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Patrick Bernauw

The Holy Blood of Bruges-la-Morte

May 19, 2009 | Comment icon 0 comments
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Annually, and this since 1150, the city of Bruges has been attracting thousands of visitors to one of the great religious pageants in Europe… This year, the Holy Blood Procession takes place May 21… So, here is the true story of the Grail of Bruges-la-Morte!

Perceval, the Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes is the earliest account of the Quest for the Holy Grail, telling us about Perceval who is invited to stay in the castle of the Fisher King, where he witnesses a mysterious procession. At each course of the meal, young men and women are passing before him with magnificent objects: a bleeding lance, candelabras and then there is this beautiful girl with an elaborately decorated "graal", containing a single Mass wafer which sustains the wounded father of the Fisher King. Perceval doesn't question his host about the Grail and that's the reason why the next morning he wakes up alone in the woods. The Grail Castle has disappeared. Later he learns the right question would have healed the king. Now he vows to find one day the Castle of the Grail again.

What is the Grail?
Chrétien didn't tell us what was the exact nature of the Grail, and perhaps some of the appeal of his story precisely came from the mystery surrounding the object and its whereabouts. Some scholars are saying the Grail derived from Celtic myth, being something like a life-restoring cauldron which even can raise the dead, or a Vessel of Plenty, or a magical platter that symbolizes otherworldly power and sometimes even decides who has to be the next king.

Most scholars claim that the Grail hadn't yet acquired the holiness of later Grail romances, but I don't agree on that. Chrétien's Grail was a dish or bowl that didn't contain a salmon or a pike, but a single Mass wafer. The mystical fasting of the Fisher King's crippled father remind us of the countless saints who were said to have lived on a wafer a day. Chrétien definitely intended the Mass wafer to be a significant part of the ritual. Maybe, as "the first modern European novelist", at the end of his story he would have unveiled the true identity and the Secret of the Grail. But he died before he could finish his work.
It was around the period the first Grail romances were written that the Church of Rome was beginning to add more mysticism to the sacrament of the Holy Communion. So, the Grail could have been from the very beginning a purely Christian symbol. Twelfth century wall paintings present images of the Virgin holding a bowl that radiates tongues of fire. They possibly could have been the original inspiration for the Grail legend.

The word "grial" seems to be an Old French adaptation of the Latin "gradalis", and this simply means: a dish. After the cycle of Grail romances was established, late medieval writers explained the word as being "sangréal" – which is French for "royal blood" – that became "san graal", Saint Grail... or Holy Blood. This is called "a false etymology", but I am not convinced it is that false. French or English authors tend to forget that Chrétien says he was working from a source book given to him by Philip of Alsace, son of Thierry... who brought the Holy Blood to Bruges.

Enter… the Templars!
The Order of the Knights Templar was founded around 1119 by Hugues de Payens, a French noble from the Champagne. He collected eight knights, the most important being Godfrey de Saint-Omer. According to legend, Hugues and Godfrey were so poor that they had only one horse, so the famous imago on the Temple seal became that of two men riding on one single horse. Godfrey is often called a French knight, because Saint-Omer belongs to France now, but then it was a part of Flanders and Godfrey was a vassal of Robert II of Flanders.

The mission of the Templars was to protect the pilgrims who visited the Holy Land, but for nine years little was heard of the Knights Templar. After 1129 however, when the Council of Troyes officially sanctioned the Order, the Templars became very well-known throughout the whole of Europe. The rule of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici in Latin, or shortly: Milites Christi, Soldiers of Christ) was kept in the Abbey of the Dunes in Coxyde, not far from Bruges or Saint-Omer. The rule was written by Bernard of Clairvaux; the Templars had to be warrior-monks, soldier-mystics, "a militia of Christ". The first headquarters of the Temple in Europe, was in Ypres – near Bruges and Saint-Omer again. In fact, it was a gift from Godfrey de Saint-Omer.

The history of the Temple has been written mainly by French and English authors, from a French or English point of view. They often forget to mention – or don't know it – that the Templars always had a very important "Flemish Connection". One of the most (in)famous Grand Masters of the Order was Gerard de Ridefort, who had undoubtedly a Flemish origin, although 19th century writers suggested an Anglo-Norman background. In the Flemish village of Ruddervoorde ("Ridefort") there still are many legends surrounding the Temple Commandery that once belonged to him.

