Jan Baptist van Meunincxhove excelled in painting town views of Bruges. Several versions of both the Burg square and the Market square are known. These are important historic witnesses, showing buildings that no longer exist or that have been altered.
At the left side of our painting stands the original cathedral of Bruges, St Donatian’s, which was completely destroyed under the First French Republic between 1799 and 1807.
About Jan Baptist van Meunincxhove
Brithplace unkown 1620/25 – 1703/1704 Bruges
Painter of town views and church interiors. He also painted religious works and genre scenes.
Pupil from 1639 of Jacob van Oost I (Bruges 1603 – 1671 Bruges), the leading Baroque painter of Bruges around the middle of the 17th century. He was the official town painter from 1651 until his death twenty years later.
Van Oost was a Caravaggist painter of biblical themes, portraits and genre scenes. He was a prolific artist, producing mainly Counter-Reformation altarpieces for the numerous churches and monasteries in and around Bruges, but he equally excelled in the genre of portraiture.
After five years of training van Mueunincxhove joined the Painter’s Guild of Bruges in 1644, in the year 1663/1664 he was its dean. In 1677 he joined the Painter’s Guild of Antwerp. He returned to Bruges in 1682, where he would remain until his death.
He was the last of the 17th century Bruges Baroque painters. By then Bruges had lost a lot of its splendour. In the 15th and early 16th century Ghent and Bruges had been the largest towns benorth the Alps, after Paris and London. Bruges was a very important economic and industrial pole with direct access to the sea, the dukes of Burgundy regularly resided here, the town had a very rich population, amongst whom lots of foreign tradesmen and bankers. The most important Gothic painters of those days (the Flemish Primitives, a designation introduced in 1840, respectfully meaning “early” and obviously not “primitive” in the modern sense) lived and worked here.
In the course of the 16th century Bruges lost its leading position as important harbour and commercial town to Antwerp. Most nations left Bruges, the Spaniards were the last to go: for some time they still favoured the (old-fashioned) Late Gothic paintings, sculptures and works of art from Bruges to the modern, Renaissance once from Antwerp. By the end of the 16th century Bruges had become a town inhabited by a poor population, where rich traders, patricians, nobility and religious congregations could continue spending during the complete 17th century a lot of money to embellish churches, monasteries or houses.
It is known that van Meunincxhove had a large number of further unimportant pupils (Geroolf Pauwels, Carel van Eeckhoute or Heckhoute, Gilliaenis Grasborn, Pieter Henderikx, Jozef van den Kerckhove and possibly Pieter van Meunincxhove), who could have assisted him in finishing his paintings.
Van Meunincxhove painted besides town views also church interiors of Bruges (best-known are his two views of the interior of St Donation’s, with and without figures).
The Groeningemuseum also holds two historically important paintings, representing the visit in 1656 of the future English king, Charles II, to the local Archer’s Guild of St Barbara.
Finally I should also mention the less important religious paintings painted for churches and monasteries in Bruges and in Bergues (a Flemish town that was taken and incorporated into France under King Louis XIV in 1658).
About our painting
Seventeenth century town views of Bruges are extremely rare. In fact practically all known views of “the Venice of the North” have been painted by Jan Baptist van Meunincxhove, who must have created this type of subjects for the local market.
Van Meunincxhove’s views of Bruges are very important historic documents, because they show building that no longer exist or that have been altered since then. He painted several versions of the Market square and of the Burg square, each time with the same viewpoint.
The left side of our view of the Burg square is dominated by the former cathedral of Bruges, St Donatian’s. This magnificent building was completely destroyed under the French First Republic between 1799 and 1807.
At the extreme left of our painting, next to the cathedral still stands the Baroque Deanery of St Donatian (Sint-Donassproosdij), then a recent addition from 1665.
The two buildings at the right side of the painting still exist:
- the small Renaissance building was the old court of Justice (“burgerlijke griffie”);
- closer to us at right the large city hall from 1376, with its original polychrome sculptures. These were also destroyed under the French in
1792. Since 1926 new sculptures have been added to the building.
At the centre of the painting stands the former manor of the “Brugse Vrije”, that is the rich agricultural region around Bruges that formed a separate customary area. At its right side one sees its elegant gallery with high arches dating from 1528 – 1532. The manor was replaced by the Neoclassical Palace of Justice: that bulding still stands, though it has lost its original function.
In the small street between the cathedral and the manor stands the former E. gate (“Oostpoort).
In van Meunicxhove’s different versions of the Market Square one can also see buildings that no longer exist, or that have been altered:
- at left one recognizes the ancient Water Hall (“Waterhalle), a 95 m long building, where ships were being unloaded at the very centre of Bruges. That late 13th century building (1294) was destroyed in 1787;
- on the right side stands an ancient water pit, that does no longer exist;
- as to the Belfry it still had its sharp spire that was destroyed by fire in 1741, restored in 1753 and replaced by the current Neo Gothic spire in 1822.
About the destroyed St Donatian’s Cathedral
The French revolution was fundamentally opposed to the nobility and to the Catholic Church. This resulted in the destruction of a lot of castles, palaces, churches and abbeys, especially in N. France and present-day Belgium.
In 1797 public worship services were prohibited by the First French Republic (by the Directory or “Directoire”). Priest were obliged to swear an oath of allegiance to the Republic.
Soon religious buildings received a new function; St Donation’s served for a short time as a prison building. But already on 13 November 1798 the Lys department (current West Flanders, “Leiedepartement”) decided upon the sale of the Cathedral, the cemetery, some chapels and private houses. On 28 April 1799 a master-carpenter of Bruges, Dominique Maeyens, won the sad contest with a huge bid of four million livres. Two days later, and the next day, the complete estate of the church was also sold: crucifixes, candle sticks, chasubles, confessional chairs and pulpits. Even the marble floor was sold and very rapidly broken out.
Apparently the huge task of breaking down the cathedral and its surroundings was insurmountable for Maeyens and also for the two next owners, who came from the city of Tournai. The “Bureau des Domaines Nationaux”, in short the French state, took over. The church building and its surroundings was destroyed between October 1799 and December 1807, when the town council of Bruges bought the liberated grounds. During that period several public sales of materials took place.
The population of Bruges did not forget the initial buyer, Dominique Maeyns. At the end of the French reign, 12 March 1814, a mob pulled him of his house along the beautiful Spinolarei: they beat him and threw him in the water.
About the provenance of our painting
This important town view of Bruges belonged to the collection of the Belgian Knight Stanislas Emmanuel van Outryve d’Ydewalle (Lille 1871 – 1959 Bruges).
Van Outryve grew up just outside Bruges in a Neo Gothic castle built by his father, Castle Ter Heyde. Not far from there he built himself Castle Tudor (1904/1906) in Anglo Norman style, which still exists.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because town views of Bruges have hardly been painted before the 19th century and because this is probably your last chance to buy one dating from the 17th century.