lose hope. A new link to the sea is under construction: a canal to Ostend. Bruges merchants trade with Asia and South America and introduce new, exotic products to the city: coffee, tea, tobacco, and porcelain.
Meanwhile, a reform movement has emerged in the Catholic world: the Counter-Reformation. Several monastic orders establish themselves in Bruges. They proclaim their faith with impressive buildings, which they fill with stunning works of art. The craftsmen's order books are full once more.
As we explained on the ground floor, Bruges enjoyed its heyday in the 15th century. But from around 1550, times become difficult. There are armed conflicts in the Low Countries; and Bruges loses the Zwin, its access to the sea. The city is no longer an international trading hub.
The residents of Bruges look for solutions. Literally, ways out. You can see one on this diptych painting: the ambitious Handelskom or Canal Basin, which is put into operation in 1665. It is a place with new infrastructure for ships: on the right, you can see quays and places for stacking goods, on the left the nearby shipyards... The Handelskom is the end point of a new connection to the international port of Ostend. This means sea-going vessels can reach Bruges again. Other new canals connect the city to Ghent, Nieuwpoort, and Dunkirk.
Thanks to this new infrastructure, and to the powerful Chamber of Commerce, Bruges is back in business, on a national scale at least. The city regains its position as a hub. International goods arrive in Bruges and are shipped inland. This creates new business in the city. A 1668 chronicler reports that a fleet of 118 large merchant ships sailed out of the Handelskom and returned later, richly laden. The city’s industry also revives!
It is not as straightforward as it sounds, because there is fierce competition. We’ll tell you that story at the model ship.
This is a model of the Maagd van Gent (Virgin of Ghent). The Maagd van Gent is a vessel belonging to the Ghent skippers' guild. It’s a galleon, a very common type of ship in the 17th century. At that time, cities were often compared with virgins: cities want to be free and unoccupied. Hence the name of the ship.
But what does the Maagd van Gent have to do with our story about Bruges? Well, this ship shows that there is fierce competition between the skippers of Bruges, Ghent, and Ostend. They all want large sea-going vessels to be able to sail into their port unhindered, the so-called right of passage. But at the same time, they want it to be mandatory for these vessels to transfer their cargo to their own local ships. In this way, local skippers can also benefit from sea trade. This competitiveness, particularly between Ghent and Bruges skippers, dates back to the Middle Ages.
Perhaps this model from 1674 once stood in a chapel of the Ghent skippers' guild? As a token of thanks for a blessing from a saint. Or simply to ask the saint for a blessing. It was an 'ex voto' for the saint, a kind of thank you.
This large tapestry depicts a port scene. A dark-skinned ruler negotiates with Europeans. We see, among other things, gold ingots and braided tobacco leaves. The tapestry symbolises the new trade with the New World.
Indeed, from the 17th century, new, exotic products and fabrics appear on the tables of the Bruges elite: coffee, tea, tobacco and cocoa, porcelain, mother-of-pearl, exotic wood... In this room, you can also see a number of objects that are used for these new items, such as a coffee pot and a teapot, or tobacco boxes and pots. The smoking and sniffing of tobacco, a plant from the Americas, soon becomes a new habit in Europe. The new products quickly conquer the hearts and homes of the elite. Trade is now conducted on a global level.
From the 16th century, entreprising locals from Bruges also set off for the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Several of them return after a time, rich and with a network of international trade contacts. They establish international trading firms in Bruges. They also trade with Northern Europe.
In the early 18th
century, the Far East enters the scene. Adventurous Bruges entrepreneurs see new possibilities there. For a while, Ostend becomes their home port. One of these enterprising locals is Guillaume De Brouwer. You can see him, together with his family, in the painting.
This is the former Captain and entrepreneur Guillaume de Brouwer, in his office, along with his family. The letter on the table reveals that it's him. It says: ‘Mynheer De Brouwer Kapiteyn tot Brugge’ (‘Mister De Brouwer, Bruges Captain’). De Brouwer is standing behind the table, busy writing. The two young men are his sons and heirs. On the right, his wife is holding a box of weights, for checking the weight of gold coins. Next to her you can see a housemaid, and their youngest son and daughter. The family dog is also an essential part of the scene. The many documents and packages demonstrate how industrious Guillaume De Brouwer is.
In the 18th century, De Brouwer is building an international commercial empire. He is trading with the Far East, and even sails to China himself five times. The first time he does this with Ostend as his home port, and with good contacts in Norway and Denmark. Porcelain, tea, spices, silk, but also Norwegian cod: everything arrives at Ostend. The goods are subsequently stored and auctioned in Bruges warehouses. Later, De Brouwer operates out of Bruges as a ship owner. In 1755, his two sons take over the business.
A throne. Luxurious clothes embellished with lace and ermine. A diamond pectoral cross. And behind the curtain: a library.
You are looking at Henricus Josephus van Susteren, Bishop of Bruges in the first half of the 18th century. Born into a wealthy family, Van Susteren presents himself to us as an intellectual and a true Prince of the Church.
After the religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Catholic Church is rather combative. It proudly displays its faith, as the Bishop shows here. It does so with impressive buildings and jubilant Baroque art. And with stately portraits. But also by helping people in poverty, which is what Van Susteren does as well.
New art and architecture are needed. This is because at the end of the 16th century, vandals destroyed or stole many artworks and church treasures. The Calvinists expelled the clergy from their Bruges monasteries, and many of those monasteries were given a different function. These were troubled times for the Church.
In the late 16th century, priests and monks return to Bruges. They re-establish their monasteries and churches. In Baroque style. Everything is new: paintings, stained-glass windows, silver and gold work, furniture and woodcarvings…. You can see some beautiful examples in this room. Wealthy people, such as Van Susteren, act as sponsors and patrons. Craftsmen and artists from Bruges and elsewhere receive many commissions from the Church.
New monastic orders come from the countryside and settle inside the safe city walls. Churches and over thirty monasteries occupy almost a quarter of the surface area of Bruges city centre. The monks of the famous Ten Duinen Abbey in Koksijde move to Bruges as well. Their impressive Baroque abbey is built on Potterierei. Today, we know it as the Grootseminarie, a seminary for priest candidates.
This cabinet displays all the characteristich of a Baroque piece of furniture: twisted columns, opulent decoration, sculpted scenes, mitre work, and spherical legs. The cabinet testifies to the craftsmanship of Bruges cabinetmakers and woodcarvers, and to their customers’ demand for luxury and opulence.