“Den heyligen Sant al in Brabant". The Church of St Martin in Wezemaal and the devotion to St Job 1000-2000
Our image of the late medieval devotion in the Low Countries is largely shaped by studies on religious life in cities. Rural places of pilgrimage, let alone 'ordinary' rural parishes, remain underexposed. The rich source material concerning the parish of Wezemaal (Belgium, Flemish Brabant) enables us to see how and why a small village could grow into a major place of pilgrimage , and above all, to discover the dynamics behind the devotion to St. Job. These dynamics can only be properly understood by looking from a long-term perspective at the interaction of various factors and actors, on a local, regional and even international level. In this way, the fluctuations of this particular devotion become clear, largely moving on the mainstream of the greater church and political history.
Research of this kind requires a multidisciplinary approach. New and thorough investigation by specialists from various disciplines in art and musical history has revealed the interaction between the evolution of the devotion to St. Job, the assets of the church, the shaping and modifications of the church building and its interior, and the liturgical and musical framework. Simultaneously, we examine how the religious experience of the parishioners in a pilgrimage village evolved. Submitting other rural places of pilgrimage to a similar multifocal research would definitely be worth the effort.
When, in 1232 , the Norbertine abbey of Averbode acquired St. Martin’s church of Wezemaal from the local landlord, no one could have foreseen that from the 15th century onward this church would become one of the most important pilgrimage churches in the Duchy of Brabant. The main object of the pilgrims’ devotion was a wooden statue of the Old-Testamentic "saint" Job, commissioned by an unknown person at the very end of the 14th century (and after 1377). His motives remain unknown; in any case, Job was not a plague saint. Wezemaal is the oldest known place and the first parish church in the Low Countries where a devotion to St. Job developed. The statue represents St. Job as a triumphant prophet sitting on a throne, holding a fire in his left hand; one of the first times this attribute appears. All the Wezemaal pilgrim badges however - all of them earlier than ca 1450 – without exception, show a legendary miracle scene in which the suffering Job, sitting on a dunghill, hands over a skin crust as a reward to some musicians who come to comfort him, and this crust turns into a piece of gold. By around 1450 this miracle became widely known in Western Europe. By choosing this generally known miracle as the main theme for the pilgrim badges rather than the statue of St. Job, the churchwardens hoped to increase the sacred character of these badges and thus attract more pilgrims to their church. At the same time, on some of the earliest known badges St. Job holds a fire in his hand, an explicit reference to the Wezemaal statue.
The pilgrimage was already significant in 1437 and increased even more after 1450. Partly thanks to the flow of money generated by the pilgrimage, the church was substantially renewed and enlarged (north transept, nave, aisles and side chapels, first half – mid-15th century), and before 1472 the construction of a monumental western tower was begun. The noble family de Brimeu, who in 1473 obtained the barony of Wezemaal, showed a great interest in its new Brabant acquisition and actively promoted the pilgrimage. The arms of Brimeu and of Antonia de Rambures (+ 1517), the widow of Guy de Brimeu (+ 1477), appear on a remarkable number of Wezemaal pilgrim badges from the late 15th and early 16th century. In this period, pilgrims from Flanders, Zeeland and Holland are documented. The sales of pilgrim badges rapidly increased (by 140% between 1473 and 1481 alone). The church revenues became structurally dependent on the devotional revenues (up to 80%). This unilateral dependence contained a big risk for the future. Thanks to the pilgrims’ money, the monumental west tower was completed in 1475, under the supervision of the famous architect Matthew de Layens, and an expensive, new bell was purchased in 1481. Remarkably, the three Norbertine priests in charge of the spiritual care never actively supported but merely tolerated the devotion to St. Job. For them the influx of pilgrims created undesired side effects, above all because the many secular foreign priests disrupted the regular liturgical services and affected their hitherto exclusive rights and revenues.
