The amazing stucco ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche

I’ve been building up to this for months: the definitive guide to the three-dimensional ceilings created by a German artist in the Low Countries.

The one destroyed by the Belgians last century, in Leuven at the Priory of the Vale of St Martin:

The one that’s just about still there, in the chapel at Schoonhoven Castle near Aarschot:

The one in a country church near Namur, in Franc-Waret:

The one that’s easy to find, in the Church of the Sablon in Brussels:

The one that may not be by Hansche, at the Law Library in Gent:

The one near the airport, at the Church of St Nicholas in Perk:

The one in the inn destroyed in WW2, in Kleve:

The one in the townhouse destroyed in WW2, in Wesel:

The one that’s been in storage for over a century, in Gent:

The one where four out of nine panels survive, off the Brussels ring road:

The one with Jason and Medea, at Horst Castle:

The one with legendary Jesuits, at the Church of Charles Borromeo in Antwerp:

The one that’s now private, in Gent:

The one that’s painted in colour, at Modave Castle:

The best of the lot: the library and refectory ceilings at the Park Abbey, near Leuven.

Enjoy!

Stucwerk, Hechtwerk van het Kasteel te Boxmeer, by W.V.J. Freling

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Toch zijn er in het 18e eeuwse deel van na de verbouwing van 1782-1784 nog sporen van een eerdere verschijningsvorm te vinden. De vleugel waar de ridderzaal nog aanwezig is, stamt uit het begin van de 17c eeuw. Aan de hand van oude tekeningen is er een reconstructie van het oude kasteel en van de laat 18e eeuwse vorm gemaakt. Van beide verschijningsvormen zijn maquettes gemaakt die op het kasteel aanwezig zijn.Nevertheless, in the 18th century part of [the building], after the 1782-1784 renovation, traces of an earlier appearance can still be found. The wing where the knights’ hall survives, dates from the early 17th century. A reconstruction of the old castle and its late 18th century form has been made on the basis of old drawings. Models of both versions can be seen at the castle.

This is a really short book about the stucco ceilings at the Castle of Boxmeer in the Netherlands, which the custodians kindly sent me after a phone query. I had hoped that it might be yet more work of the great Jan Christian Hansche, based on a reference in a Dutch source. However, most of the stucco in Boxmeer seems to date from after his time. There is a cryptic signature in one of the ceilings which looks like “Hen. Hansche” or “Ger. Hansche”; but my Hansche had two daughters and a son who like him was named Jan, so it doesn’t even seem to be the same family. I’ll hope to get up there and make my own assessment, but it’s not a priority.

people: jan

The stucco ceilings of Jan Christian Hansche, part 10: biography, the ones you can’t see in Gent, and the Kasteel van Horst

My quest to find all of the surviving stucco ceilings by Jan Christian Hansche has come to an end, I think. Today I visited the last of his surviving work that is on display; but before I get to that, a couple of related points. (Previous entries in this series:  Park Abbey in Leuventhe Chateau de Modave near Namurthe ones that have been destroyed in Germanythe Church of St Nicholas at Perk near Brusselsthe Church of St Remigius at Franc-Waret also near Namurthe Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerptwo ceilings in Gentthe Sablon in Brussels and Beaulieu Castle in Machelen; Schoonhoven Castle in Aarschot.)

First off, I came across this Facebook post by Jan Caluwaerts on the documentary records of Hansche’s life – and I actually went and had a good long conversation with Jan Caluwaerts about it yesterday, for which many thanks. It turns out that Hansche was from the town of Olfen in Germany, not so far from Kleve and Wesel where we know he worked. His three children were baptised in Brussels in 1651, 1653 and 1654. In 1661 he applied for (and got) citizenship in Brussels, along with his assistant Hendrick Daelemans.

In his citizenship application, he claims that he has lived in Brussels for ten years, and has worked inside and outside of the city, in churches, monasteries, and the homes of prelates, princes and lords, and that his fame has spread to Italy, Austria and Germany. Given that only the Antwerp, Horst and Machelen ceilings survive from before 1661, and the only surviving Brussels work is from 1684, there must have been a lot of Hansche’s work in Brussels which was destroyed by the French bombardment in 1695.

Brussels, then as now, was the regional capital and the ideal place to pick up commissions. But it was necessary for Hansche to join the Guild of Plasterers and Stuccadors, who did their best to regulate him to do things their way – in particular, they tried to force him to accept a Brussels-born apprentice (and eventually succeeded), and made him pay fines for non-compliance with the regulations; when he paid the fines out of the massive fees he had got for his ceilings, they tried to raise the fines. Eventually in 1666 he just left Brussels; whether he established a permanent base elsewhere is not recorded, but the big later projects in Leuven, Modave and Gent must have required him to be on-site most of the time.

