Address: Woluwelaan 100, 1830 Machelen (but acccess via Pieter Schroonstraat)
Co-ordinates: 50.90369, 4.42752
Open: by special arrangement only
Parking: on Pieter Schroonstraat
How to get there by public transport: 15 mins walk from Buda metro station; 282 bus, which runs between Diegem and Vilvoorde railway stations, stops just outside.
How good is it? The four surviving panels of an original nine are very vivid indeed, and it is tragic that the others were allowed to decay.
In spring 2022, Anne and I were able to visit Beaulieu Castle in Machelen (which is a different place from Mechelen), on the northern fringe of Brussels. This was built in 1650 by the Imperial Postmaster, Lamoral II Claudius Franz, Count of Thurn and Taxis, a name to conjure with; and the architect was none other than the great baroque sculptor Lucas Fayd’herbe, who was based just up the road in Mechelen. (Which is not the same as Machelen.) Incidentally the Thurn and Taxis family and Lucas Fayd’herbe were also both involved with the redecoration of the Church of the Sablon, where Hansche’s last surviving work was done 25 years later.
The main reception room in the castle originally had nine ceiling panels by Jan Christian Hansche, reflecting excerpts from the Labours of Hercules, a theme he returned to in Modave and in the Brouwershuis in Gent. Three of the nine have been completely lost, and two are damaged and stored in the attic; but they were all photographed before it was too late, and one of them clearly bears the date of construction, 1659. 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.
The mismanagement and decay of the castle under its previous stewardship was the subject of a bitter debate in the Flemish Parliament in 1999. Since then the Quirynen family of architects have looked after it much better than the previous custodians, fully restored what they could, and now use it as the office for the family firm. Jo Quirynen was good enough to give us a tour. NB that this is now a private working space.
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. 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 is Hercules slaying the dragon that guards the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. I am interested that 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. 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.
To give you a sense of scale, here are two human beings (Anne Whyte and Jo Quirynen) beneath Herk’s battles with the Hydra and Geryon.
We see these themes again in Modave castle and the Brouwershuis in Gent. The other panels displayed Hercules capturing Cerberus, capturing the Cretan ox, fighting the Nemean lion, fighting the giant Antaeus, and killing Nessos the centaur.
(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)