In 1489 the church dramatically became a victim of the civil war between supporters and opponents of Maximilian of Austria (1488-1492). Troops of Maximilian’s commander-in-chief Albert of Saxony set the tower, defended by some twenty hot-tempered men, on fire. A strengthening of the pilgrim flow was crucial for the restoration of the church. The parish could rely on the very active support of Eustace de Brimeu (+ 1547-1548), Count of Megen, since 1496 the new Baron of Wezemaal. Precisely around that time, the promotional campaign, totally unexpectedly, got a powerful boost by a new and unknown disease (syphilis) which, in the wake of the French invasion in Italy, from 1495 onwards within a few years spread out from Naples across all of Europe. From the very beginning people thought that this 'French' or 'Neapolitan' disease was to be identified with the ‘disease of St. Job’, due to a number of alleged similarities. St. Job became the main patron saint against the new disease, and all over Europe his worship boomed at the end of the 15th and the first decades of the 16th century. The church of Wezemaal benefitted from this 'windfall' and took even more advantage of it. The spectacular growth of the pilgrimage since 1495 and the resulting revenue explosion made both Eustace de Brimeu and the parish community as well as the Norbertines’ dream of a collegiate church, each from their own point of view. The tension and sometimes open struggle between the spiritual and secular power for the control of the church and its rich resources was to become a constant factor in the history of the church until the end of the Ancien Regime. In 1501, probably in the wake of the great papal indulgence in the jubilee year 1500, the Pope granted a request submitted by the church council and Eustace de Brimeu (the Norbertines were not involved) in order to even more increase the attraction of the church. The church obtained the privilege to install a college of priests, who would be paid out of the pilgrims offerings, the feast of Job (May 10th) was recognized as a solemnity, and the Pope granted two indulgences, including a plenary indulgence to be earned on May 10th.
Only in 1514, after long and tense negotiations with the Norbertine parish priests on the appointment of the choir priests and the distribution of their income, was the nine-headed priests choir erected (the three Norbertines plus six secular priests), supplemented by three professional singers and six choristers. The church was now equipped with a priests’ college and a choir worthy of a collegiate church. This did not put an end to the disputes about the competence of the secular priests, but the quarrels died down when the number of pilgrims abruptly declined after 1520.
Due to the combined effect of the ‘disease of St. Job’ and the papal privileges, the pilgrimage reached its absolute peak between 1496 and 1520. Wezemaal became an internationally renowned place of pilgrimage. Its fame reached as far as Lyon. From this period date the earliest attestations of miraculous healings of sick people from Flanders, Zeeland, Holland, and Lorraine (1508, 1514). Pilgrims of all social classes flocked in "from all parts of the world". Between 1484 and 1514 the sales of cheap pilgrim badges doubled, from 10,000 to almost 23,000 pieces. As a result the church income rose to unprecedented heights. By far the greatest part of this income consisted of direct revenues out of devotional acts (wax, money offerings for St. Job, pilgrim badges); these revenues increased fivefold between 1481 and 1513. The pilgrimage reached its annual height around May 10th, but also throughout the year pilgrims visited the church. Sitting before the statue of St. Job in the south transept (the Saint-Job choir), the collector or ‘appoortbewaarder’ received the offerings to St. Job and sold a variety of badges, ranging from ordinary lead-tin mass production to copper, painted silver and gilded silver specimens. In addition, in this period the church acquired a large part of its property assets, consisting of lands, woodlands and even two farmsteads, spread across a dozen villages around Wezemaal, and hereditary rents (including rents from artists who worked for the church) bestowed on properties in twenty-seven villages and towns in Brabant.
Thanks to St. Job, Wezemaal possessed one of the richest rural churches in Brabant. The building was enlarged with a north-east chapel, the restored tower was crowned with the highest steeple in the surrounding area, visible from the town of Leuven, and the interior contained a wealth of statues, silverware, manuscripts and liturgical vestments (including richly ornate chorus caps for the nine choir priests and red robes for the choir boys). From this period also date two high quality life-size statues of Job and St. Mary Magdalene (also a patron saint of musicians) in Avesnes-stone. Much attention was paid to the instrumental framework of the great ceremonies, especially since St. Job was also venerated as the patron saint of the musicians. Each year on 10th May musicians from Leuven and Mechelen added lustre to the liturgy in the church as well as to the procession.