Bestseller authors such as Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln (The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) or Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) claim that the Templars discovered "something" in the ruins of the Temple, proving Jesus survived the Crucifixion or was married to Mary Magdalene. It is said that the Holy Grailwas found by the Templars and taken to Scotland in 1307, where it was buried beneath. But there is not one physical or documentary evidence to support such a supposition… except for the Holy Blood of Bruges. Belgian scholars like Paul de Saint Hilaire (La Belgique Mystérieuse, La Flandre Mystérieuse, L'Ardenne Mystérieuse) or Hubert Lampo (De Zwanen van Stonehenge/The Swans of Stonehenge) have already written in the seventies articles and books about the one and only Holy Blood (or Holy Grail) of Bruges.

Bruges, a New Jerusalem…
At the time the Order of the Knights Templar was founded, Thierry of Alsace claimed the county of Flanders against William Clito. Thierry was supported by cities such as Bruges, Ghent, Lille and Saint-Omer. He won the battle and in 1128 set up his government in Ghent. In 1139, in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, he married Sybilla of Anjou, daughter of the King of Jerusalem. She was pregnant when Thierry left Flanders for the Second Crusade and got attacked by Baldwin IV of Hainaut, but she led the counter-attack and pillaged his county. In the Holy Land, Thierry participated in the Siege of Damascus, led by his wife's half-brother Baldwin III, King of Jerusalem.

A legend says that on Christmas Day 1148, some Templars found a stone jar in the Holy Grave, while in the presence of Thierry and his wife - but Sybilla was at the moment fighting of Baldwin of Hainaut. However, the Knights Templar were convinced the jar contained the Holy Blood of Christ. According to the legend, Sybilla was a leper and suffered from terrible attacks of fever. When the Holy Blood was respectfully poured from the jar into an octogonal bottle and the ends sealed with two golden roses, for just a moment she held the precious relic in her hands. In a vision she then saw "a New Jerusalem of the West", and it was the city of Bruges. The next moment, Sybilla was miraculously cured, as were all the lepers surrounding her.

Sybilla made the solemn pledge to turn Bruges into a Holy City. In 1150 she and Thierry, the abbot of Saint Bertin and the Flemish crusaders reached Bruges, where the masons had just finished the basilic of Saint-Basilius on the Burg Square. From now on, the Holy Blood would be called upon for the most various reasons.

The oldest document concerning the Sanguis Christi dates from 1256. It's possible the Holy Blood in reality arrived much later in Bruges, but the legend is very precise about the date, what makes it possible that there arrived at least something in Bruges on April 7, 1150. Whether it was truly the Holy Blood of Christ doesn't really matter. Much more important is what the Templars who had given the relic to the Count of Flanders, wanted it to be.

Strange enough, on the third pilgrimage of Thierry, Sybilla was at the side of her husband. But after arriving in Jerusalem, she separated from Thierry and became a nun at the Convent of St. Lazarus in Bethany. There she supported the election of Amalric as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. She died a few years later in Bethany. Thierry died in 1168 and was buried in the abbey of Watten, near Saint-Omer.

The son of Thierry and Sybilla, Philip, married Elisabeth of Vermandois. The marriage remained childless, and when Philip discovered Elisabeth was committing adultery, he had her lover beaten to death. Baldwin IV, the leper King of Jerusalem, was childless too. In 1177, Philip went on crusade and was offered the Kingdom of Jerusalem, because he was the closest male relative to Baldwin. But Philip refused, saying he was there only as a pilgrim. His wife died in 1183 – it's interesting to see how Chrétien depicted adulterers – and in 1190 the Count of Flanders took the cross for a second time and was stricken by an epidemic passing through the crusader camp. Philip of Alsace died the next year and was buried in the abbey of Clairvaux, founded by St Bernard who wrote the rule of the Templar Order.

Chrétien dedicated Perceval, the Story of the Grail to his patron, saying he sowed the seed of the tale in such good soil that its greatness was ensured. And there is something of a prediction in this claim, or better: the hint of a plan, a strategy. The poet states that his labours will not be in vain, because he want to follow the count's wishes. And thus, from a book given to him by his patron, he will put into verse "the best story ever told in a royal court"... that could have turned out as the Story of the Holy Blood brought to Bruges by the father of Philip, if Chrétien had been able to finish the work.
The Glastonbury Connection
Saint Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury, as a young boy studied under the Irish monks who lived in the ruins of the abbey and had a vision of the abbey being restored. In 943 he built a small cell against the old church of St Mary, and he went here to study, do his handicrafts or play the harp. In the scriptorium he worked as a silversmith; he probably was the artist who drew the famous image in the Glastonbury Classbook of Christ with the kneeling monk beside him.

