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.

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