Speaking of Gent: five panels by Hansche survive from the house of the Canfyn family, which was demolished in 1902. I have spoken to two people who have seen them, but they are in storage in a workshop near Gent, waiting for the right moment to put them on display. The panels represent Time and the Four Seasons, and fortunately photographs of all five are in the online Gent city archive.

Here is Time (not sure about the iconography here – could it actually be the Assumption?):

A slightly blurry Spring, but helpfully the date is clear:

A more blurry Summer, though you can see that the figure at bottom right leans out of the panel:

A clearer Autumn, with fauns and humans making wine, several of them instruding into our space:

And a much clearer Winter. Look at the firewood protruding to the right.

I don’t see an actual signature by Hansche here, but maybe it’s in a part of the artwork that was not photographed (or has been lost).

Today I completed my tour of the surviving Hansche ceilings with a visit to the Castle of Horst, between Leuven and Aarschot. It’s usually closed, but they are having a Heritage Day today, and I was greeted at the gates by a piper.

The castle itself is rather gorgeous, and is the base for the Red Knight in the well-known Flemish series of comics.

Sadly the castle is in very poor shape, though repairs are scheduled to start Real Soon Now. There are three rooms with Hansche ceilings – not quite as elaborate as some (he seems to have really got into his groove after 1655, when these are dated) but interesting enough. Here’s the ceiling of the antechamber, two panorama shots taken from opposite sides of the room so that the middle panel is there twice from different angles.

The badly damaged cartouche on the right has the date 1655.

The ceilings were commissioned by the owner of the castle, Maria-Anna van den Tympel after her husband, Albert Mulert, had died in 1644. She herself died in 1658, so had only three years to enjoy Hansche’s stuccos, which have lasted more than three and a half centuries since.

Upstairs are two rooms with much more impressive stuff from Hansche. The biggest room shows stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The first panel shows the story of Battus being turned into a stone for being indiscreet. Apollo, on the left, has got too distracted playing his pipes to look after his cattle; Mercury, on the right, steals the cattle and realises that Battus, in the middle, is likely to snitch on him, and transforms him to stone; you can see his legs becoming rock. (What secret was the baroness worrying about?)

The next two show the much better known story of Jason and Medea. Jason and the Argonauts had come from afar to Colchis (now Georgia, of course) in search of the Golden Fleece, guarded by a dragon. Medea, the daughter of the king, falls in love with Jason and in the first panel he meets her at the temple of Hecate, where she provides him with herbs to drug the dragon. In the second panel he pours the drugs onto the dragon, to make it fall asleep so that he can grab the Golden Fleece off the tree behind it. It’s a story that fascinates me for other reasons.

The next two panels show the story of Cephalus and Procris, a king and queen who had a rather on-again, off-again relationship. In the first frame, they are getting back together again after one of their arguments, and Procris presents Cephalus with a hunting dog and a spear that never misses. Alas, she became suspicious of him and followed him while he was hunting; he threw the inerrant spear at the suspicious rustle where she was hiding in the bushes, and killed her. (I would add that poor dying Procris has the most realistic female torso of any of Hansche’s figures that I have seen anywhere.)

Finally, we have Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection and about to be transformed into a daffodil, to the dismay of his dog (or dogs).

The final room has just four allegorical panels, three of which do not seem linked to any particular myth. It also has badly decayed biblical scenes pained on the walls.

The fabric of the building is generally in poor shape.

Anyway, here is a woodcutter, having a go at the tree and realising that NON VNO STERNITUR ICTV (it is not felled with one blow), a standard saying about the virtues of perseverance.

Here’s King David, playing the harp to the motto MVSICA SERVA DEI (music is the handmaid of God). Note the Tetragrammaton יהוה‎ in wobbly Hebrew script crammed into the upper right corner.

By the fireplace is a more enigmatic piece, Mars and Minerva holding cornucopias, and the slogan IN NOCTE CONSILIVM (council by night).

And finally, at the other end of the room, it’s Mars again but this time with Venus and the slogan ARTE ET MARTE (by skill and valour). It also has Hansche’s own signoff – the date ANNO 1655 and his initials I C H (for Ian Christian Hansche).

These are not as daring as Hansche’s later work – perhaps he was still struggling to find a way for limbs, weapons and monsters to emerge from the ceiling. But they somehow feel more personal. I am struck that in the Ovid room the first panel (Battus) is about betrayal of a confidence about a sin and the other three feature doomed love (Jason and Medea, Cephalus and Procris, and Narcissus with himself). It’s also interesting that the well-educated woman who commissioned the work has the goddesses of wisdom and of love separately consorting with Mars in the last room.

Unfortunately we know little more of her except the dates of her birth (1606), marriage (1636), widowhood (1644), inheritance of the castle from a cousin (1650) and her own death (1658). She had no surviving children, and after her death the castle went to her nephew, who was married to a niece of her husband’s. We can make some guesses, I think.

