Ghent: “Medieval” Tortures, the Lamb of God, and Outsider Art 

Sunday in Ghent! I made a short itinerary (with help from the Triposo app), which included St. Bavo Cathedral, graffiti alley, and the Museum of Dr. Guislain. The first stop was the Gravensteen!

The site was home to fortified buildings for the counts of Flanders since the 10th century, and the castle was rebuilt and “upgraded” by Philip of Alsace in 1180. By the mid-13th-14th century the castle became the center for justice, which included imprisonment and torture. This later component was annoyingly the central focus of the place. Cue the wonderful MST3K commentary on Teenagers from Outer-space: Torture!


From what I could gather, the museum received a donation of torture devices (not featured in my pictures) from the last executioner in Ghent, Jean Guillaume Hannoff. After he died in 1866, his son donated his tools to the city. These tools from the 19th century are displayed prominently in the castle. Often the placards would acknowledge what a room was intended for, such as this chapel, but the focus remained on its use as a dungeon or torture chamber.

   The medieval world was not a period of tolerance, but let’s not collapse hundreds of years of history just to enhance the macabre components of the place. There are some great articles on the persistent problem of improperly identifying anything perceived as backward or sadistic as “medieval.” (My recent favorite: Savage Love Letter of the Day: A Medievalist Schools Dan on Medieval Attitudes Toward Sex.) This display of early modern “medieval” torture seems to fit in that catagory. If they explored the multiple ways the castle was repurposed over the centuries, including torture, that would have been fascinating. At one time it was used to house a factory! Also it would have been nice to see anything substantive about Philip of Alsace, the Third Crusade, or the counts of Flanders in general. Reglardless, it is a beautiful structure, and even on a cloudy day the view is great! 


Next stop was the Bavo Cathedral, home to the famous Van Eyck Lamb of God altar piece completed in 1432. They are in the process of restoring it, but it remains on display as they work on it. Pictures are not allowed but you can see wonderful images at the restoration website and here are some from the outside (construction), crypt, and cathedral.








The unexpected surprise for the day was the Museum of Dr. Guislain.


There are numerous exhibits including “Condemned,”a heart-wrenching photography exhibit by Robin Hammond on the crisis of mental health in Africa, and “Characteristic Faces: On Hawk Noses and Chipmunk Cheeks,” an exploration of phrenology and physical anthropology. There is also a permanent exhibit on the history of psychiatry.


For my tatooed friends, this was from a doctor that believed various types of “criminal natures” were evidenced by tatoos

There is also a permanent art exhibit, featuring “outsider art.” As the website explained: 

“This term denotes the spontaneous and unconventional work created by artists who operate outside of the professional art scene or on the fringes of society. They can be psychiatric patients, people with intellectual disability, people who lead isolated lives and struggle to find their place in society as well as playful creative souls whose work allows them to uninhibitedly go their own way.” 

It is a lovely collection.

While the Guislain exihibits  could’ve played up the “medieval” attributes of a tragic history, instead they presented a difficult past and present with honesty and grace. They emphasized the people, both patients and doctors, who struggled to make sense of and treat mental health. I highly recommend checking this place out.

I leave you with some images of Ghent’s famous graffiti wall…more “outsider art.”





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