If you like visiting churches, you will love Bruges! Most visitors visit the church of Our Lady and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and you should definitely visit those two when coming to Bruges, but Bruges has more than 30 churches and even more chapels. Of those 30 churches, 14 still organise weekly masses and 13 churches can be visited, most of them free of charge. 5 churches have been repurposed as a cultural centre or exhibition hall. Many other churches and chapels are part of a (former) monastery or convent while others became part of a school, the justice palace or a military chapel. And then there are the many small chapels that are part the 45 preserved almshouse complexes that dot the centre of the city.
I love to visit churches and chapels, not necessarily to pray but mainly because these are places where I can find a moment of contemplation, while enjoying the beautiful architecture, interior and art works that are soothing for the mind and heart. And while I am there I often light a candle for my loved ones, for those who are still with me, and those who have passed. I have a personal fascination for the virgin Mary, and Bruges has besides the more than 300 statues of Our Lady on the facades of houses, some very old and extraordinary statues sitting and standing in its churches. Bruges carries the title of city of Mary ever since the 16th century.
The two oldest churches of Bruges are the church of our Lady and the Saint Saviours cathedral. At both sites there was already a Roman or pre-Roman chapel somewhere halfway the 9th century.
They started building the Church of Our Lady as we know it today around 1225, and it took more than 200 years to finish the 155 m high brick church, the second highest brick tower in Europe and the highest structure in Bruges. The gothic style church has a partly gothic, partly baroque interior. The main nave of the church can be visited free of charge. To visit the part of the church that is a museum, you need to buy a ticket. Here you can admire the beautiful tombs of the Burgundian duke Charles the Bold and his granddaughter Mary of Burgundy, the statue of madonna and child by Michelangelo, an impressive gold monstrance, and numerous paintings, sculptures, early-medieval painted graves, beautiful woodwork, gothic decorated walls, private chapels and the bay window of the private chapel of Louis of Gruuthuse, whose palace next-door is an architectural pearl. (Open every day from 9:30 Am till 5 PM and on Sunday from 1:30 PM till 5 PM) I wrote an extended blogpost on the Church of Our Lady.
The lower part of the tower of the Saint Saviour’s cathedral is the oldest part of the church, and are the remains of the 11th century Roman church. They started building this robust gothic church after a fire destroyed the former Roman church halfway the 13th century. After the French demolished the Saint-Donatian’s cathedral around 1800, the Saint Saviours church became the new cathedral of the Bruges diocese in 1834. Many of the art works from the Saint-Donatian’s cathedral found a new home in the Saint Saviour’s cathedral. Above the choir chairs we find the coats of arms of the members of the order of the Golden Fleece, founded by the Burgundian duke Philip the Good in 1430. Behind the choir you can admire several beautiful chapels belonging to the guilds and the elite of Bruges. The treasure-chamber display, amongst others, paintings by Dieric Bouts, Hugo van der Goes and other Flemish primitives. You can visit the church free of charge but you need a ticket for the treasury. (open every day 10 AM to 1 PM and 2 PM to 5:30 PM)
The third important church of Bruges, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, dating back to the 12th century, is a double chapel, built by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Alsace and dedicated to Saint Basil the Great. The lower Roman style chapel, houses one of the oldest statues of he virgin Mary, dating back to around 1300. The upper chapel rebuilt in gothic style in the 15th century and restored in the 19th century after the French partly destroyed it, holds the relic of the Holy Blood. The upper chapel boasts colourful gothic wall paintings and stained glass windows, reproductions of the original windows that are now part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The relic of the Holy Blood of Christ is carried around Bruges in the Procession of the Holy Blood every year on Ascension day and that since 1304. You can venerate the relic every day between 2 and 4 PM and between 10:15 and 11 AM on Friday. (open daily from 10 AM to 5:15 PM)
One of my favourite churches is the Saint-Anne’s church in the quiet part of Bruges, the Saint-Anne’s quarter. Many visitors will pass this church that looks sober and unexceptional on the outside. But do enter the doors where Saint-Anne together with her daughter Mary and grandson Jesus look down on you, and be amazed by the beautiful baroque interior of the church. Walk up to the black and white marble choir screen and then turn around to see the largest single painting of Bruges: The Last Judgement above the entrance door. The painting is by the Antwerp painter Hendrik Herregouts. The 16th century church was partly destroyed during the religieus wars, and rebuilt at the beginning of the 17th century. Saint Anne was a poor parish which explains the sober exterior. Gifts from guilds and rich citizens made up for it with a lavish interior. ( open in the afternoon from 1 to 5 PM, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays in winter)