So, that’s the end for now of my search for Hansche’s work. There are precisely ten places where it can still be seen in situ, chronologically as follows:

1653 sacristy ceiling in Charles Borromeus church, Antwerpen
1655 Horst
castle, Sint-Pieters-Rode; see above
1659 Beaulieu Castle, Machelen
(1660: I have reluctantly struck the library ceiling at the University of Gent from my list; it just doesn’t look like Hansche’s work at all.)
1666-1672 Modave castle
1668-70 St Nicholas church, Perk
1669 St Remigius church, Franc-Waret
1671 chapel ceiling at Schoonhoven castle, Aarschot
1672/1679 Park Abbey, Leuven
(1672 – lost ceilings depicting St Martin and St Augustine in St Martin’s Priory, Leuven, demolished in 19th century)
(also around 1672 – lost ceilings in Wesel, Germany, destroyed in WW2)
(1673 Canfyn House, Gent – see above; house demolished in 1902 but ceilings are in storage)
1673 Brouwershuis, Gent
(1677 – lost ceilings in Kleve, Germany, destroyed in WW2)
1684 Our Lady of the Victories chuch, Grand Sablon, Brussels

There are a lot of gaps in the above. We only know of three that have been destroyed in the last century or so; there must have been a lot more once, especially before 1695 in Brussels.

I am thinking of putting all of this together into a small but lavishly illustrated ebook, and there are one or two other research ends that I still want to pursue. But the main chunk of this project is over, for now.

The stucco ceilings of Jan Christian Hansche, part 9: Schoonhoven Castle, Aarschot (and Roland Rens)

My quest to find the remaining stucco ceilings of the 17th century artist Jan Christian Hansche is reaching a conclusion. (The story so far: Park Abbey in Leuven; the Chateau de Modave near Namur; the ones that have been destroyed in Germany; the Church of St Nicholas at Perk near Brussels; the Church of St Remigius at Franc-Waret also near Namur; the Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp; two ceilings in Gent; the Sablon in Brussels and Beaulieu Castle in Machelen.)

Yesterday I ventured a little bit to the north of Leuven, to visit Schoonhoven Castle near Aarschot. The castle is the private property of Dr S and Mrs B, who bought it as a ruin in the 1990s and have restored it to a state of glory. Most of the building dates from the 18th century, but the 17th century chapel survived, and the stucco ceiling by Hansche, dated to 1671, has been partially reconstructed by Dr S and Mrs B.

Dr S and Mrs B in the chapel

Sadly, it is the least extensive of any of the surviving Hansche works that I have found. In this panoramic shot of the chapel, you can see the three gilded monograms immediately above the altar:

And here is a closer shot – from left to right, there is the Marian monogram IXXR (actually MAR written together), the standard IHS for her son, and a curious third monogram: a crowned combination of S and, I think, L.

I can’t agree with Marc Van Vaeck who thinks it is a St Joseph monogram; the other letter is clearly an L, not a J, and St Joseph is not usually crowned. The work was commissioned by Charles-Philippe d’Eynatten / Karel-Filips van Eynatten, none of whose initials are S or L in French or in Dutch. S could of course be for Schoonhoven, the name of the castle itself, but the L still baffles me. Charles-Philippe did not marry, and his siblings were Philippe-Gilles, Catherine, Marie-Madeleine and Anna Maria, none of whom has either of the right initials.

We can compare the other two monograms to their equivalents in Hansche’s earlier ceiling in Antwerp. The iconography of the pierced heart is familiar.

There’s also a splendid ceiling lantern, which is however difficult to photograph.

Dr S and Mrs B have only been able to restore the altar end of the chapel. In the attic they have several more pieces of Hansche stucco which they found literally lying on the floor, having fallen off the ceiling, which they have not yet been able to put back – the necessary infrastructure just isn’t there. They kindly allowed me to look at the fragments, which are laid out next to a rather alarming Jesus from a later date, who has also been removed from the chapel. This is literally the closest I have physically got to Hansche’s work, since it’s usually way up high.

Marc Van Vaeck says that originally there were also two scenes of the life of the Holy Family here, one of which was similar to the one Hansche had done a couple of years earlier in Franc-Waret; no trace remains of them. It’s awfully sad that this beautiful art was allowed to decay, but I’m glad that what remains is in the loving hands of Dr S and Mrs B.

I went to nearby Aarschot to buy lunch, and came across two striking modern sculptures there, both by local artist Roland Rens. First is a 1995 tribute to the Grenadier Guards who liberated the town in 1944:

And also the Demerwachter, a mythic figure monitoring the River Demer, and not really looking like he enjoys the assignment:

So, that’s one more Hansche ceiling ticked off my list. I have booked to visit the last surviving Hansche ceiling in Belgium, at the Kasteel van Horst, on 24 April; and I’ve also found a reference suggesting that there is some of his work at Boxmeer Castle in the Netherlands, near to the lost works at Kleve and Wesel, and hope to visit there on 1 May. The quest is the quest!

