St James’ Church has a rich history. The people used to call it “Sint-Jacobs-in-de-meerschen” or St. James’ in the marsh after the marshy area where the first parish church was founded in 1093. The choice of St James was probably inspired by the growing interest in pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. As well as being the patron saint of shippers, St James also possibly suited the needs of an urban population that rapidly grew under the influence of the nearby harbour. The oldest material traces of the building date from the twelfth century. The remarkable variety in the architectural elements bears testimony to the various transformations that the church has since undergone. The interior is equally heterogeneous. As such St James’ Church is a unique witness of almost 900 years of church architecture in Ghent. Besides paintings by Jan Boeckhorst and Michiel Coxcie, St James’ Church also has a unique church tabernacle and two funerary monuments dedicated to Jan Palfijn.
In one word: diverse►
St James’ Church (Sint-Jacobskerk) has a rich history. The remarkable diversity of architectural features such as pillars, arches and columns hints at an eventful past. St James’ Church is unique in that this heterogeneous mixture bears witness to almost 900 years of ecclesiastical architecture in Ghent.
History of a church►
The original church was destroyed by fire and plundering in 1120, but it was rebuilt in the second half of the 12th century, this time in stone.
The stone building was a Romanesque cruciform church with two western towers, three naves, an octagonal lantern tower and a rectangular choir, probably with a semi-circular apse at the end. Of the original church, only the towers and the lower part of the lantern tower remain. The upper parts of the lantern tower, central nave and transepts date from the Gothic period—or more specifically Scheldt Gothic—and were built on the foundations of the original Romanesque church.
A Gothic choir was built in the 13th century but was replaced at the beginning of the 15th century by a larger choir replete with an ambulatory and radiating chapels. The side naves were extended in the 14th century, adding chapels for the influential guilds.
St James’ Church suffered major damage during the religious wars in the 16th century, for the first time in 1566 and for the second time under Ghent’s Calvinist rulers in 1577-1585. Over the years, all the church furnishings from the Gothic and Renaissance periods have been lost.
In the course of the following centuries, the church was gradually restored in Baroque style. During the new restoration campaign in the second half of the 19th century, the Baroque additions were removed to be replaced by neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic elements. The western façade was restored in the style of French Romanesque churches. As a result, the church today has a mediaeval appearance once again, but this conceals traces of nine centuries of extensions, modifications, repairs and renovations.
History of a place►
St James’ Church is the oldest church in the Low Countries dedicated to this patron saint. Colloquially it used to be known as ‘Sint-Jacob-in-de-Meerschen’, or ‘St James in the Marsh’, after the wetlands on which the first wooden church was built in 1093. It was dedicated to James the Apostle because of the steady increase in the number of pilgrims travelling through Ghent on their way to Santiago de Compostela. As the patron saint of shipping – since St James’ body is said to have arrived in Santiago de Compostela on a ship – the saint also reflected the needs and aspirations of an urban population that was growing ever larger and more significant during the 12th and 13th centuries, partly due to the influence of the nearby port.
This pilgrim church—where you can still see pilgrims passing through with their staff and shell, even today—houses some valuable works of art.
Jan Boeckhorst, the painting "The Martyrdom of James the Apostle"
The main altar displays a painting representing the martyrdom of James the Apostle, painted by Jan Boeckhorst in 1659. Jan Boeckhorst, born in Munster in Germany, moved to Antwerp in around 1626, where he studied under Anthony Van Dyck (1559-1641) and Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). Both of his teachers had been students of Peter Paul Rubens, and they elevated Jan Boeckhorst to great heights in Baroque art. In 1633, he acquired the status of ‘master’ in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke and fully committed himself to the Counter-Reformation movement; he painted a myriad of religious works which still hang in the churches and cloisters they were originally intended for in the Southern Low Countries. Ghent’s churches boast a considerable collection of his works.
The ‘Martyrdom of St. James the Great’ shows us the beheading of the apostle by order of King Herod upon his return to the Holy Land from Spain. The painting depicts James awaiting his fate whilst angels proffer him the martyr’s crown. The painting above the main altar shows the apostle as a pilgrim, depicted with his characteristic scallop shell.
Michiel Coxie, the triptych of Jesus on the cross
It was originally the ‘Triptych with Christ on the Cross’ by Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592) that hung above the main altar. Michiel Coxcie was a Brabantine painter whose work is counted as among the most important of the Northern Renaissance period. Since 1659, this work has hung in the Chapel of the Holy Cross.
The Chapel of the Trinitarians
Works by Gaspar De Crayer (1582-1669) and Jan Van Cleef (1646-1716) depict the mission of the Trinitarian Order or the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, founded in 1198. This Order’s principal focus was the ransom and rescue of Christian slaves held captive by Muslims. In 1641, they were assigned this chapel by Bishop Antonius Triest. The church archives hold a record of the names of the rescued slaves who reported to St James’ Church.
The sacrament tower
One of the most exceptional pieces in St James’ Church is the marble tabernacle, which dates from approximately 1593 and is built in the early Baroque style. The two previous tabernacles were destroyed in the 16th-century religious conflicts. Tabernacle towers of this kind were often built in the 15th and 16th century to emphasise the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the church. To see one preserved in this condition, however, is rare.
The tabernacle is composed of three parts. The first part is adorned with six copper panels recuperated from the previous tabernacle and decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testament that refer to the Eucharist, such as the Crucifixion, the sacrifice of Isaac, the Passover meal and manna in the desert. The second part includes white marble relief sculptures of the four Church Fathers. The third part shows the four evangelists with their symbols: Matthew with the angel, Mark with the lion, Luke with the ox and John with the eagle. The top of the tower is crowned by the pelican with its young, a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.
A composition similar to the sculpture of St Matthew can be found in the tabernacle in Aalst, which is why this tabernacle was previously attributed to Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder (1570?-1641?).
The Jan Palfijn mausoleums
Two grave monuments can be found in the central nave of St James’ Church, both commemorating Jan Palfijn (1650-1730), the obstetrician who introduced and strongly promoted the use of obstetrical forceps. After a life caring for the needy, Jan Palfijn died in poverty and was buried anonymously in the pauper’s corner of the former graveyard around this church. In 1783, Ghent’s medical association erected a monument; an effigy was added one year later, sculpted by Karel Van Poucke and paid for with public funds.
Open from 9.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. (every Friday from the first Friday of April to the last Friday of October)