Spotlight on Ghent and the Ghent Altarpiece

Main photo: Ghent Spires and Gables. Photo ©Martin Corlazzoli, VisitGent

With its canals, its narrow cobbled streets, gabled houses and a skyline pierced by beautiful spires, you could be forgiven in thinking that Ghent hadn’t changed much since its heyday as a major trading city in wool and textiles in the Middle Ages. As Anna Hyman recounts, the buildings are still very much in evidence and today form a picturesque backdrop to a lively and charming city.

City Pavillion. Photo © VisitFlanders

Ghent is certainly well worth a visit. You can get the feel for it in a day, but better still stay and linger longer. There is after all quite lot to see and do and Flanders is surprisingly accessible from London especially if you travel there by train. Change trains in Brussels – and you could be in Ghent in about three hours.

How Ghent grew to be a city

There had been a settlement on the banks of the rivers Scheldt and Leie (Lys) for centuries but it began to grow in importance in Roman times and arguably became more noteworthy thanks to a saint called Amand who chose to build his abbey at the confluence of the two rivers. In fact, it is that very word ‘confluence’ that appears to have given Ghent (Gent) its name, the Flemish word Gent probably having derived from a Celtic word – Ganda – meaning ‘confluence’.

Gent University Botanical Garden. Photo © VisitGent

After its heyday in the Middle Ages Ghent experienced a period of conflict, rebellion and turmoil until with the introduction of a new cotton weaving technique it began to prosper again. A canal was built linking the city to the sea deep enough for sea going vessels; industries sprang up on the banks of the canal and Ghent was back in business.

A city also noted for horticulture

It’s a city also noted for flowers, and coronavirus permitting, the city will hold its massive, inspirational and spectacular flower show ‘Ghent Floralies’ again in 2022, celebrating as it does every five years, its thriving horticultural industry.

Gravensteen Castle…

Must-sees in the city include the imposing Gravensteen, a castle once the seat of the Counts of Flanders when they stayed in Ghent. It dates back to the late 12th century and has also been used as a prison – and a grim cheerless one at that; its dungeons witness to horrendous scenes of torture, and death.

Gravensteen. Photo ©Milo Profi, VisitFlanders

Later in the 18th century the castle became a thriving factory complex for textiles and metal work. Its history is a fascinating one, allow plenty of time for a visit and don’t forget to visit the gruesome exhibition of torture instruments – if you dare!

… and the Corn Market

Following a visit to Gravensteen stroll to the Korenmarkt (Corn Market). It’s close to St Nicholas church by the way – also well worth a visit.

Enjoying a coffee. Photo © VisitFlanders

The bustling square is home to several of the wonderful old guild halls famous for their picturesque architecture. With so many cafes and restaurants it is also a great place to linger for a coffee, a beer or a meal whilst indulging in a spot of people watching thanks in part to its university students who contribute to the joie de vivre of the square and the city.

On the menu

You can eat well in Flanders and in particular in Ghent. Ghent specialities include ‘Waterzooi’, a thick and chunky broth of either fish or chicken enriched with egg yolks and cream which originated in the Middle Ages; ‘Stoverij’ is a traditional Belgian beef stew but Ghent chefs often put their own twist on it by adding kidneys and liver.

Cuberdons. Photo © VisitFlanders

‘Mastel’ is a bread which looks not unlike a bagel. They are cut in half, buttered and sprinkled with brown sugar, and originally were ironed! Today they are flattened, and heated, in a special machine!

Sweet treats and mustard

Tierenteyn Mustard Shop. Photo © Bas Bogaerts, VisitGent

‘Cuberdons’ are raspberry flavoured candies, shaped not unlike a nose, and hard on the outside and sticky and gooey in the middle. They seem to have originated in Flanders in 1873 but have become something of a Ghent delicacy.

Also look out for the sugary ‘Snowballs’ only available September to March. The original snowballs from the Larmuseau confectioners date back over 100 years and have been officially recognised as a Flemish Regional Product.

Inside a crisp thin layer of dark Belgian chocolate dusted with icing sugar lies a light, melting creamed butter vanilla filling.