The stucco ceilings of Jan Christian Hansche, part 8: the Sablon in Brussels, Beaulieu Castle in Machelen

As my regular reader knows, I have been hunting down the remaining stucco ceilings of the 17th century artist Jan Christian Hansche for the last few months. (The story so far: Park Abbey in Leuven; the Chateau de Modave near Namur; the ones that have been destroyed in Germany; the Church of St Nicholas at Perk near Brussels; the Church of St Remigius at Franc-Waret also near Namur; the Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp; and two ceilings in Gent.)

Earlier this week I came across a fascinating article by Marc Van Vaeck of the Catholic University of Leuven, which looks in detail at three of Hansche’s ceilings, two of which I had seen and one of which I haven’t yet. The article is in Dutch, but I think anyone can appreciate the photographs.

One fact particularly caught my eye: there is actually some of Hansche’s work in Brussels, in the church of Our Lady of the Victories between the Place du Petit Sablon and Place du Grand Sablon, beside the Rue de la Régence. I have gone past the church probably hundreds of times in the last 23 years, but only been inside once, for a concert three years ago.

The Sablon is only a quarter of an hour’s walk from my office, so I went over there one day last week, and by coincidence professor Van Vaeck phoned just as I was walking and we had a long conversation while I looked at the ceilings. You can actually tour the Sablon church virtually – the Hansche stuccos are on the vault immediately above the entrance and under the organ loft.

There’s not all that much here – I think only the church at Franc-Waret has less Hansche work, of what I have seen – and I was a bit confused by the iconography, no doubt reflecting my own ignorance. But the panels themselves are typically vivid examples of Hansche’s work, three-dimensional figures leaning out of the ceiling into our space.

It’s three large panels flanked by two smaller ones; my pictures of the smaller ones are not good, but going left to right we’ll start with a pope, though I do not know which one:

Then a knight (St George?) slaying a dragon:

In the middle, a really ambitious piece showing Our Lady and the Holy Child on a ship, from which a pennant flies with her name on, and two other passengers or crew lurking at either end. There may be a specific legend at play here that I don’t know; in any case, Our Lady, Star of the Sea is the patron saint of the Netherlands, and a miraculous statue of her in that capacity is venerated at Maastricht, which is not so very far away.

Next is another dragon-slaying knight, or possibly the same one again. St George is very popular around here.

And finally, I’m afraid I did not get as good a shot of the final panel, which appears to be Our Lady again.

Hansche helpfully dated the work, so we know it was done in 1684.

That was unexpected and very welcome, and those of you in or passing through Brussels can easily check it out for yourself. There is much else to see in the church, of course.

Earlier today, Anne and I were able to visit the Kasteel van Beaulieu in Machelen (which is a different place from Mechelen), on the northern fringe of Brussels. The castle has had a chequered past; the Duke of Marlborough stayed there in 1706 after the battle of Ramillies, but in the twentieth century it fell into disrepair, before being rescued by the Quirynen family. who now maintain it.

The main reception room in the castle originally had nine panels by Jan Christian Hansche, reflecting excerpts from the Labours of Hercules. Three of the nine have been completely lost, and two are damaged and stored in the attic. There was also a Hansche ceiling on the vault at the very top of the castle, which has been lost apart from a few fragments. Jo Quirynen was good enough to give us a tour.

Despite the fragmentary survival rate of the Beaulieu panels, they are tremendously gripping. The most vivid is the depiction of Hercules slaying the Hydra – here the Hydra has the usual multiple serpentine heads sinuously rippling out of the ceiling, but also a tremendous arthropod-like set of legs. If you are able to cross your eyes for the stereoscopic effect, you may be able to see just how strong it is. Herk’s nephew stands behind the beast with a flaming brand to cauterise the stumps as each head is cut off – if he did not, two would grow to replace each one as it is removed.

The other particularly three-dimensional panel (above Anne in the photo) is Hercules slaying the dragon that guards the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, which is also one of the vivid panels in the Brouwershuis in Gent. I am interested that, unlike in Gent, the apples themselves are not visible.

There are in fact two different and contradictory versions of the story of Hercules and the Golden Apples, and we have both in Beaulieu. In one as we have just seen, Hercules does the job himself by slaying the dragon. In the other, he encounters the giant Atlas, holding up the heavens, whose daughter is the guardian of the Apples, and Hercules persuades Atlas to go and ask her nicely for them in return for holding up the burden while he is away. There is then a moment of drama, as Atlas unsuccessfully attempts to trick Hercules into holding the heavens up forever, and that’s what we have here, Herk’s elbow and knee sticking out.

