Luc Duerloo and Marc Wingens

Scherpenheuvel. Het Jeruzalem van de Lage Landen. Leuven: Uitgeverij Davidsfonds, 2002. 192 pp, 2 b&w illus., 144 color plates. ISBN 90--5826--182—4

Reviewed by Susan Koslow

Historians of Netherlandish Art, HNA Review of Books, 2004 April

The pilgrimage church of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel is arguably the most significant building commissioned by the archdukes Albrecht and Isabella during their reign as sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands. Moreover, it is intact, its appearance unchanged in the course of almost 400 years. Thanks to the splendid monograph by Luc Duerloo and Marc Wingens, this stunning but curiously overlooked and underrated church (Tine Meganck, the architectural historian, being the exception) has been brought back to life, its meaning recovered by the authors' remarkable knowledge of south Netherlandish culture, society, and history. The text's lucid and lively exposition is complemented by beautiful color plates that invariably highlight the import of an argument. Addressed to a broad audience, specialist and non-specialist alike, this volume will reward its reader, with its far-reaching approach.

Regarded as the national shrine of the Netherlands, Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel is the first church in the Spanish Netherlands designed in Roman baroque style with a central plan and a monumental dome. Since the archdukes' role in designing the church is attested by contemporary accounts there is no doubt that the decision to introduce the modern style of Roman ecclesiastical architecture rested with them, as the authors indicate. Aside from dynastic reasons, additional political and symbolic factors were decisive. Use of the baroque manner affirmed the archdukes' fervent accord with Post-Tridentine aims to reinvigorate and reform the Roman Catholic Church: style in this instance was a polemical weapon. Furthermore, in the Act of Cession, which granted sovereignty to the Archdukes, the rulers were directed to cleanse their lands of heresy and make them a bastion of the true faith. The Roman style made these aims patent. As for the symbolic aspect, the rationale is considerably more complicated. It depends on particular devotions and religious notions cultivated at the Archdukes' court. An abundance of texts and images reveal the intricate spiritual and intellectual network that disposed the archdukes to fashion an edifice of surpassing originality and beauty. Duerloo and Wingens are the first to identify and recognize the importance of all these trends and weave them together into a coherent persuasive argument that Scherpenheuvel is ideational architecture. This is surely one of the book's most important contributions. Given this approach, it is not surprising that traditional formalist analysis is deemphasized.

The cult of Our lady of Scherpenheuvel is traceable to a miracle-working wooden statuette of the Virgin, discovered attached to an oak tree on a hill-top, known as Scherpenheuvel or Montaigu, in the township of Zichem, in northeast Brabant. Interest in this particular Madonna grew significantly in the 1580s when Spanish soldiers sought her aid as war raged in the area. However, the cult of the Madonna of Zichem, as she was known initially, probably would not have gained national and international recognition were it not for the Archdukes' support. Following two military victories against the Dutch, at s'Hertogenbosch and at Ostend, in 1603 and in 1604, the Archdukes came to believe that the Madonna of Scherpenheuvel was the guardian of their lands, a point emphasized by the authors. To acknowledge their gratitude, they bestowed gifts on her, including the keys of the city of Ostend, undertook pilgrimages, secured a plenary indulgence for pilgrims visiting the Marian site, and launched a major publicity campaign on her behalf. In 1603, a small wooden chapel was erected beside the oak tree; the following year a stone chapel was constructed to shelter the Madonna which had been removed from the tree, and in 1607, Wenzel Coebergher, the archdukes' architect, presented a plan for the heptagonal church; the high altar stands on the site of the oak. Building began in July 1609 and was completed seventeen years later, and dedicated on June 6, 1627. Coebergher not only supervised construction but also secured a team of artists with whom he routinely collaborated: the sculptor Robrecht de Nole and the painter Theodoor van Loon. De Nole's classicism and affinity for Michelangelo contrasts sharply with the affective vernacular of van Loon's Caravaggesque manner. His seven Marian altarpieces, thanks to the superb illustrations in this book, show him to be an artist of outstanding ability and individuality, whose work deserves closer study.