Don’t forget to buy some mustard to take home. ‘Tierenteyn Mustard’ is a speciality of the shop Tierenteyn-Verlent which has been making it since 1790; also call into the Great Butchers’ Hall and look up at the delicious air-drying ‘Ganda Hams’ hanging in the rafters. It takes a minimum of 10 months for them to dry. 

Canals and Guild Halls

Take a stroll beside the canals that bisect the city and enjoy the waterfronts lined with shops and cafes, and pause awhile on the bridges to admire the beautiful watery vistas. Another way to see the beautiful city is to relax on a guided boat tour along the picturesque waterways from the Graslei quay.

Guildhalls and the Graslei. Photo © VisitFlanders

You get another view of some of the guild halls from the banks of the Graslei canal. Their reflection in the shimmering water of the canal is beautiful.

The Belfry. Photo ©Artoria, VisitFlanders

Look out for the halls of the Free Boatmen dating back to 1531, the Grain Weighers 1698 and the Masons dating back to 1527.  Look closely at the facades of the guild halls for clues as to which guild they belong to.

Close to the church of St Nicholas is Ghent’s historic Belfry – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates back to 1313 but wasn’t finished until 1380. Look out for the splendid dragon, the symbolic guardian of the tower.

If you have the energy (we never have had) climb the 360+ stairs to the top, or cheat and take the lift – we don’t like heights, but we understand that the view from the top is spectacular.

And listen to the Belfry bells. At regular intervals a carillon rings out over the city – can you recognise the melodies?

Museums for all interests

There is a wide choice of museums in Ghent. Not only is there the Gravensteen, but to learn more about Ghent’s story visit the Stam – the City Museum; admire fine art in the Museum of Fine Art, or if contemporary art is more your thing visit SMAK for contemporary art.

Amongst others, there is also a Design Museum; a School of Yesteryear, the House of Alijn featuring the children of Alijn; and the oldest wildlife garden in Flanders – the World of Kina.

Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral

But arguably the jewel in Ghent’s ‘must-see’ crown, and which rightly attracts visitors from all over the world, is the imposing Gothic cathedral of Saint Bavo with its stunning and famous van Eyck altarpiece – ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’.

St Bavo’s Cathedral and St Michaels Bridge. Photo © Bas Bogaerts VisitGent

Whilst there has been a church on the site since 932, the church we see today chiefly dates back to the 15th century.

Admire the magnificent marble altar, the incredible ornate pulpit and organ, the soaring marble columns and the lovely ribbed vaulting of the nave, and in a side chapel – one of my favourite paintings – Ruben’s ‘Conversion of St Bavo’.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and Visitor Centre

Fairly recently The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the van Eyck brothers was on show in a chapel near the entrance to the cathedral. It was a small chapel and so crowded that seeing this astonishing masterpiece was difficult.

But now it takes pride of place in its modern purpose-built Visitor Centre in the Cathedral crypt, redesigned and renovated to create a new visitor experience where visitors can use Augmented Reality glasses or a tablet to bring the altarpiece to life by learning how it was painted, and its history. The special strengthened glass case is some six metres high with climate controls giving the altarpiece both protection from sunlight and fluctuating temperatures.

Van Eyck and the restored Ghent Altarpiece

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was painted by the van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, in the early 15th century.

It is a monumental work of art comprising 12 recto verso painted panels depicting angels, saints and prophets, landscapes, and pilgrims, plus the painting’s donors all surrounding a central panel depicting the iconic and haunting image of the mystic and sacrificial lamb.

Over the centuries the altarpiece has suffered from theft and damage as well as poor restoration. Today, after almost a decade of careful restoration many of the altarpiece’s original details have been revealed, including the almost human-like face of the lamb with its intensely staring eyes gazing out of the canvas.

Saint-Bavos Cathedral. Altarpiece. Photo. Hugo Maertens, Dominique Provost

It also revealed that Hubert van Eyck painted part of the masterpiece, including the lamb, along with the under painting, and that his brother Jan had completed the polyptych in 1432, some six years after Hubert’s death.

Today thanks to modern-day repair and restoration the Ghent altarpiece in its new Visitor Centre glows as brilliantly and breath-takingly as it did when first painted in the Middle Ages.

It is, quite simply, stunning. 

More information

Flanders Tourist Board: / Ghent:

Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral and Visitor Centre:
Our grateful thanks to all the above for their assistance in allowing us access to their pictures