Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist
poliphilo

Three "B"s

I toyed with the idea of writing a rhyming alphabet about Belgium, along the lines of "A is for Apple", but it would have been too much like hard work, so I didn't. Had I tried I'd have immediately run up against the problem of what to list under "B" because there are so many "B" things that are intrinsic to Belgium- most notably, Beer, Bikes and Battlefields. Also Bruges, one of the loveliest cities in Europe.

I'm saying "Belgium" but I should be saying Flanders. Flanders is the old, historic identity- which- like other old historic identities - Catalunya for instance- isn't  represented by the lines on the map. The historic Flanders spills over a long way into France. Dunquerkerke is a French town by modern reckoning but really it's in Flanders. Two things give it away. Firstly the name which is a Flemish name and secondly the landscape which is flat.

Modern Belgium is a creation of the mid 19th century- a stitching together of two territories- a bit of Flanders where they speak Flemish and another bit (which I can't tell you anything about because we didn't go there) where the people are called Walloons and speak French. The Flemings hate their French speaking compatriots and wish them to the devil. Belgium is notionally a bi-lingual country- but the Flemings go out of their way not to have any signs up in French- or to speak the language if they can help it. 

The joke about there being no famous Belgians is a little unfair, since they're a tiny country and they've only had since 1830 to produce famous people in. Go back beyond 1830 and there are loads of famous Flemings- many of them painters. The Flemings invented oil paint. In Ghent- which the locals spell without an "h"- we went to see the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb- the Polyptych by the Van Eyck brothers- which announces the arrival of oil painting on the European scene. Actually we only sort of saw it- because it's being cleaned and restored and investigated- and what we got for our 4 Euros apiece was to stand behind plate glass and watch a bunch of people in lab coats dabbing away at its dismembered parts. the main panel had been tucked away round the corner and was scarcely visible at all. I'm not exactly complaining, I don't object to contributing to the restoration of one of the titanic works of European art, but i think they might have warned us ahead of time just what sort of a peep-show we were letting ourselves in for.

The leaflets we picked up referred to the van Eycks as Flemish primitives. This is grossly unfair. There's nothing the least bit primitive about the van Eycks and their school. They represent the last, sophisticated flowering of the high Catholic culture of the Middle Ages. After them came Luther and (following the brief glorious hysteria of the counter-Reformation- Caravaggio, Bernini, Rubens) the degrading of the Catholic Church into a provincial sect incapable of producing any art worth a damn.

Flanders is a Catholic country. I wasn't prepared for that. You'll have gathered I don't like official Catholic art  (melodramatic, sentimental, materialistic, totalitarian).   After I'd seen how they'd ruined the cathedral at Ghent I largely stayed away from churches.  But I do like unofficial Catholic art.  The Madonnas and other saints who inhabit the little shrines on secular buildings and at crossroads are entirely charming.

I'll get back to the "B"s, but for the time being I think this post is long enough.  
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