Throughout the sixteenth century the Madonna of Scherpenheuvel had brought solace to many, but no miracle of special note. Only with the advent of the archdukes in 1599 did circumstances change. Among the three great miracles of 1603 and 1604 was that of Hans Clements born with a deformity, whereby his legs were crumpled against his body, held in place by skin. He traveled throughout the Netherlands on his knees, begging. Clements eventually went to Scherpenheuvel, where Mary answered his prayers; the flesh that crippled his legs slipped off and he was able to stand and walk unaided.

The archdukes quickly mounted a campaign to publicize the miracles, which were described in numerous books, such as that by Filips Numan, published in 1604 and translated into French, Dutch, Spanish, and English. Replicas of the Madonna of Scherpenheuvel, prints showing the miracles and other devotional representations were mass produced to spread the devotion.

The replicas were carved from the ancient oak, which was cut down in 1604. Isabella gave sculptures as gifts to cloisters and to the politically influential; Marie de Medici, for instance, received two. Sculptures could be found in Madrid, Rome, Paris, Nancy, and possibly London, since Henrietta Maria erected an altar devoted to Our lady of Scherpenheuvel in the Queen's Chapel. The diffusion of the statues created satellite centers, where the veneration of the Virgin of Scherpenheuvel flourished, making the original site even more famous. Its place in Marian geography was assured.

While some of the most illustrious pilgrims to Scherpenheuvel have long been identified, others have remained largely anonymous. Using data from books that recorded authenticated miracles Duerloo and Wingens tabulated information concerning the pilgrims' gender, rank, age and ailments. They also observed long-term trends. Of the 272 verified miracles, 40 women and 37 men were cripples who travelled to Scherpenheuvel to be healed. A map (p. 57) indicates where the pilgrims came from. Though largely centered around Scherpenheuvel, a good number came from the area around Antwerp and Brussels on the west and Cologne on the east, as well as from the United Provinces. Not all pilgrimages were personal trips; some were group excursions, and others undertaken for criminal acts. Regrettably data is scant, considering the thousands who went to Scherpenheuvel; reputedly 20,000 in 1603.

In a mere ten years, Scherpenheuvel became the national shrine of the Spanish Netherlands, a pilgrimage center with aspirations to be the Loreto of the north. Again, the intervention of the archdukes must be acknowledged in cultivating this connection. Their delight and immersion in the Marian metaphors of the Litany of Loreto and the Marian thematics of the Rosary, the Joys of the Virgin, and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, were crucial for the design, décor, and spiritual experience of the Scherpenheuvel church, as Duerloo and Wingens explicate in detail. In their opinion, emblematic literature was equally significant and conclude that the 1608 publication Paradisus sponsi et sponsae by the Jesuit Jan David, specifically the section titled Pancarpium marianum, (dedicated to the Archduchess Isabella), was the most influential. Consisting of fifty typological emblems, Old Testament motifs prefigure Mary in her various New Testament identities. To assist the reader, Latin, Dutch, and French texts are appended to explain the emblem's significance. Duerloo and Wingens coin the term "emblematic architecture," as they argue convincingly that Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel is infused with the spirit and even the letter of these emblems. This notion is controversial yet compelling. Certainly the Archdukes and their court were versed in these texts, but whether pilgrims of lower status or from distant places were conversant with these notions is unknown, but it is possible that word of mouth or pastoral instruction gave them currency. "Reading" the structure with the Pancarpium in hand, the clock tower becomes a Marian metaphor, the Tower of David of the Song of Songs; like Mary, the tower protects God's chosen people. In the same vein are emblems depicting the Fortified City and the City of Asylum. These were particularly appropriate given the location of the church--enemy forces could be seen massed on a nearby hilltop from the tower. Confirmation for the Pancarpium's importance both conceptually and architecturally is found in an unusual architectural feature that, as the authors point out, has been overlooked; it is a staircase constructed on one of the dome's ribs. That the staircase is not simply a service feature but imbued with emblematic meaning is made obvious by the juxtaposition in the Pancarpium of an illustration of the staircase and an emblem showing "The Dream of Jacob's Ladder." While domes have long been held to be a symbol for heaven, no dome was ever embellished with gilded stars affixed to studs projecting from a lead-covered surface as at Scherpenheuvel. Seven pointed, the stars are a manifestation of Marian numerology.


