The Flemish Beguinages: A Baroque for Poor Women
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
In contrast to the centralized and elitist masculine order of the Jesuits, the Beguinages were autonomous communities of semi-religious women, generally poor and illiterate. Originating around 1200 in Northern Europe, this unique female movement was suppressed by the Church in 1314-21, except in the Low Countries where Beguines were brought together in enclosed quarters located at the outskirts of the towns, and lived under the control of the local authorities. With houses and streets arranged around their own parish church, Beguinages looked more like ghettos than cloisters. During the Counter Reformation new feminine mystic devotions were promoted and new statutes imposed in order to strengthen the enclosure. Due to its strong local roots, the Beguine movement flourished in most Flemish towns during the seventeenth century, but never became a religious order. Communities numbered several hundred women and buildings underwent a thorough metamorphosis.
Jacob Francart, the Court architect who also worked for the Jesuits and the Augustines in Brussels, designed in 1629 the Baroque Beguinage church at Mechelen. Only three other Beguinage churches were rebuilt ex novo during the second half of the seventeenth century in Ghent, Lier and Brussels. The latter, dated 1657-76, is attributed to Lucas Faid’herbe and develops a unique Flemish Baroque design expressing the prestige of the “Royal Beguinage” of the capital. All the other Beguinage churches in the Low Countries ––such as in Leuven, Bruges, Diest, Sint-Truiden–– conserved their medieval fabric, which were ingeniously “baroquified” with additional structures, new windows, furniture and statues. This phenomenon reveals a complex reality with a diversity of scales, styles and quality, more in accordance with their local contexts, modest means, own liturgy and feminine devotions. Some Baroque gatehouses surmounted by a statue of the Virgin Mary proclaimed the identity of the semi-religious women to the outside world.