Around 1520 an abrupt turnabout occurred. Shortly after 1520 the badge sales as well as the sacrificial gifts to St. Job dropped dramatically, to a level below that of 1473. The change was to be permanent and caused a fundamental shift in the structure of the church income: from now on the revenues largely had to be drawn from the real estate properties (which thanks to St. Job were significant). This implosion fits in the sudden reversal in religious behaviour that was detected in several cities in the Low Countries around 1520, especially characterized by the critical attitude towards excesses of saints’ veneration, partly because of Lutheranism. The sudden surge in sales of Christocentric, 'neutral' Lamb of God badges (attested in 1513 and 1523) is possibly linked to this swing. The decline was perpetuated by the weakening of syphilis around 1530, and the fact that St. Cecilia gradually was replacing St. Job as the patron saint of the musicians. The veneration of St. Job in Wezemaal became the object of sarcasm in Protestant plays, mocking poems and satires. Neither new initiatives, such as the construction (1563) of a carillon of fourteen bells, some of which were brought from Saint-Quentin after the Spanish conquest of the French city in 1557, nor new miracles (1563, 1567) could turn the tide.
The threat of iconoclasm and the first years of the Eighty Years’ War led to a further decline of the pilgrimage and prompted the church to sell some valuable pieces from its treasure and even one farmstead. In 1578, when the threat of war became very real, the treasury was moved to Leuven. The miraculous statue of St. Job was housed in the chapel of the hospital of the Twelve Apostles, which henceforth continued its existence as the St. Jobs Chapel. The same year the church was looted by English and Scottish mercenaries. To make matters worse, in 1579 the building completely burnt down after a devastating lightning strike. As a result of the continuing state of war, the church lay in ruins for twenty-five years, in the midst of a largely depopulated village.
Never the church stood for such a challenge, never its revenues had reached a lower level, now that the pilgrimage had come to a complete standstill and many lands were lying fallow. In 1580 most of the silverware was sold in Liege, but for many years the money remained unused in the hands of the steward of the barony. As early as 1585-1586 the statue of St. Job was brought back to Wezemaal - much to the displeasure of the inhabitants of Leuven - in the vain hope of getting the pilgrimage back on track. Lack of resources, mismanagement by the steward and disagreement over the responsibility for the reconstruction – the baron or the abbot of Averbode - led to a standstill. To prevent further decay the village community began to cover over the Notre Dame choir (1596) - the only part of the building of which the vault had not collapsed - and the choir of St. Job (1598). Only after repeated mediations of archbishop Hovius, the baron, Lancelot Schetz, in 1604 released the revenue of the 1580 sale of silver, but not before having the abbot of Averbode ceded to the parish, the proceeds of the great tithes for twelve years (1602-1613) and Lancelot Schetz having managed to obtain a new papal indulgence (1604). Partly due to the vigorous efforts of several Norbertine parsons and the intendant of the baron, Jean de Lanne, the church rose back to its full glory. The rededication of the church in 1610 by archbishop Hovius was possibly one of the reasons of the princely edict of 1611 on the financing of the reconstruction of churches in the Archdiocese of Mechelen. In 1619 the rebuilding was completed; the church, one of the first in the region to be restored, had regained an excellent condition.
Thanks to its previously acquired properties the Wezemaal church in the 17th and 18th century remained the richest rural church of the deanery of Leuven. The inauguration in 1610 also meant the formal start of the Counter Reformation in the parish, which was vigorously carried out by a series of strong Norbertine parish priests (1611-1660). The singing in the church by three singers and six choristers was restored, but the nine-headed priests’ choir definitively belonged to the past. However, by installing a new parclose (1626) and new choir stalls and maintaining the use of retribution tokens to priests and singers, the church kept referring to its former status of collegiate church, a memory that remained alive until the 18th century. The Catholic reform was underlined by the further equipping and furnishing of the interior, including new altars of St. Job and Our Lady (1631) and St. Eligius (1642), a pulpit (1634), altar paintings made by Antwerp artists such as Willem De Vos (ca. 1619-1624) and Cornelis Schut (1642), a fine new organ (Jan Bremser, 1647), and four new bells (1651).
