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June 2nd, 2019

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I’ve been doing a bit of culture over the last few days. Anne and I went up to Utrecht on Thursday, which was a holiday, and took the Friday as well to look around the Catharijneconvent (which I will hope to write up separately some time). And yesterday I went on another historic walk around Leuven organised by Leuven Leisure. (Of about a dozen participants, I was the only one who wasn’t Dutch.)

Here are three things that I found intriguing.

1) The Coconut Reliquary of Münster.

The Catharijneconvent‘s current temporary exhibition is of treasures from St Paul’s Cathedral in Münster, Germany (which is only a little further from Utrecht than we are). Most of the displayed items were made as reliquaries, but this really caught my eye. It is a goblet, possibly a chalice, made of a single intact polished coconut shell, crowned by a crystal lion which has been adapted to become a Christian lamb.

Coconuts were not unknown in Northern Europe from Roman times - they are probably native to the Maldives, the Indian Ocean is a corridor not a barrier, and the Romans ruled from Scotland to Sudan. But they were still pretty rare, and the practice of turning them into goblets is a purely Northern European one in the middle ages. This one dates to around 1230 and is the oldest one known.

The hinged lid of the cup is decorated with a rock crystal lion from Persia or Arabia, which has been adapted to become an Agnus Dei lamb complete with cross. The original crystal lion must have been rather special as well, to have made it to Germany from its pace of manufacture, and I guess it may have already been rather old before the Christian sculptor got at it.

The goblet was used as a reliquary at one point as well (sadly there doesn’t appear to be a record of which relics), but was surely first constructed as a luxury drinking vessel. The word used for it in German, Pokal, is a less commonly used term, also used for the World Cup.

2) The Cathedral Doors of Utrecht


The most extraordinary thing about St Martin’s Cathedral in Utrecht is that it is only half there. In 1674 the unfinished nave collapsed during a violent storm, and was never rebuilt, as shown in these before-and-after prints from the seventeenth century.


So the huge bell tower sits detached from the remains of the cathedral, and what would originally have been the soaring opening from the transept to the nave has been bricked up, a barrier between the sacred space and the outside world rather than a religious passageway.

The main opening through this barrier is through the bronze doors created in 1996 by Theo van de Vathorst, surmounted by a huge picture of St Martin dividing his cloak to clothe a naked beggar. Here are the doors in their full glory. Click to embiggen.


The theme is the six works of mercy listed by Jesus in Matthew 25: 1) To feed the hungry. 2) To give water to the thirsty. 3) To clothe the naked. 4) To shelter the homeless. 5) To visit the sick. 6) To visit the imprisoned. Traditionally a seventh is added to the list, To bury the dead. The upper half of the doors carries the passage from Matthew in several non-Dutch languages - Frisian, Japanese, Syriac and English. The lower half is almost entirely in Dutch, apart from the Greek original text; it includes two Dutch translations, notes about St Martin and St Willibrord, and an explanation of the whole thing. In the bottom left you can see the sheep being divided from the goats. Here’s a Youtube documentary about the making of the doors - in Dutch, alas.

The choice of languages is very interesting. Frisian is not a foreign language in the Netherlands, and it’s important for the historical tradition to which the church belongs. Japan has a long-running trade and cultural relationship with the Netherlands. Syriac would have been Jesus’ own language. And English of course is today’s world language of communication.

And the overall message, of course, is that it’s good to be nice to people.

3) The Kang’Xi-Verbiest celestial sphere

After almost two decades living near Leuven, I can still be utterly astonished by the city. Here in the courtyard of the Atrechtcollege on the Naamsestraat, 300 metres from where my daughter was born, is this full-scale replica of a celestial sphere built in the 1670s by the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest for the old Beijing Observatory at the command of the Kangxi emperor. It is more than two and a half metres across, and weighs 3.85 tonnes, but apparently it turns easily with a simple crank mechanism.

Almost 1900 stars are marked on the surface. As you may be able to see, the starmap is reversed - here the Pleiades are at the top, with the V of the Hyades below pointing left instead of right, and the stars of Aries left along the zodiac instead of right as we would see them in the northern hemisphere.

Verbiest’s story is quite extraordinary; he persuaded the young Kangxi emperor to adopt European science as part of his modernising policies, and also designed a steam-powered car and was the first person to use the word “motor” in its modern sense. He died aged 64 in 1688 of injuries sustained from falling off a horse. Two Belgian beers are named after him (Pater Verbiest, which comes in 6.5% blond and 9% brown versions, and Ferre, which is an eye-watering 10% quadruple).

The globe here was constructed by the Chinese authorities in the 1980s as a gift to Leuven University, commemorating Chinese-Western friendship. The university had maintained its links with China over the centuries (with one unexpected benefit being the enlightenment of Hergé). Unfortunately I cannot find details of how this particular present came about, nor the names of the people who designed and built the replica.

Quite by coincidence, I discovered that the celestial sphere was formally unveiled in its present location exactly thirty years ago today, 2 June 1989. Needless to say, it immediately became a focal point for demonstrations of solidarity with the Tiananmen Square protesters.

So, three things that I’ve seen in the last three days that will all stick in my mind, all pointing to the links between Asia and this part of Europe (the coconut and crystal must have reached Münster via Asia; Japanese, Syriac and to a large extent New Testament Greek are Asian languages; and the Chinese globe speaks for itself). There’s always something interesting out there.

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