I’ve lived in Belgium since 1999, and near Leuven since 2001, but there are still corners of my adopted country which surprise me. Looming down at us from 350 years ago, a dozen ceilings are all that remains of the work of the stucco artist Jan Christiaan Hansche. Not a lot is known about him, though recent research by Jan Caluwaerts has shed some light. He said that he came from Olfen, a small town between Dortmund and Münster in western Germany; he was living in Brussels by 1651, when his son was baptised there; his earliest surviving work, in Antwerp, is dated 1653; his latest surviving work, in Brussels, is dated 1684. We can guess that he was born in the 1620s and worked until he was about 60. No burial place is known.
The most spectacular of Hansche’s surviving ceilings are in Park Abbey, near Leuven; in Modave Castle, in the Ardennes past Namur; and in a private residence in Gent. The easiest to reach, for those in or passing through Brussels, is the small portico decoration in the Church of Our Lady of Victories on the Sablon. About half of his surviving work is religious, and about half secular, with most of the secular illustrations inspired by Ovid – Marc Van Vaeck of the Catholic University of Leuven has identified Hansche’s direct sources in many cases. Almost all of the growing body of literature about him is in Dutch, with some older pieces in French. I give a bibliography at the end.
In Hansche’s application for burghership of Brussels in 1661, he claims that his work is admired in Italy, Austria and Germany, and that he has already worked inside and outside Brussels for churches, monasteries, prelates, princes and “great lords”. Only three of his works from before 1661 survive, in the Jesuit church in Antwerp and two castles northeast of Brussels. Only two works are known outside Belgium, both destroyed in the Allied bombing of Germany in 1944-45. A ceiling is by its nature less portable and less easy to preserve than a free-standing sculpture, let alone a painting, so it is perhaps not surprising that so little of his work has survived to the present day.
Hansche’s style of three-dimensional stucco sculpture is very unusual. Possibly the best single piece is the Last Supper from the refectory of Park Abbey near Leuven. Here six of the apostles lean out of the ceiling into our space. Jesus’ arm, and the bread which he is consecrating, are also three-dimensional. I have looked fairly hard and found nothing else quite like it.
That’s not to say that I have found nothing similar at all. The ceiling of the western apse of the cathedral in Trier, just across the border with Germany, features angels waving crosses and banners and dangling their limbs all into our space. It’s lighter and more transgressive than Hansche’s work, but also a lot more crowded. The artist is supposedly Giovanni Domenico Rossi, and the usual date given is the 1660s, so exactly contemporaneous with Hansche’s career.
The other work that really reminds me of Hansche is the twelve stucco relief panels in St John Lateran in Rome, six with Old Testament scenes and six with New Testament scenes, each of them above the head of one of the twelve apostles.
Here we do have definite information about the creative process. The Lateran stucco panels were erected about 1650. They were designed by Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654) who did four of them himself, and oversaw the creation of the other eight by Ercole Antonio Raggi (1624-86) and Giovanni Francesco Rossi (active 1640-77, and apparently unconnected with the Trier artist Giovanni Domenico Rossi). The composition of the panels seems to me very similar to Hansche’s work; they date from immediately before he started his career in Brussels. Did he have a hand in them himself, a summer job in Algardi’s workshop?
The French army’s bombardment of Brussels in 1695 reduced a third of the buildings in the city to rubble and badly damaged most of the rest. This must have eliminated much of Hansche’s legacy. The Brussels record from 1661 says that he was already famous for his work in Brussels, but his only surviving ceiling in the city dates from two decades later. The last hundred years have not been kind either. Two of the remaining eleven have been allowed to decay very badly. Two of his ceilings in Germany were destroyed during the Second World War. Another was demolished by Belgian developers in 1958. These are large but fragile wonders.
About half of the remaining works of Jan Christiaan Hansche are open to the public in normal times, including two of the three best (Park Abbey and Modave Castle). I am very grateful to the custodians and owners of the others, who gave me access to their treasures and, in all cases but one, allowed me to photograph them. Please respect their privacy.
But please go and explore and enjoy these amazing works of art. They were built to look at, and they were built to last.
(Almost all of the pictures here are by me and copyright me. The exceptions are noted, including on this page the Fall of Phaethon, which is reproduced with permission of the Stadsarchief of Gent.)
Jan Caluwaerts, Valerie Herremans and Jan Verbeke, “Het stucensemble van de Sint-Niklaaskerk in Perk: Een sleutelwerk in het oeuvre van de Brusselse kalcksnijder Jan Christiaen Hansche”, in Monumenten en Landschappen (2023) 42/2 p. 39-56, looks at the Perk ceiling and published Hansche’s biographical details for the first time.
Jan Gerits, “Jan-Christiaen Hansche, een 17de-eeuwse kunstenaar van formaat” in Meer Schoonheid. 36 (1989). 65-77 & 100-105
Johan Grootaers and Jan Verbeke, “Calcsnyer Ian Christiaen Hansche in de refter van de Parkabdij in Heverlee: de minutieuze restauratie van het monumentaal stucwerkplafond van 1679”, in Monumenten en Landschappen (2020) 39/5, p. 27-46.
Pieter Van Den Bos, “Meester Hansche. Ruimtevaarder van de gouden eeuw”, in Brabant (1986). nr. 3, 8-14
Marc van Vaeck, “Beelden van omhoog. Hansches 17de-eeuwse plafonddecoraties in stucwerk in de kastelen van Horst, Modave en Beaulieu en in het Gentse Brouwershuis”, in Monumenten en Landschappen (1997) 16/5 p. 21-55
William Verrees, “Stucplafonds in hoog-reliëf van Jan-Christiaen Hansche”, in De Brabantse Folklore. (1980). nr. 225, 5-29
(The one that might not be by Hansche in the Gent law library)
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from most to least amazing:
Leuven – Park Abbey | Modave Castle | Gent – Brouwershuis | Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | Gent – Canfyn House (in storage) | Wesel, Germany (destroyed) | Kleve, Germany (destroyed) | Perk – Church of St Nicholas | Brussels – Church of the Sablon | Franc-Waret – Church of St Remigius | Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | Leuven – Priory of the Vale of St Martin (destroyed, little known)
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from earliest to latest date of creation:
1653: Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | 1655: Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | 1659: Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | 1666-72: Modave Castle | 1668-70: Perk – Church of St Nicholas | 1669: Franc-Waret – Church of St Remigius | 1670s: Leuven – Priory of the Vale of St Martin (destroyed) | 1671: Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | 1672: Wesel, Germany (destroyed) | 1672/79: Leuven – Park Abbey | 1673: Gent – Canfyn House (in storage) | 1673: Gent – Brouwershuis | 1677: Kleve, Germany (destroyed) | 1684: Brussels – Church of the Sablon
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from most to least accessible to tourists:
Not normally open to the public: Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | Gent – Brouwershuis
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from west to east:
Gent – Canfyn House (in storage) | Gent – Brouwershuis | Brussels – Church of the Sablon | Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | Perk – Church of St Nicholas | Leuven – Priory of the Vale of St Martin (destroyed, little known) | Leuven – Park Abbey | Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | Franc-Waret – Church of St Remigius | Modave Castle | Kleve, Germany (destroyed) | Wesel, Germany (destroyed)