Address: Horststraat 28, 3220 Holsbeek
Co-ordinates: 50.93357, 4.83206
Distance from central Brussels: 37 km
Open: by special arrangement and on (some) heritage days (first Sunday of every month, Apr-Jul 2023); will be more accessible after planned renovations
Parking: car park on castle grounds
How to get there by public transport: Bus 310 between Leuven and Aarschot stops at Sint-Pieters-Rode-Horst, 900m away.
How good is it? Not quite as daring as some of Hansche’s later work, but still pretty robust, and a first look at the classical themes that he would return to.
Date of my visit: 24 April 2022
The second oldest of Hansche’s surviving ceilings is in Horst Castle in Holsbeek / Sint-Pieters-Rode, just north of Leuven. The castle itself has a distinctive profile, and is the base for the Red Knight in a well-known Flemish series of comics. It is currently undergoing renovation, but is occasionally open on cultural heritage days, and I was fortunate enough to be able to visit in April 2022.
There are three rooms with Hansche ceilings – not quite as elaborate as some (he seems to have only 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 a slightly different angle.
The damaged cartouche on the right has the date 1655.
The ceilings were commissioned by the owner of the castle, Maria-Anna van den Tympel, a Flemish noblewoman born in 1605, 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 widowed 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.
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.)
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).
Marc Van Vaeck has traced the roots of these panels to the standard Dutch translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which were circulating in the mid-seventeenth century; the Narcissus is based on a 1591 engraving, and the others on engravings published in 1608.
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 painted on the walls.
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, and the burnt offering smoking away in the background.
By the fireplace is a more enigmatic piece, Mars and Minerva holding cornucopias, and the slogan IN NOCTE CONSILIVM (counsel 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 again, 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 others all 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, the god of war, 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, but that is all.
(All photographs copyright Nicholas Whyte)
(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)