In the tenth century Ghent was already a flourishing trade post, stretching from the River Scheldt to the River Lys.
Several parishes were founded here including St. Nicholas Parish. St Nicholas’ Church, which is located in the vicinity of Korenmarkt and the old harbour along Gras- en Korenlei, has always been the church of the merchants and traders, since its foundation in the thirteenth century. The building also reflects the vibrant and rich city life around it.
The church’s stunning interior is the merit of the many guilds which each had a chapel in the church. You can see works by Nicolas De Liemacker and Jean-Baptiste Capronnier here as well as the prestigious Cavaillé-Coll organ and a stained glass window by the Ghent glass artist Herman Blondeel. Currently a large part of the building’s restoration has been completed.
In one word: DYNAMIC►
St Nicholas’ Church is dynamic because it is situated at a crossroads, as churches were meant to be.
This is a real city church, which was given the function of a belfry by the city councillors as far back as the 13th century. The city bells and city guards were based here, and today half of the church is used for religious services and prayers, and the other half as a space for private initiatives.
History of a place►
St Nicholas’ Church was, from the outset, the church of tradesmen and merchants working at the nearby Korenmarkt and at the port on the Graslei and Korenlei. Two earlier churches predate the current church on this spot, some traces of which can still be seen in the ambulatory. The construction of this church began in the early part of the 13th century. After four phases of construction, facilitated by the city’s economic prosperity and the wealth of the merchants, the Scheldt Gothic choir was stripped of its regional characteristics at the beginning of the 14th century and adapted to the international Gothic style.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, St Nicholas’ Church went into decline, partly due to problems with stability and damp, which meant it had to undergo a series of emergency repairs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cosmetic work was done to the interior to make it more Baroque in style, but the French Revolution also left its mark. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that historic interest arose in this building in particular and Gothic architecture in general, which led to full restoration from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. Nowadays, this church serves as an example of how contemporary construction expertise can go hand-in-hand with historic heritage and its preservation. It offers aspiring architects and restorers an opportunity to learn about building and finishing techniques, and sparks ongoing debate as to whether or not to polychrome the columns, which can be seen at present in their raw masonry form.
NICOLAS DE LIEMAECKER, THE APPOINTMENT OF NICHOLAS AS BISHOP OF MYRA, (1630-1632)
Historically very little is known about the patron saint of this church, Saint Nicholas of Myra, but there are a myriad of legends in which he miraculously transforms the lives of sailors, merchants, bakers and nubile young women. It is because of these legends that Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of this church located next to the markets, ports and trading routes of the city. The painting by Nicolas De Liemaecker (1575-1646) on the main altar shows the appointment of Nicholas as Bishop of Myra. The painter, a contemporary of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Gaspar De Crayer (1584-1669), was a sought-after master in the churches and monasteries of Ghent. The work dates from around 1630-1632 and was enlarged in 1678 to make it fit into the new Baroque main altarpiece.
CAVAILLÉ-COLL ORGAN, 1856
This church used to house a famous organ made by the Parisian house of Cavaillé-Coll, which replaced the Van Peteghem organ. The French piece has been called the Rolls Royce of organs. The day after its inauguration on 11 March 1856, the local press was full of praise for the power of this musical instrument. Since the reopening of the restored nave, the organ can be seen once again on the rood screen above the western portal. The wind system has remained almost intact, but the organ itself is now awaiting thorough restoration.
More modest in looks but certainly not in musical power is the current swallow’s nest Flentrop organ suspended in the chancel. In addition to providing music for church services, this organ is often used by students of the Ghent Academy of Music, where Paul De Maeyer leads a renowned organ class.
STAINED-GLASS WINDOWS IN THE CHANCEL, HERMAN BLONDEEL (1956-1997)
The three stained-glass windows in the chancel are a design by the Ghent stained-glass artist Herman Blondeel (1956-1997); they evoke the seven sacraments, represented in seven horizontal bands spanning out over the three windows. The three lower bands use colour to represent the sacraments of life: baptism, confirmation and marriage. The four upper ones, in black and white, symbolise the four spiritual sacraments: confession, anointing of the sick, priesthood and the Eucharist. After the death of Herman Blondeel, work on the stained-glass windows was continued by Patrick Romain, and they were inaugurated on Sunday 4 July 2004. Anyone who visits this church on a sunny day cannot fail to notice that the light in this church shines like no other.
STATUES OF THE APOSTLES, 17TH CENTURY
The twelve statues of the apostles, dating from the 17th century, originally formed part of the lower church but were relocated during the restoration. The statues of Saint Peter (with the book and key), Saint Andrew (with the slanted Saint Andrew’s Cross) and Saint James the Great (with the pilgrim’s staff and shell) were sculpted by Claude Le Fer I in 1642. The sculptor of the other apostle statues is unknown.
There is a second depiction of the apostles Peter and Paul (with the book and sword) in the church. These sculptures were made for the Jesuit Church in Volderstraat by Jacques Cockx and relocated to this church in around 1800, where they watch over the vestibule of the former sacristy.
EPITAPH WITH OLIVIER VAN MINJAN AND HIS WIFE, 16TH CENTURY
The painting that hangs on the first pillar of the north side aisle of the nave is particularly remarkable. The panel shows the crucified Christ with a kneeling Olivier van Minjan and his patron saint, Saint Oliver, on the left and his wife Amelberga Slanghen and her patron saint, Saint Amelberga, on the right. The couple’s thirty-one children are also all shown. The family lived in the first half of the 14th century and were hit by the plague epidemic in 1436. The panel was most likely made after the iconoclasm in 1566 or 1579 to replace a lost or destroyed epitaph from the 15th century.
SAINT NICHOLAS, THE 16TH OR BEGINNING OF THE 17TH CENTURY
A sculpture from the end of the 16th or beginning of the 17th century stands in the south ambulatory of this church, linking Saint Nicholas to one of these legends. The most widespread iconography of this Saint depicts him with three children in a tub at his feet, as is shown in the scene that crowns the main altar of St Nicholas’ Church. Because it was the custom at the time to show human figures smaller than Saints, these figures were misunderstood to be small children instead of young adults. This is the iconography that gave rise to the figure of Saint Nicholas, the Belgian ‘Santa Claus’ who brings children toys and sweets on his Saint’s day, 6 December.