The number seven plays a fundamental role in the conception and design of the church; it is the number assigned Mary, who was likened to a seven-pointed star. Seven determined the unique heptagonal plan of the church, the star-shaped garden surrounding it, as well as the town plan of Scherpenheuvel. By all accounts, Albrecht selected the number and sketched a plan which Coebergher worked up into a finished model.

The decision to build a national shrine from "scratch," in an isolated rural region, remains problematic despite the authors' detailed account of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel's growth from local cult to national and even international prominence. The fact that the church was situated in the barony of Diest is of greatest importance. As Duerloo and Wingens indicate, Diest was a possession of the house of Nassau, Spain's enemy. However, in the period when Scherpenheuvel was undergoing its amazing transformation, the barony was held by Philips Willem, the eldest son of William the Silent. Kidnapped as a youth by Philip II and imprisoned in Spain, where he converted to Catholicism, Philips Willem did not return to the Low Countries until 1600, at age fifty; he resided in the south, at Brussels and at Diest till his death in 1618. He is known to have contributed to the Scherpenheuvel cult, not least by commissioning the high altar, with his arms prominently displayed, for the 1604 stone chapel; this act publicly attested his devotion to the Roman Church and was potent political propaganda, portending the ultimate triumph of Catholicism in the Low Countries.

Flashpoints that searingly divided Catholics and Calvinists--exorcisms and other miraculous cures, the veneration of devotional images and relics, the belief in the intercession of saints, the celebration of the sacraments, and the granting of indulgences-- were being enacted on the very lands of William the Silent, the "father" of the United Provinces. The archdukes may well have believed that by planting their national shrine on Nassau territory, conversion and unity could be achieved through the manifest spiritual power of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel.

While this study offers a plenitude of riches--and not all have been mentioned in this review-- it does not exclude further study of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel. Indeed, it opens up numerous avenues of research, not least an account of the liturgical and ceremonial use of the church interior that would address the function of the chapels in relationship to the main body of the church.

Additional Comments

Scherpenheuvel, its plan and domical vault.


As Tine Meganck pointed out in De kerkelijke architectuur van Wensel Cobergher (1557/61—1634 in het licht van zijn verblijjf te Rome, Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren en Schoone Kunsten van Belgie, Klasse der Schone Kunsten, nr. 64 (Brussels, 1998), 72,  centrally--planned religious structures, like Scherpenheuvel, have various formal antecedents: baptisteries, votive churches, and funerary chapels. While the first type may be excluded as having no direct bearing on Scherpenheuvel, the latter are germane. Scherpenheuvel was and is a votive church. But evidence is lacking at present to confirm a funerary function. Yet the central plan brings to mind the Escorial, the mausoleum of the Spanish Habsburgs. When Albrecht and Isabella became co-sovereigns of a satellite Habsburg state in the Low Countries in 1599, the issue of building a mausoleum for themselves and their descendants was surely discussed; possibly Scherpenheuvel  was considered—in every sense it was suited for this purpose. Further examination of the structure or documentary evidence may illuminate this matter.


I would also like to call attention to the star-studded vault  Balthazar Moretus saw on his visit to the church in 1668. These mimicked the extraordinary ones on the exterior, a plenitude of projecting stars attached to the dome. The stars within, like the external ones denote the celestial realm, the heavens. See E. Baldwin Smith’s classic study The Dome: A Study in the History of Ideas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950). See, too, A. Boni, Scherpenheuvel: Basiliek en Gemeente in het Kader van de Vadelandse Geschiedenis (Antwerp: N. V. Standard Boekhandel, 1953), which gives extensive historical information and quotes from the Moretus diary.


Although Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel was the first baroque centrally planned church constructed in the south Netherlands, this type was actually under consideration for St Ignatius, the new Jesuit church in Antwerp. See Jan Hendrik Plantegna, L’architecture religieuse dans l’ancien duché depuis le régence des ducs jusqu’au gouvernement autrichien (1598—1713) (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1926), 83 ff.


Although not having any bearing on the architecural issues discussed, a curious fact is worth mentioning: the subject of the dissection being carried by Dr. Deijman in Rembrandt van Rijn’s  Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman (1656) is Joris Fonteijn (1633/34—1656), a native of the barony of Diest, a possession of the house of Nassau (see review for Diest). For more information on Fonteijn’s life, see Norbert Middelkoop, De anantomische les van Dr. Deijman (Amsterdams Historisch Museum, 1994), 4-5.


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