The veneration of Saint Job revived, partly due to the importance the Counter Reformation attached to saints as a model of strong faith and Christian virtues. For this reason, the Norbertine priests after 1600, unlike before, actively promoted the devotion to St. Job, especially emphasizing his Christian example in addition to his role as a universal healer and comforter. Father Bergans seized upon the inexplicable cure of a Dutch baby from Zeeland in 1635 to publish a miracle booklet and a litany of Saint Job, in which he referred to earlier miracles and strongly promoted Wezemaal as the main Saint-Job shrine in the Low Countries. Saint Job was given a prominent place on new church furniture (pulpit, organ), liturgical objects (monstrance, shortly before 1635) and one of the four new bells. On the other hand, the parish priests, also in the wake of the Catholic Reformation, gave considerable attention to the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady – Father Bergans in 1651 personally built a large Lady Chapel in the hamlet Beversluis. But thanks to his longstanding reputation as a protector and curing saint, St. Job remained the most important saint of the parish. In the 17th and 18th centuries Wezemaal counted seven processions, including the double procession for the feast of St. Job (May 10) and the following Sunday.
Partly due to the new papal indulgence of 1604 and the campaign of 1635 the pilgrimage regained strength, without however regaining its former size. Wezemaal remained an important but regional place of pilgrimage. The pilgrimage now concentrated around May 10th, and the village had to tolerate the competition of many local places of worship of St. Job, Leuven and Sint-Job-in-’t- Goor being the most important ones. The number of devotional objects (medals, pennants, pictures and devotional booklets) sold remained far below the volume of the 15th and 16th century. After 1676, no more silver medals were offered for sale. Despite renewed papal indulgences, a last (double) miracle in 1712 and 1714 and a reissue in 1750 of the 17th century miracle booklet, both the interest in St. Job and the local religious zeal gradually diminished, until around 1750 a low point was reached.
The monopoly that the Dukes of Ursel as lords of Wezemaal (1725) appropriated themselves in the church administration and the appointment of the sexton-schoolmaster, repeatedly caused high tensions between the local ducal officials and the parsons (especially Bruno Provoost, 1768-1803/04) and their abbot throughout the 18th century. In this tense climate, a lengthy and extensive renovation campaign of the church was mounted (1765-1789), made possible by a long period of prosperity and increasing revenues after 1750. The campaign ended with the classical decoration of the crossing and the choir, in which the recent altar from the Pope's College in Leuven was installed (1787) when that college was transformed into the Central Seminary of the Austrian Netherlands. Both the modernization of the church interior and the renewed attention to St. Job (procession throne and banner, garments, reliquary) aimed at the revival of the parishioners and pilgrims’ devotion and thus increasing offerings, but the effect was short-lived.
During the first phase of the French rule the church of Wezemaal underwent some difficult years. With the rapid demolition of the Ancien Regime, the church lost its secular (the Duke of Ursel) and spiritual (the abbot of Averbode) patrons. As elsewhere, the building was closed in 1798 and stripped of most bells. Between 1795 and 1801 43.5% of its land properties was lost. As a result of the Concordat between Napoleon and Rome the church came back into service (1803), but from then on worship was regulated by the state. The old and battle-weary Bruno Provoost was succeeded by some confrères (in 1802 the Norbertines bought back their former abbey and the abbot continued appointing Norbertines as parish priests). The last Norbertine parish priests spared no trouble or expense to recover lost lease lands and restore the church to its former glory (new bell, 1805; confessionals and panelling, 1809-1811), even though in 1810 all the silverware was stolen. These investments went through during the Dutch administration. St. Job kept playing an important role in the church finances, still attracting most of the offerings. In 1810, the 1635 litany was reprinted. The workshop of Dieltiens from Grobbendonk, the main supplier of the Wezemaal church furniture in the 19th century, made two new monumental portico altars of Our Lady and St. Job (1819-1821). In his altar St. Job was represented as the embodiment of an unshakable faith, at the moment when God relieves him from his suffering.