Finally for my purposes (actually earliest in the internal chronology of the legend), Hercules battles the three-headed Geryon, in a scene later stolen by Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Hercules has already slain Geryon’s two-headed dog, Orthron, whose hindquarters are also visible in the panel (above Jo Quirynen in my photo above). Geryon’s cattle, who were the object of Herk’s quest, are not seen here. I’m struck by the loving depiction of Hercules’ own hindquarters, and there is more evidence from one of the lost panels (which sadly I cannot yet share here) that confirms my suspicion that Hansche was more interested in the male than the female body.

The lost panel also has the date 1659, so these are a full quarter-century older than the stuccos in the Sablon, and have survived the ravages of three and a half centuries for us to enjoy today.

That leaves just two more castles to visit with Hansche ceilings, both near here, both of which I hope to get to in April, though I have also picked up a rumour that there is some more surviving Hansche work down near Namur. I will keep you informed.

The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche, part 7: a visit to Gent

F and I went to Gent last weekend to track down a couple more of the seventeenth century stucco ceilings of Jean-Christian Hansche. One of them is in the library of the law faculty of the University of Gent;Luc De Bie, the faculty secretary, wants it to be known that he is very happy to show visitors around by appointment, and he gave us a great tour of the buildings as a whole. I think I would recommend going at a warmer time of year, to take advantage of the courtyards.

The building is lovely, but I’m afraid I only had eyes for the library and its ceiling.

As you can see from the picture, there is a gallery all round the side of the room, from which you can get a closer look at the detail though you lose the big picture.

We were a group of six: left to right, here are F, Luc De Bie, and three friends of mine who live in Gent, R, JC and L – all masked and socially distanced.

To be honest, it’s the least adventurous of the seven Hansche ceilings that I have seen so far, and we wondered if it might have been one of his earlier works. It lacks the shocking three-dimensionality of the Park, Perk and Modave stuccos, or the lost ones in Germany, and even the Antwerp and Franc-Waret ceilings have a few projections into our space.

However, the detail is still beautiful. Mythological beasts cavort in pursuit of wisdom, and people and plants soothe the nerves.




Incidentally I think those are boy dragons. (Or possibly gryphons, someone on social media suggested.)


Hansche certainly had balls.

It did make me reflect that there are not very many women figures in Hansche’s work, and they generally aren’t as striking as the men. On the law library ceiling there are a couple of rather crude bat-like creatures with chest bumps, not quite as vivid as the dragons or whatever they are.


So that’s the Gent law library: a lovely space which students are fortunate to be able to use, as originally intended. It’s had a bit of a history – at one point it was a laboratory for chemistry students (one shudders to think of the effect on the stucco) and at a different time it was a gymnasium.

That is not the only work by Hansche in the Gent area. The other is in a private house,whose owner, Mrs D, generously allowed me and F to look at it last weekend while we were in the neighbourhood. What’s now Mrs D’s living room was originally built as a meeting room for one of the guilds, and has since been a coach repair shop and a perfume shop – again, think of the chemical effects on the plaster!

Mrs D’s ceiling is spectacular, at the top of my list along with the Park and Modave ceilings. It’s also less elevated than any of the others, including the law library, so you feel that you are right in the middle of Hansche’s world. At Mrs D’s request, we did not take photographs of her ceiling ourselves. However, there is a brilliant picture showing the scale in a 1995 book called Flanders: The Art of Living by Piet Swimberghe with photographs by Jan Verlinde.

In addition, the Gent city archive has several in stock, taken many years ago, which they have given permission for me to copy here. The most striking panel is the centrepiece, Phaethon and his chariot falling from the sky (Collection Archive Gent, Inventory number SCMS_FO_7496), also in the 1995 photograph above.

The figures of Phaethon and the horses are correctly proportioned and intruding into our space. It’s really startling. This was also the subject for one of the lost Hansche panels in Kleve:

The other panels in Gent are scenes from the Labours of Hercules, all again very three-dimensional. Here Herk is biffing the Lernaean Hydra, with his head, his club and the monster’s neck and head all solidly protruding – though the Hydra is usually depicted with more than one head (Collection Archive Gent, Inventory number SCMS_FO_7497):

It’s much more ambitious than Hansche’s treatment of the same subject at Modave, where the monster has more heads (as is traditional) but the 3D execution is much less:

Back in Gent, here is Hercules killing the dragon that guards the golden apples of Hesperides with a single arrow. His bow, like Phaethon’s reins, is ironwork rather than plaster. His arm and the dragon’s head, and the bow, are all in our space. The dragon’s tongue is slightly tinted red even after all these years (Collection Archive Gent, Inventory number SCMS_FO_7494, rotated).

Though again I found myself questioning Hansche’s depiction of women. This may possibly be Hercules seizing the belt of the Amazon queen Hippolytathe lion’s mane that he is wearing (Collection Archive Gent, Inventory number SCMS_FO_7493, cropped).

Anyway, I’m tremendously grateful to Mrs D for letting us see her ceiling.

