Bruges and the Middle Ages


Bruges, the capital and largest city of the West Flanders Province, is located in North-West Belgium in the Flemish Region.

The city derives its name from Old Dutch for “bridge”; and Brugehoofd (“bridgehead”) or Brug (“bridge”) in modern Dutch. The name comes from the city functioning as a bridge on the Reie River, which was used as a channel to bring merchandise to the city, which controlled the commercial traffic. As one of the cultural and commercial capitals in Europe, Bruges developed cultural connections with other parts of the world.

The city enthusiastically welcomed foreign traders, especially the spice and pepper traders from Portugal. And because of the many Italians present in Bruges at the time, the city quickly came to be a center of Renaissance and Humanism. At one time, it was considered the world’s “major city of commerce”. – and its history marks it as a dazzling city in the Northern part of Europe with so much flamboyance as Venice in the Mediterranean World.

Like many Flemish cities, Textile was one of the main things that propelled Bruges to prosperity. Much exchange was associated with England’s woolen industry -which was then the source of the best standard of wool. By the latter part of the thirteenth century, Bruges had become a big place for trading cloth. It is often purported that even when the King of France, Philip the Fair had visited Bruges in 1301, his wife, Joanna of Navarre, was so astonished by the inhabitants’ wealth and luxury clothes that she supposedly claimed: ‘I thought I was the only queen, but I notice here that I have six hundred rivals’.

During the time of Philippe le Bon (1419-67), the city became a center of Flemish art with Jan van Eyck, and Memling exercising a considerable influence on both Flemish and European art. Flemish art thrived and Bruges’ artists commonly referred to as the Flemish Primitives – produced masterpieces that are still seen today in various parts of the world. The excellent condition of many of these existing early Flemish paintings is no doubt due to the expert approach of the artists and the quality of the colors they applied, bound with oil.

Bruges quickly became an economic capital of Europe in the fifteenth century and the economic wealth subsequently brought affluent traders to the city. These affluent traders lived in splendid houses stuffed with great artworks. In the beginning of the Burgundian dynasty, the influential Flemish primitives such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling discovered their creative niches in the city of Bruges, which then swiftly became the inspirational source for many artists.


The Historic Town of Brugge is a testimony to a major change of influences on the advancements of architecture over a long period, especially in Gothic brick, which defines its different stages of advancement. The increasing prosperity of the city was mirrored in the architecture of public buildings, like the magnificent Belfry at the Grand-Place. The historic town of Bruges also supports revolutionary artistic influences in the advancement of medieval painting. Being the homeland of the Flemish Primitives School, Bruges tends to be an excellent model of an architectural ensemble, showing significant periods in the cultural and commercial areas in medieval Europe, of which the social, public, and religious institutions are a living testimony. It is an exceptional illustration of a medieval historic settlement, which has kept its historic fabric, and where the cities identity is partly original Gothic architecture.

Right from the Middle Ages up until modern times, the architecture of Bruges has been mainly distinguished by Gothic brick and most specifically by a construction style called travéeoise. This style of engineering was well recognized during the early sixteenth century. With some subsequent variations, it was kept up until the 17th century which also became the foremost inspiration for reconstructions in the 19th-century.


Bruges has the majority of its gothic architecture intact. A lot of its medieval buildings are distinguished, and among them is the Church of Our Lady, which has a brick spire reaching 122.3 m (401.25 ft), making it one of the highest brick towers in the world.

The Madonna and Child sculpture, which can be viewed in the transept, is considered to be Michelangelo’s sole sculpture that was taken from Italy during his lifetime.

Also, the most distinguished landmark of Bruges is its 13th-century Belfry housing – a city carillon made up of 48 bells. The most important of the squares in Bruges are the Grand’Place and the Burg. For over 1,000 years, the Burg square has continued to be the symbol of alliance between the social and religious authorities, plus the seat of many other public institutions such as the dispensing of justice.


The Historical City of Bruge also happens to be the homeland of the Flemish Primitives as well as a center of the growth of painting in the Middle Ages with artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling making significant advances both in illusionism and natural representation. Their Paintings generally has complex iconography with their subjects generally being religious scenes or small portraits with narrative painting or mythological subjects being comparatively rare.


Bruges’s principal gallery, The Groeninghe museum – where some of the best Flemish primitives are stored – is also referred to as ‘The city museum of Fine Arts’. The term ‘Groeninge’ pertains to the immediate ‘Groeninge straat’, which means Groeninge Street. The name also pertains to the Groeninge fields found in the Kortrijk city where the Flemish army defeated the French king’s army in 1302. A superb and very treasured collection of Flemish masters is the pride of the Groening museum. These compilations in the museum span multiple centuries (from the 14th to the 20th century) and focuses generally on works by artists who resided and labored in Bruges.

Jan Van Eyck, by whom the Groeninge Museum keeps two original works plus an early copy, is mostly considered as the originator of the school of Flemish Primitive as well as its generally well-regarded optical realism. He had an enormous impact on Flemish painting in both the fifteenth and sixteenth century. In conjunction with their technical excellence, fine preservation state, and results, the paintings of Jan van Eyck are also outstanding for their objective yet enticing depiction of persons (the saints) and nature, which he brilliantly refabricated in miniature.


The most diverse of the 26 Bruges museums is The Gruuthuse museum – a museum of applied arts found in the house of Louis de Gruuthuse. In the late middle ages, this house belonged to the family Van Brugghe-van der Aa, -the lords of ‘Gruuthuse’ who possessed the monopoly of selling ‘Gruut’ – a medieval mixture of spices used in making beer. The ‘Archaeological Society’ of Bruges established the current art collections and antiques in 1865. The building was at first used by the city of Bruges to display the archaeological collection of the Société Archéologique, and over the years, extended into a more standard museum in 1955 after the city had acquired the collections.

The Gruuthuse collection extends from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. The museum showcases the interior of a house of a rich family, just like how it would have been in the late middle ages with a collection of everyday tools and utensils showing everyday life between the 15th and 19th centuries. The collection includes lace, furniture, goldware, and items of everyday use, which will transport you back through time to medieval Bruges. The main hall in the museum happens to be one of the main attractions with its magnificent collection of Flemish tapestries, richly ornamented rafters, and impressive fireplace, all depicting the wealth and affluence of the lords of Gruuthuse. On exhibit are also the renowned and prestigious lace collections in gold and silver, weapons, ceramics and the small musical instrument cabinet. Among the collection is the most known item- the painted terracotta bust of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

The exterior of the museum is to some extent original, and in part a reconstruction; whiles the interior is generally a reconstruction of the late 19th century Neogothic medieval interior.


Bruges maintains the urban architecture that defines and document its different stages of advancement. And the historic center continues to cover absolutely that same areas as the boundary of the old settlement. The reconstruction of its facades in the late 19th-century reconstructions introduced a neo-Gothic style that is exclusive for Bruges and it continues to be an energetic, living city.

The historic center of Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. In the last half of the 19th century, the city became one of the first tourist sites of the world bringing in wealthy French and British tourists. The city still makes use of a full-time carillonneur that offers free performances on a consistent basis. Reconstructions of household and commercial structures, churches, and ancient monuments brought about an increase in tourism in general as well as economic activity in the ancient downtown area. International tourism has exploded, and new efforts have resulted in Bruges being marked ‘Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2002. It attracts about 7 million tourists every single year.

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