Scherpenheuvel : the history

16 November 2010

Category: default - 8 comments

Regardless from where you come the shrine on the "sharp" hill is visible everywhere. The history of Scherpenheuvel starts centuries ago and finds its origin in an old oak tree. Most likely it had something to do with the worship of gods as practiced by the Druids. Early Christianity gave a Christian meaning to many of these heathen practices. Hanging a statue of holy Mary on a tree, like it was done in here in Scherpenheuvel, was such an example.

At the time Scherpenheuvel was part of the territory of Zichem. The first report, in which Chaplain Van Velthem of Zichem mentioned that a lot of people came to visit the statue of the holy Mary , dates back to 1304. Although there are many breaches in the history, the legend already indicates the desire of the believers to have Our Lady close to them. Even without historic value a legend has its richness for it tells us something about the human soul and heart. So the legend goes that on a certain day a litte shepherd boy tried to take away the small statue from the tree but before he could do so he was paralysed on the spot. When his master came looking for him an found the boy in this condition, he hung the statue back and the little boy could move again. This miraculous story spread and more and more pelgrims found their way to Scherpenheuvel. In the year 1578 the Governor of the Netherlands, Alexander Farnese, came to pray here before he occupied Zichem that had fallen to the Protestants. It is likely that due to the Protestants who looted our regions in those days the statue disappeared in 1587. In the same year an alderman of Zichem obtained a similar statue from the sacristan of the 'Allerheiligenkapel' (chapel of all saints) in Diest. Was this the original statue brought to safety at the time of the Protestant invasion ? The question has'nt been answered yet. Anyway this same statue is venerated in Scherpenheuvel until now.

As the number of pilgrims increased more and more cures were attributed ot the miraculous statue. As a six years old child, the pastor of Zichem, Godfried Van Thienwinkel, himself was healed in Scherpenheuvel. As a result he built a wooden chapel next to the oak in 1602.  As people strongly believed in the healing forces of the oak they cut pieces of the tree-tame as a relic. The oak suffered a lot and eventually he had to be chopped down. Many statues where carved from the dead tree and were dispersed over many countries.

Archduke Albrecht and Archduchess Isabella governed our regions in this period on behalf of the Spanish king. They were great venerators and travelled regularly from Diest to Scherpenheuvel and enriched the shrine with many gifts. When Maurice of Nassau occupied 's-Hertogenbos, the city was freed by Spinola after Albrecht and Isabella had prayed to the statue. In 1604 they replaced the wooden chapel by a stone one. When the occupation of Oostende was broken they went to Scherpenheuvel to thank Our Lady. Scherpenheuvel was granted the priviliges of a city in 1605. In 1620 a wall was build around the city. The vestiges of this wall can still be seen along 'de rozenkransweg' (the Rosary road). 

Albrecht and Isabella planned to build a large church at the site of the old oak tree. The court architect Wenceslas Coebergher (º Antwerpen ca. 1560/61 - † Brussels 23.11.1634) drew up the plans: a domed church in an enclosed park (hortus conclusus), drawn in the shape of a seven-pointed star. The star represents Mary (Stella Maris = Star of the Sea) and 298 gilded stars were scattered over the cupola. The biblical numer seven (representing perfection) is found everywhere around the building. During the Renaissance the round shape represented the world and the dome, as it were, brought heaven down to earth.

In 1607 the first domed church was consecrated in Willemstad (Netherlands) as a symbol of the Reformation, while in 1609 the construction of the Basilica in Scherpenheuvel, as a product of the Counter-Reformation was an attempt to symbolize the power and vitality of the Church in a reaction against the Reformation. The construction completed in 1627 is considered to be the first baroque church in the Netherlands. Archduke Albrecht who died in 1621 dit not live to witness the consecration of the Basilica. Isabella however was present after having made the pilgrimage from Diest to Scherpenheuvel. After the consecration she put her jewels at the foot of the altar. That gestiure is believed to be at the origin of the popular nowadays custom of offering money and jewellery at the foot of the altar.

In 1610 Scherpenheuvel became an independent parish with Joost Bouckaert of Izegem as its first pastor. He later became the 8th bishop of Ieper (1641-1646). In order to provide the best services at the pilgrimage site he built in 1624 an oratory (a large complex of buildings with a courtyard) east of the foot of the hill. In 1660 the cloister was connected to the church by an baroque corridor (80 m long), to which an arcade was later added (1688). Until 1797 (French Revolution) the Oratory fathers assured the church services. The day before Christmas of that same year, the last Oratorians were expelled and deported to French-Guyana in South America. It should be noted that the Oratorians of Scherpenheuvel also laid a foundation at the German pilgrimage site of Kevelaer.

To conclude this brief historical overview we add some interesting pieces of information. In 1807 the church was washed white and in 1825 the red floor tiles were replaced by a marble floor which was last renovated in 1936. The miraculous statue, which previously was placed in a niche under the tree, has been installed in 1850 in a silver tabernacle with trone. In 1860 the church was painted for the first time in polychrome. The same year coloured glass was mounted in the windows depicting the origin and evolution of the pilgrimage site. In 1872 the miraculous statue was crowned, an event that still is commemorated every 25 years. In 1887 this feast of crowning was depicted on canvas by Louis Hendrix (º Peer 1827 - † Antwerpen 1888). The painting can be admired in the middle radiating chapel on the north side. In 1922 the church received the honorary title of 'basilica" in recognition of the great merit of this place of pelgrimage.


By Nicola Poitras 04/10/22 (8 years ago)

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My Grandmother was a student at the Convent School in Scherpenheuvel. Unfortunately she passed away 8 years ago. I can remember sitting on her lap and listening to stories of her time there. Her name was Anne Leah Grizaard Egan.

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