So, I still have three nearby castles to visit with Hansche stucco ceilings, all in private ownership; I am in touch with one of the owners so far, but my next trip will have to wait until I get back from my coming US trip. This is a very interesting little project.

The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche, part 6: the Charles Borromeo sacristy in Antwerp

Well, I’ve been able to change the colours of a couple of dots on my map:

I have to start by reporting a dead end, unfortunately. The Inventaris Onroerend Erfgoed had led me to believe that there might be a Hansche ceiling actually in our commune, over in Blanden. After diligent research I was able to get in touch with the owners, who however denied that there is any work by Hansche on the premises. So I’ll have to take no for an answer.

Persistence was also required for the northernmost surviving work by Hansche, on the ceiling of the sacristy of the church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp. The sacristy is not open to the public, but I got special permission from the man in charge, D, so Anne and I went up to Antwerp yesterday. Here are Anne and D in the sacristy itself.

The sacristy ceiling is the earliest and perhaps least developed of Hansche’s surviving work, but even so it did not disappoint. Here are two panoramas of the eastern and western panels, unfortunately missing out the middle as the floor was blocked by tables, south at the top, north at the bottom (sorry, I was not paying attention to the compass directions).

The church is a Jesuit church, and the most interesting figure on the ceiling is the Jesuit martyr St Paul Miki, at the northern end of the room, carrying with him the instruments of his martyrdom (and maybe a palm frond, indicating Japan???). The sidebar of his cross protrudes into our space.

Right beside him, one of the poles for carrying what looks like the Ark of the Covenant also sticks out into our space.

On his other side is what looks to me like a cat asleep on a drum. Anne thinks it’s obviously a sheep/lamb. I would love to know what the symbolism is here.

Most of the other ceiling panels seem to be Jesuits doing Jesuity things, three of them threatened by heavenly lightning, none quite as dramatic as the unfortunate Paul Miki.



The central monograms are beautifully worked – I don’t think I’ve seen this as much in Hansche’s later work.


Finally, as far as the ceiling goes, the two southern corner pieces depict food and drink.

But I also want to show you the ornate mouldings on the north and south walls, split in each case by a painting in the middle.


We are lucky to have this early Hansche work. The roof of most of the church was destroyed by a fire after the church was struck by lightning in 1718, and 39 ceiling pieces by Peiter Paul Rubens were lost in the blaze; but the sacristy was spared. Two of Rubens’ altarpieces still survive at ground level. It’s no exaggeration to say that he and Hansch between them put the “rock” into Baroque here.

The church as a whole is a Baroque dream:

The carved wooden side panels are also rather glorious. I will only give a couple of examples to whet your appetite. Here’s St Francis Xavier, doing Good Works.

And I’m amused and intrigued by the sassy hip-swinging androgynous supporting figures:

If you happen to be in Antwerp, it’s well worth dropping in.

I’ve managed to book a visit to the law library at Gent University on Saturday morning next weekend, to see more Hansche stucco; you are welcome to join me.

The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche part 5: the church of Saint Rémi at Franc-Waret

I ventured into darkest Wallonia yeteday, to find another example of the ceiling work of 17th century stucco artist Jan Christian Hansche. This was in the church of St Remigius, Saint Rémi locally, in the village of Franc-Waret near Namur. It’s the least well-known of Hansche’s work – I found it not on a Belgian site but in the Netherlands Institute for Art History lists. The Wikipedia page for the church goes into great detail about the art and who paid for it, but fails to name any of the artists.

I knew that the church is only open for 5pm Mass on Sundays, so got there at 4.30, to find it locked of course, with dusk falling. The priest arrived just after a quarter to, and made it lear that I was welcome to come in and photograph the ceiling. A slightly older couple appeared and it became obvious that it would be churlish not to stay for Mass, since the three of us were the only congregation, so I stuck around.

As I should have anticipated, they asked me to do the readings – but my French is not really up to public speaking and I stumbled a bit over “se prosterneront” in Psalm 72:11. It was not exactly the Volunteer Organist. I don’t think I have been to any religious service in French in the last twenty years, and it will be a while before I go again.

Anyway. The point of the trip was the stucco work of Jan Christian Hansche, and there is a really fine Holy Family above the choir of the church, dated 1663, with Christ’s parents leaning out of the ceiling into our space.

Above the crossing is a representation of the Holy Trinity, which surely must also be by Hansche – it’s very baroque.

I suspect that the nave may have originally had more Hansche ceilings; unfortunately the church was “improved” in the nineteenth century, and there are three rather flat depictions of St Anne educating her daughter, the Virgin and Child and Christ triumphant which are not a patch on Hansche’s work.

The whole church is pretty ornate.