Another favourite one on my list of churches is the intimate Jerusalem chapel just behind the Saint Anne’s church. The private chapel is built in the 15th century by the Adornes family of whom the descendants still own the domain. The Italian family from Genua came to live in Bruges in the 13th century and became rich importing alum that was used to fixate the colours on the high quality woolen textiles Bruges was famous for all over Europe. Anselm Adornes, a very religious man, undertook a pelgrimage to the Holy Land and built this chapel inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The chapel has a Middle Eastern touch, but it is its intimacy that is its greatest attraction. On the domain you can visit the museum to learn more about the history of the place and drink a tea or coffee in the Scottish lounge. You need to buy a ticket to visit the domain and chapel. (Open Monday to Saturday from 10 AM till 5 or 6 PM)
On the opposite side of Bruges the small Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Blindekenskapel (Chapel of Our Lady of the Blind) is another less known place of worship. The chapel dates back to the 15th century when it replaced a previous church that was destroyed in a fire. The chapel is part of the Alsmhouse for the blind that was built here in the early 14th century. The chapel is famous for it miraculous statue of Our Lady of the Blind, that is carried in procession every year on August 15th, and that ever since 1305, to the church of Our Lady of the Pottery. Every year a large candle is offered to Our Lady of the Pottery, another miraculous statue of the virgin Mary. Inside, you’ll also find a flying miniature ship, an offering made after a grain ship reached the famished city in 1588. (open every day from 9 AM till 6 PM)
The Church of Our Lady of the Pottery is an often overlooked gem. The church can be visited as part of the Pottery Museum, a museum in a hospital that was built on the banks of the Pottery canal at the end of the 13th century. In those days, it was a transient home for pilgrims, travellers, and the sick. It became a popular place of pilgrimage thanks to the miracle sculpture of the Madonna and Child on the high alter of the church. The adjoining church with baroque interior is definitely worth a visit. The 13th century limestone miracle sculpture in the church is one of the oldest preserved sculptures in Bruges. The miracles which are attributed to that sculpture are shown on tapestries, in a miracle book and in the stained glass windows. ( open Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 AM till 12:30 AM and 1:30 PM till 5 PM)
The Saint-Walburga church is a richly decorated baroque church built in the 17th century for the order of the Jesuits who had their monastery next doors. I especially love the baroque facade of the church and its soothing white interior. ( Open in the afternoon from 1 to 5 PM, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays in winter)
The 13th century St James’s Church used to be the favourite church of the Dukes of Burgundy who lived in the nearby Prince’s Palace. The church was also on the route to Santiago the Compostela, and attracted many pelgrims. The church was enlarged during the 15th century. The church is now famous for its rich collection of art treasures, donated by wealthy local people living nearby, and for its fine examples of funerary art. I love the beautiful Italian style chapel that used to be the private chapel of Tommasso Portinari, director of the Bruges’ bank branch of the Medici and the tryptic ‘Glorification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ by the Master of the Holy Blood. ( Open in the afternoon from 1 to 5 PM, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays in winter)
The St. Magdalene’s Church is a younger church, neogothic in style built in the 19th century. The church is home to YOT, an organisation that explores the meaning of the Christian tradition in modern society. In the church you find a coffee and tea corner, and a swing hanging from the beams. It is a hospitable open church and a place for contemplation. (Open in the afternoon from 1 to 5 PM, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays in winter)
The Carmelites monastery and church in the Ezelstraat, is now a centre for silence, named Sarephta, where you can book a stay in one of the austere rooms if you are in need of a silent retreat. You are expected to participate once a day in one of the liturgical services.
The church of the Beguinage, the Saint Elisabeth church, was built in the 13th century when the beguinage was founded, but rebuilt in the 16th century after a fire partly destroyed it during the religious wars. Only a few nuns of the Benedictine order are still living in the beguinage. They still hold daily services in the church. The interior of the church is quite sober, but it holds a 13th century statue of the Virgin Mary of Spermalie in the right nave that attracts a lot of worshippers to the church. (open daily from 6:30 AM till 6:30 PM)
Away from the tourist area we find the Saint-Giles’ Church, in an area where artists and painters used to live and work in the middle ages. The original church dates from the 13th century, but was rebuilt in gothic brick style in the 15th century and the interior was redecorated in 19th century in neo-gothic style. Hans Memling, the famous Flemish primitive painter could not afford to be buried inside the church but was buried on the parish cemetery. (Open in the afternoon from 1 to 5 PM, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays in winter)
The centre of Bruges counts 45 almshouse complexes that each have a chapel where the inhabitants would have their daily prayer for the soul of their benefactors.