In the large re-Christianization offensive mounted by the Church in 1831 the parish was given a central place. Once again, the still considerable assets of the Saint Martin's church (in 1834 the church councils were allowed to re-acquire their goods and rents that they had been concealing since the French domination) were drawn on for the material and artistic support of this Catholic offensive. The new, hopeful era was immediately ushered in by three new Van den Gheyn bells (1831). After the death of the last Norbertine priest (1842) his secular successors continued his efforts. The desire of the Church to deeply penetrate the life of every believer was expressed in a triumphant, even lush church interior, the highlights of which were a new organ with organ loft, a 16th-century triptych of Frans Pourbus the Elder, given in 1850, new choir stalls (1887-1889), and particularly, the construction of a costly, monumental pulpit with a large equestrian statue of St. Martin (1851-1865). After the demolition in 1860 of the tower steeple by a lightning strike - again -, it was decided to recover the tower with a blunt roof, and to invest in the construction of two new chapels to the northwest, which gave the church its symmetrical floor plan.
In order to strengthen the faith of their flock the parsons created a number of prayer brotherhoods and associations for the promotion of moral conduct (1838, 1863, 1869, 1885). Despite the emphasis on the devotion to Christ, Mary and St. Martin and the acquisition of a series of holy relics (1878-1881), St. Job still held out as the most important parish saint. A new element was the creation of a successful and still existing Brotherhood of St. Job in 1878. In the new litany printed that year, St. Job now was deployed in the fight against blasphemy and unbelief, a theme that was to be continued in the 20th century.
After the First World War Wezemaal was dragged into the Catholic Action, an offensive launched from Rome to encounter the new dangers of socialism, communism, film and press, with emphasis on associational life. From that time dates the monumental Sacred Heart statue on the hill above the village (1926). Again the parish priests gave St. Job a prominent place in this offensive. In a new litany (1932) Job was, among other things, presented as a fighter against the enemies of the Church and the worldly temptations of modern times. Around the same time the St. Job procession was enlarged and the old miracle booklet from 1635-1750 reprinted.
The damage caused to the windows and roofs in 1944 by a V1 impact in the neighbourhood made it clear that a major restoration of the church was inevitable. After a long, difficult initial phase the restoration (1960-1963) was launched in December 1960. A major role in this project was played by the Leuven professor of art history Raymond M. Lemaire, who wanted to restore the building to its medieval state. He gradually managed to win over father Cuypers to his vision, himself a great supporter of modernization in the liturgy, as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) would implement. Much of the 19th century church furniture, including the communion rails, choir stalls and pulpit were removed. On the other hand, a number of important sculptures, such as the 13th-century calvary and the miraculous image St. Job, were restored by the Koninklijk Instituut voor het Kunstpatrimonium (Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage) in Brussels.
With much energy father Cuypers continued the fight against the growing threats to religious life. The new parish hall (1953) was to be "the fortress of the modern apostolate", and during the Second School Controversy (1950-1958) the parson built a new wing in the Catholic primary school (1955-1956). In the years 1945-1965 the devotion to St. Job reached its last triumph, each year culminating in the grand procession on the Sunday after May 10th, which was extended to a cortege of 32 groups and attracted thousands of pilgrims and spectators. In 1951, for the first time since the late 18th century, pilgrimage pennants were printed.
Neither the modernized liturgy nor the purity of the restored church building were able to slow down the secularisation, which even accelerated in the 60’s. Moreover, the increasing car traffic hampered the processions and many gave up the long and intensive preparation. From 1965 on, Cuypers realized that he was fighting a losing battle, and many processions became obsolete. After some final efforts to rejuvenate the procession of St. Job, this important religious manifestation of the village community finally foundered in 1968 at the inauguration of a new residential area. This was definitely the end of an era.