A labyrinth through seven centuries of art

The Hof van Busleyden Museum in Mechelen displays seven centuries of art related to the city in an exhibition. Folklore is mixed with paintings by old and modern masters.

‘Do you know Maryken Verhulst? She was the second wife of the Renaissance artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst’, says curator Hannah Iterbeke. ‘After her husband’s death she published these ten woodcuts about his trip to Turkey. The work is called ‘Moeurs et fachons de faire des Turcz’. It is intended as a frieze, a series of successive drawings. Few people know Verhulst. Everyone only talks about Van Aelst, but his wife has contributed to his artistic legacy. Today you would call her his manager. Verhulst was from Mechelen. Because of these drawings, which come from the KBR Museum (in the Royal Library in Brussels, ed.), we tell a little about her story.’

The essence

  • ‘Hidden gems, seven centuries of masterpieces from Mechelen’ is an exhibition in the Museum Hof ​​van Busleyden.
  • The exhibition shows works of art with a Mechelen connection and with attention to folklore.
  • There are many old masters, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Antoon van Dyck, Hans Memling.
  • Works by 20th century artists Rik Wouters and Prosper de Troyer are also on display.

It is also the story of Mechelen as a city of art. Iterbeke organized the exhibition ‘Hidden gems, seven centuries of masterpieces from Mechelen’ on the ground floor of the Museum Hof ​​van Busleyden. The museum is being renovated, but the large concrete hall remains open to the public.

A bunker does not immediately guarantee coziness, but because the large hall is packed with art, it is not so bad. The works hang from iron pipes and scaffolding. The exhibition looks like a labyrinth.

You are also meant to find your own way. There is no starting or ending point. There are no defined themes or time periods. The exhibition is a treasure trove where strict order has no place. It’s quite nice.

The giants of Mechelen next to the triptych about the painting guild by Abraham Janssens.

Art and folklore go well together. In the middle of the exhibition, you will be introduced to Opsinjoorke, an archetype from Mechelen folklore. The doll shown is from 1647. The figure is a welcome guest in processions in Mechelen.

Opsinjoorke stood in front of a drunk man who beat his wife. As punishment, he was thrown into the air by the people of Mechelen and trapped in a blanket.

One day it went wrong. The punished husband did not end up in the carpet, but on a resident of Antwerp who happened to be there. So at Sinjoor. Hence the name.

Another Mechelen folklore phenomenon is the giants. They entered the cityscape in the 15th century and are part of Mechelen’s cultural heritage.

The exhibition is a treasure trove where strict order has no place. It’s quite nice.

In the exhibition, the giants are close to the largest painting: the monumental triptych ‘Saint Luke paints the Holy Virgin’ by Abraham Janssens. The work from 1601 is on loan from Sankt Rumbold’s Cathedral. Janssens made the triptych for Mechelen’s painting guild. He depicted a painter at work (Lucas). Apart from the religious theme, the painting is a documentary image of how things used to be in 17th century painting studios.

The triptych has a contemporary counterpart with a large charcoal drawing of Rinus Van de Velde depicting himself in his studio.

Art excursion

In the last seven centuries, Mechelen was the victim of a great emigration of art three times. The first time was when the Burgundians left the city in the 16th century, then when the monastic orders were abolished, and then during and after the French Revolution. This resulted in a number of works of art originally from Mechelen ending up in foreign museums.

Rubens was a victim of this. The Busleyden museum was able to bring four smaller works to Mechelen. These are predellas, painted pedestals of altar triptychs. Rubens made large altarpieces for two Mechelen churches. The Predellas moved to Nancy and Marseille in the 19th century. They are coming home now. In a first phase, the two paintings from Nancy are shown.

Highlights of the exhibition include two reliefs by the Mechelen sculptor and architect Lucas Faydherbe: ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘The Bearer of the Cross’, both from 1675. The pieces are bozzetti, preliminary designs for large reliefs for Mechelen’s Hanswijk. Basil. For centuries they belonged to the collection of Faydherbe’s relatives, until they came into the hands of a baron in the 19th century. In 2020, they were auctioned at Sotheby’s. No buyer showed up at that auction, but eventually the Flemish government bought the two works of art. They are now part of the masterpiece list.

Highlights of the exhibition include two reliefs by Mechelen sculptor and architect Lucas Faydherbe.

A contemporary of Faydherbe was Paul de Vos. His colorful ‘bird concert’ can be seen. Be sure to listen to the explanations on the audio guide. You get free whistling birds.

With Antoon van Dyck, Hans Memling, Jacob Jordaens and a few anonymous old masters, the emphasis in quantity is on the old masters. Fortunately, newer artists have not been overlooked, such as Rik Wouters, born in Mechelen, who died in Amsterdam. On the black metal pipes hangs, among other things, a beautiful self-portrait of the painter.

The most beautiful, recent work is undoubtedly ‘Pilatus’ from 1926 by Prosper de Troyer, who worked with Wouters and studied in Mechelen. The painting shows a biblical scene with Pontius Pilate and Christ at the head. Keys hang at the top of the canvas. It is well done by De Troyer, who translates the old story into the 21st century with men in suits, ties and glasses. Museum Busleyden bought the painting in 2021.

‘Hidden gems, seven centuries of masterpieces from Mechelen’ runs until 25 June.

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