The Church of Our Lady in Bruges has been lovingly restored to create a soaring white Gothic interior filled with paintings, sculptures and tombs. One part of the church has been closed off to create a museum where you can admire ornate Burgundian tombs and renaissance paintings.
But the greatest treasure is Michaelangelo’s tiny statue of the Virgin and Child. The work was brought back to Bruges in 1506 by the merchant Jan Mouscron, who had acquired it from a bankrupt Italian. Carved soon after the famous Pietà in Rome, the work illustrates Michelangelo’s soft and serene early style. Albrecht Dürer described it in his diary when he visited Bruges in 1521.
The work was gifted to the Church of Our Lady in Bruges with the strict condition attached that it must never leave the church. But that didn’t stop Napoleon taking it off to Paris in 1794. And it didn’t stop Hitler adding it to his collection of looted art in 1944, after it was smuggled out of Bruges in a truck disguised as a Red Cross vehicle.
The sculpture was eventually recovered by a special unit of American and British art experts known as the Monuments Men. They tracked the sculpture down to a salt mine in Austria, where it was hidden along with many other masterpieces of European art. The sculpture was returned to Bruges in November 1945. It is now back in the church where Dürer saw it five centuries ago.
Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.