Hand on heart, I could not recommend the church of Saint Rémi at Franc-Waret to the casual tourist. But if you happen to be in the neighbourhood of Namur early on a Sunday evening, or if you are able to get it thrown in as an extra when visiting the castle next door, it’s definitely worth dropping in.

The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche, part 4: The Church of St Nicholas at Perk

My little project to see all the remaining work of the 17th-century stucco sculptor Jan-Christian Hansche promises to pose a number of challenges. Very few of the eleven buildings where his magnificent ceilings remain are open to the public on a regular basis. Also, not many of them are all that close to here, as you will see from my map:

One of the exceptions is the church of St Nicholas at Perk, a small village in the municipality of Steenokkerzeel, right beside the runways of Zaventem Airport, 20 km from here. I first tried to visit as an excursion to prove that I was getting well after my bout with COVID, two weeks ago on Sunday 5 December. Unfortunately I arrived at 1030 just as the sacristan was locking up, so I gritted my teeth and tried again last weekend, arriving at 0930 in time for Mass which lasted just over half an hour. After Mass there was no problem for me to photograph Hansche’s work, and indeed another tourist had also come just for a look, but the lesson is that you need to be prompt sometimes.

Just to give you perspective, here are two shots of the ceiling from different directions, first from the door looking towards the altar, second from the altar looking towards the organ over the door.


The six panels show the four Evangelists, the church’s original patron (the Blessed Virgin) and its current patron (my own saint, St Nicholas). The order from door to altar is John, Matthew, Nicholas, Mary, Luke, Mark for some reason. I’ll present them in the more traditional order, starting with St Matthew and the angel:

St Mark and the lion:

St Luke and the ox:

Poor St John and the eagle are hidden by the organ:

The Blessed Virgin and child – not sure what she is holding, but it’s one of the classic Hansch leaning-out-of-the-ceiling pieces:

And St Nicholas with the three children who he resurrected; his mitre and the middle child both leaning into our space.

The stucco is not in the best of shape after 350 years, and apparently major restoration work is planned between now and 2023, so if you can postpone your visit until then you’ll be rewarded. Even so, the middle two panels, of St Nicholas and the Blessed Virgin, are electrifying.

The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche, part 3: the ones I’ll never see

I have recently become fascinated with the work of the 17th-century sculptor Jan-Christian Hansche (name spelt in various ways in different sources), who I found out about visiting the Park Abbey, near us, and then the Château de Modave out in Wallonia. His specialisation was in three-dimensional stucco ceilings of incredible detail. Very little is known about him or his life; all the work that he is known to have done was in Belgium or in the Lower Rhine district of Germany, which was under Dutch rule in his lifetime (though before he worked there). I’ve compiled a Google Map locating all of his work that I could find. (Blue – places I’ve been; Green – places I haven’t been to yet but hope to visit; Red – Germany.)

I will never see the Hansche sculptures in Germany, and here’s why.

Let’s start with Wesel, the farthest east of any of Hansche’s work; Wesel incidentally was the birthplace of Peter Minuit, the founder of Nieuw Amsterdam, now New YorkJoachim von Ribbentrop.

Here are two lovely Christmas scenes, originally commissioned for the ceiling of a patrician house on the Fischmarkt in Wesel, later occupied by the Rigaud family. There must have been more than just the Nativity and the Nunc Dimittis originally, but this is all I could find, from this article. Click to embiggen:

I just love the arm of Anna the prophetess reaching up in adoration of the baby.

After the Nazis took power in 1933, the Hansche ceiling in Wesel was moved from its original home in the Fischmarkt and reinstalled in the former castle of the Dukes of Kleve on the Kornmarkt, as part of the buildup of a new municipal museum. 97% of Wesel was destroyed in Allied bombing raids in February and March 1945, the heaviest being in March shortly before the town was captured by Allied ground forces. It is a cliche to say that a bombed-out city looks like the surface of the moon, but there’s some justification in this case.

The Fischmarkt has disappeared from the map, and the site of the old ducal castle where the Hansche ceilings would have been in 1945 is now the municipal cultural and education centre.

Wesel was part of the territory of the Dukes of Kleve, and we’re going a short hop down the Rhine to Kleve itself next. Kleve is best known in English history in the name of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (though in fact she was born in Düsseldorf and grew up in Solingen, both of them 100 km or so to the south). In German culture Kleve is known for its association with the Swan Knight, Lohengrin. (Dah dum-da-dum. Dah dum-da-dum!)

According to a nineteenth-century guide to art in the Kleve district, visitors to the inn “Zum Grossen Kurfürst” could look up and see a large stucco by Hansche. Fortunately the innkeeper was sufficiently aware of the commercial potential that he produced postcards of his own ceiling. The first panel shows Venus feeding a horse and Cupid as a centaur:

We then have Zeus kidnapping Europa:

Seven bacchantes bearing flowers, with Mercury, god of trade, floating over them (not a brilliant photo):

The Fall of Phaethon (I love this one, he’s tumbling directly into our space):

Diana kissing the sleeping Endymion:

And Mars and Venus caught in adultery, which Hansche actually signed.