As the abbot of Glastonbury, Dunstan started rebuilding the abbey. He also established the Benedictine monasticism. But in 995, when King Edwy came to the throne, he found the young monarch fornicating with a young girl and her mother. Dunstan forced the King to renounce the girl, and then realised he had provoked Edwy. He fled to the sanctuary of his cloister, but the King followed him and plundered the abbey. Dunstan managed to escape, fled England and crossed the channel to Flanders. There he was received by Count Arnulf and lodged in the Mont Blandin abbey near Ghent. The exile of Dunstan ended in 957, when Edwy had to flee for his brother.

Still in the lifetime of Dunstan, Glastonbury Abbey got associated with King Arthur and the legends of the Holy Grail. The abbey got rich and powerful and in 1191, at the time Chrétien left his unfinished Grail romance, an abbot discovered in the cemetery a hollowed oak trunk, containing two skeletons. Above it, under the covering stone, was a leaden cross saying here, on the Isle of Avalon, was interred King Arthur. The other skeleton had to be Guinevere, of course.

It is possible that the book Philip had given to Chrétien in order to write his Grail story, was a book that belonged to Dunstan and was brought by him to Ghent. Glastonbury would soon become a center of Arthurian lore and Grail legend, while the one and only real Grail was in Bruges. The Holy Blood of Christ, or the secret of the bloodline, was brought there by the Templars, perhaps only partly in 1150 (as a document?) and partly a century later, as a relic you can see, the center of a Procession. The Grail Castle then was the 'Burg', which is the Dutch word for 'castle', where the Chapel of the Holy Blood was.

In his article Bruges: the Grail City? Philip Coppens argues that Chrétien de Troyes wrote about a royal tradition concerning a precious relic, carried in a procession, as is being done with the Holy Blood of Bruges since centuries. Did Chrétien's patron ask the poet to write a romance that displayed his relationship to the Holy Blood or the Holy Grail of Bruges?

In his poem Brugge (Bruges), the famous Flemish priest-poet Guido Gezelle who was born in Bruges (1830), described the city as a copy of the Holy Land, with its great Gothic churches called Jerusalem, Nazareth or Bethlehem... and of course, because of the Holy Blood that was brought here during the crusades. The Jerusalem Church, in the quiet St. Anna Quarter, is maybe the most remarkable of all these churches that dominate the skyline of Bruges. It was built in the 15th century as a scale model of the Holy Sepulchre by Anselmus Adornes and his wife, and with a rather morbid fake tomb of Christ in it. The Jerusalem Church is still intact and privately owned by the descendants of the Adorni family, who were merchants from Genoa. In the 15th century, when the Jerusalem Church was built and Van Eyck painted his Mystic Lamb, the noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood got founded. Is it only another name for the famous Grail Brotherhood?

The Holy Blood of Christ indeed seems to have turned medieval Bruges into a Holy City. It's what, since the 19th century, made tourism popular in Bruges. But maybe this Holy City is not as holy as it seems, just because of this Precious Holy Blood that... well, could be pretty unholy. As I put it in my article Visiting Bruges-la-Morte, a medieval ghost city, the Holy Blood of Bruges was the reason why "the Powers of Good & Evil" had to fight each other more fiercely here than anywhere else in the world. If Bruges was choosen and designed to be a Holy City, then Satan also had to unleash here all his forces to turn Bruges into a truly Unholy City...
The connection of Joseph of Arimathea with the Grail – being the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper – dates from the late 12th century, when Robert de Boron describes how Joseph received the Grail from Jesus and send it to Great Britain. Later writers recounted how Joseph used the Grail to catch his blood. The legend combines Christian lore with Celtic myth and some parts are interwoven with legends surrounding the Holy Chalice. All these themes somehow got mixed up somewhere during the 19th century, when "decadent" writers like Georges Rodenbach and Joris-Karl Huysmans turned Bruges into "Bruges-la-Morte", a Very Unholy City indeed...

