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.