The inn Zum Grossen Kurfürsten is visible on the right of this postcard of the Kleiner Markt, showing also the Church of the Assumption.

Here’s a more recent picture of the Kleiner Markt, posted by Nikodem Niklewicz to Google Maps. As you can see, no trace of Zum Grossen Kurfürsten remains.

Kleve was heavily bombed on the night of 7 February 1945, a young Richard Dimbleby coming along to report breathlessly. It is claimed that it was the most bombed city of its size in Germany, with the level of destruction greater than in Dresden. (I don’t know how one could really measure this.)

Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks, who ordered the bombing, described it as “the most terrible decision I had ever taken in my life” … “I felt a murderer. And after the war I had an awful lot of nightmares, but always Cleves.” The rubble was so extensive that it actually slowed down the Allied ground troops when they arrived a couple of days later. Bombs from the war are still being found in Kleve (2014, 2015, 2019, 2021 and again in 2021).

Fans of sculpture in general will still find a visit to the Kleiner Markt in Kleve worthwhile, even though Zum Grossen Kurfürsten has gone. In the middle of the square you will find the Fountain of Fools, seven water-spouting faces at different heights, commemorating a local carnival tradition.

Up beside the church you will find the “Dead Warrior” by Ewald Mataré. This was originally commissioned as a memorial to Kleve’s fallen soldiers of the First World War. But the Nazi regime condemned it as “degenerate art”, removed it, smashed it and buried it. The fragments were discovered in the 1970s and it was restored by Mataré’s pupil Elmar Hillebrand. A monument to the tragedy of war fitted the Zeitgeist of the later twentieth century rather better than the 1930s.

I have friends in Nijmegen, just across the Dutch border. Maybe some day I’ll visit them and nip over to Kleve. (And maybe even Wesel.)

The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche part 2: More stucco ceilings at the Château de Modave

Today being a public holiday, I successfully persuaded the family to go for a trip to the lower Ardennes, specifically to the château at Modave, the far side of Huy, just where the landscape starts to get interesting. My reason for this goes back to the summer, when I was wowed by the stucco ceilings inside the Park Abbey near Leuven, created by the 17th century artist Jan-Christian Hansche. There are a couple of castles in the Brussels area which also have some of his work (Beaulieu near Machelen and Horst on the other side of Leuven) but neither is open to the public. Modave, however, is.

I was not disappointed. Hansche’s ceilings there are spectacular. The entrance hall features a family tree of the original owner, with mounted knights leaning down out of history and into our space.

These are the only Hansche stuccos that I have seen that were painted.

A neighbouring suite has the theme of the Labours of Hercules – see below the taming of the man-eating mares of Diomedes, the slaying of the nine-headed Hydra and (less distinctly as I could not get a clear shot) the cattle dispute with the three-headed Geryon.

Inset into the walls are some more stuccos, a bit more rounded due to gravity providing a lesser challenge.

Upstairs is another suite where the ceilings have a more military theme – I got only two good pics, but I am very pleased with the cannon pointing out of the ceiling.

I really don’t know of any other artist who did three-dimensional ceiling work like this, from any period of history. So I will set myself a mini-project of finding all of his surviving work. The castles of Beaulieu and Horst do open sometimes, and there are other pieces in places like Ghent.

Modave has other art too, including these lovely panels:

Some striking tapestries:

And grand mural scenes of Rome:

The light was such that I needed an Instagram filter for the view of the front of the castle:

And U was dubious about a sunlit selfie:

Apart from that, she seemed to enjoy it, as did the others.

The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche part 1: The incredible baroque stucco ceilings of the Abdij van Park

If you’re within reach of Leuven, and on the look-out for something a bit different to do this weekend, you could do worse than visiting the Abdij van Park, south of the city. We know it well – Anne actually volunteered in the museum for a few months, a couple of years ago. I started a videoblog entry about it last summer, but never completed it; this was the intro.

The abbey now hosts a religious art museum, Parcum, with a permanent exhibition and a rotating set of temporary displays. This summer – now scheduled to finish on 29 August, though they will surely extend it again – they have opened up some more of the abbey infrastructure for the visiting public. As well as various works of art, this includes the incredible recently restored baroque stucco ceilings of the monks’ refectory and library. Made in 1672 by Jan-Christian Hansche, these are vivid, three-dimensional scenes hanging over your head. Here, for instance, is St Norbert being struck by lightning, an incident that caused the young nobleman to rethink his life and dedicate himself to God.

Here is the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well:

And most striking of all, here is the Last Supper, seen in a mirror on the refectory table, with apostles leaning out of the ceiling into our space:

The rest of the art is interesting enough, but I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like Hansche’s stucco ceilings. Well worth going to see.