Every summer, in early July, the Grand-Place in Brussels returns to the 16th century and receives the Court of Charles V. For three days, the centre of Brussels becomes the home of period costumes, jousting on horseback, and crossbow tournaments in celebration of the Ommegang Festivities.
This traditional festival commemorates the triumphal entry of Charles V of Spain into the Belgium capital in 1549 to present his son, Philip II, the future king of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. Both the people and the political and economic elites wanted to render homage to the Emperor with impressive equestrian spectacles on the Grand Place. Five centuries later, the centre of Brussels continues to dress up for this colourful procession.
The Ommegang Festivities, revived in 1930, are part of the “Carolus V” Festival that begins in May and lasts until September. As thousands of spectators look on, more than 1,400 actors re-enact the arrival of the Emperor on the square along with his retinue of nobles and representatives from the nine free cities of Belgium. The organisers attempt to reproduce every detail with the greatest historical accuracy, from the selection of the participants to the clothing they wear.
In order to achieve historical accuracy, they must refer to paintings and engravings from the period. One of the most precise documents available is The Festival of the Guild of Crossbowmen Outside the Church of Our Lady of Sablon by Pieter Snayers, a painting in the BBVA Collection that can be studied down to its most minute detail thanks to the Gigapixel tool available on the Collection’s website.
Detail of The Festival of the Guild of Crossbowmen Outside the Church of Our Lady of Sablon - BBVA Collection
Prior to the Emperor’s visit, however, Brussels already celebrated the Ommegang Festivities. This procession, which was organized by the Crossbowmen’s Guild, was held in honour of Our Lady of Victory, whose image is in the Church of Sablon. The entire population took to the streets to commemorate the transfer of the miraculous statue from Antwerp, just as depicted in the painting by Pieter Snayers.
The festival, which took on greater importance after the Emperor’s visit, suffered a defeat in 1580 when the Calvinists burned the statue of the Virgin, which then had to be replaced. When the city fell to the Calvinists, the Ommegang was no longer celebrated. The festival only returned in all its splendour in 1615, the year when Archduchess Isabel Clara Eugenia participated in the archery tournament held by the Crossbowmen’s Guild.
During the tournament, Isabel Clara Eugenia, the daughter of the monarch, was able to shoot a parrot that had been tied to the spire of the Church of Our Lady of Sablon. She was proclaimed the Queen of the Guild and the festivities were prolonged for two weeks. In commemoration of this feat, the archdukes commissioned court painter Denis van Alsloot with a series of paintings, among them The Infante Isabella Shoots the Bird at the Tournament of the Grand Serment, which commemorates Isabella’s feat, and The Procession of the Guilds, which is now located in the Prado Museum.