In Bruges-la-Morte or The Dead City of Bruges, Georges Rodenbach tells the story of a widower who, overcome with grief, takes refuge in Bruges. There he becomes obsessed with a dancer in the opera Robert le diable who is the exact likeness of his dead wife. The novel was notable for its poetic evocation of the decaying city and raised some scandal because of the "decadent" and "morbid" atmosphere, and the meeting (or mating) of Eros and Thanatos.

The Damned, Down There...
But this was only a minor storm, compared with the scandal Joris-Karl Huysmans raised. Huysmans, born in Paris from a Dutch father, had Là-Bas published in 1891 and attracted considerable attention for his depiction of French Satanism. The novel introduced the character of Durtal, a thinly disguised alter ego of the writer, who would return in later work and trace Huysmans' conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Là-Bas, translated as Down There or The Damned, has a very vivid scene, depicting a Black Mass: "And thou, thou whom, in my quality of priest, I force, whether thou wilt or no, to descend into this host, to incarnate thyself in this bread, Jesus, Artisan of Hoaxes, Bandit of Homage, Robber of Affection, hear!... (...) Profaner of ample vices, Abstractor of stupid purities, cursed Nazarene, do-nothing King, coward God!"

"Yet the ultimate abomination of the nineteenth century must be that, disguised as fiction and yet widely recognized at the time as fact, reported by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his notorious novel LA-BAS," says Aubrey Melech in Missa Niger: La Messe Noire (Sint Anubis Books). "Indeed, so close to the abominable truth is this work that the Canon Docre, Huysmans' Satanic celebrant, can be identified as the Belgian-born priest Louis Van Haecke, who died, if not in the odour of sanctity, at least at the advanced age of 84 in 1912." - And Louis Van Haecke was the Chaplain of the Holy Blood Chapel...

T.J. Hale, the translator of Là-Bas, states in his foreword that Huysmans was close friends with Berthe Courrière, a handsome woman who gave consecrated hosts to stray dogs and was busy enticing inexperienced confessors into sin by inventing all sort of erotic tales. She had a wide range of contacts in occultist and spiritualist circles too. About a year after Huysmans first met her, Berthe got herself in serious trouble with the Belgian authorities. She was been found hiding in the bushes, clad only in her underwear. The police of Bruges was skeptical of the story she told them about a narrow escape from a satanic priest named Van Haecke and interned her in a mental asylum. It took Remy de Gourmont, another friend of Berthe and Huysmans, to obtain her release.

"The question of whether or not the author of The Damned ever attended a Black Mass is one which has been much debated by biographers and scholars," Hale says. "If he did, it was probably in the company of this same Abbé Louis Van Haecke, Chaplain of the Holy Blood at Bruges, who, like Canon Docre in the novel, was reputed to have had 'a cross tattooed on the soles of his feet, so that he may have the pleasure of continually walking upon the symbol of the Saviour'. Huysmans certainly liked the claim that he had attended such a ceremony (though he was also capable of denying it too), and that it was there that he had first seen Van Haecke, who was not officiating but standing a little apart from the rest of the congregation."
"I discovered many curious facts concerning this man," Huysmans declared. "He has paid three visits to Paris, where he moves in Satanist and occultist circles. On his second visit he put up at the Hôtel Saint-Jean-de-Latran, in the rue des Saints-Pères, an establishment of doubtful repute which is known chiefly for its clientèle of renegade priests."

Rennes-le-Château… Déjà Lu!
Huysmans did come to believe that the Chaplain of the Holy Blood at Bruges was the most evil man of Europe and Van Haecke sure had an interest in "comparative religion", but there is no solid proof that he indeed was the real demonic Canon Docre. However, when Là-Bas was published and the story got around that Canon Docre was in reality the Chaplain of the Holy Blood, the Chapel in Bruges attracted so many visitors that Van Haecke had to be replaced. And the story of Louis Van Haecke undoubtedly reads like a déjà lu if we compare it to the life and times of Bérenger Saunière, parish priest of Rennes-le-Château, who at the same time got involved with the same trendy occultist and maybe satanist circles in Paris, featuring the composer Claude Debussy and the Belgian symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, author of the "Merovingian Play" Pelleas and Melisande.

Did the Chaplain of the Holy Blood, keeper of the Holy Grail, Lodewijk (or Louis) Van Haecke lose his faith because Jezus, the "Artisan of Hoaxes", didn't die at Golgotha…?

Copyright by Patrick Bernauw
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