Beguinage (World Heritage)
The beguinage in Diest is one of the thirteen Flemish beguinages on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It was founded by Arnold IV (Lord of Diest) in 1253 and discontinued in 1796 under the French regime. As in other cities, the beguinage was built on inexpensive, marginal land outside the city centre. In this case, on the low, marshy terrain of the 'Begijnebeek' (Beguine Brook), tributary of the Demer River.
Walking through the Rubensian gate dating from 1671, you are immediately struck by the serene atmosphere and the enclosed character of the medieval Beguine life. The round-arch Baroque gate is embellished with two pillars while the niche at the top accommodates a statue of Mary, surrounded by garlands of flowers and angelic heads. A phrase from the Old Testament ‘Comt in mynen Hof, Myn suster Bruyt’ invites you to enter this enclosed garden. In the Song of Songs, King Solomon describes the bride as an enclosed garden. Beguines saw themselves as brides of Christ.
Saint Catherine’s church is a typical beguinage church dating from the fourteenth century. It was established with limited resources and built with the typical regional ironstone. A small Lantern tower adorns the Gothic church. This is dedicated to Saint Catherine, whose help was invoked for fire and skin problems. Saint Catherine’s church was recently restored and had its façade coated with lime plaster.
The main altar is adorned with the painting 'The Adoration of the Shepherds' by Frans Francken de Jonge. The seventeenth-century pulpit and the beautifully embellished chancel closure were created by Jan Mason from Diest. The stucco adorning the wooden barrel vault of the chancel, transept and nave, dates from the eighteenth century.
City within the City
The beguinage was, so to speak, a city within a city.
Originally, it consisted of a hotchpotch of waddle and daub houses and buildings grouped around the church and along a few streets. In the sixteenth century, parish priest Nicolaas van Essche tried to bring some structure. He built a presbytery outside the gate, had a wall built along the Vestenstraat (street) and a number of dilapidated houses demolished.
Major renovation of the beguinage began in the seventeenth century. First and foremost, to reduce the fire hazard, safer houses had to be built in stone. The number of Beguines also increased, up to 395 in 1674. The beguinage, with its novices, resident children and service staff, soon had around six hundred residents. Therefore, most of the ninety houses and convents date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Today, artists have installed studios in a number of these. Noteworthy are the numerous Baroque door frames and the alcoves for statuettes of saints. They reflect as it were, the great gate.
The new houses were mainly built by individual Beguines. They only made temporary pledges and were permitted to have their own possessions. Poorer Beguines who couldn't afford their own house rented a room. And then a number of poorer Beguines lived together in convents. At the end of the seventeenth century, there were nine residing Beguines in the 'Engelenconvent' (Angels’ Convent). It now serves as museum of the 'Grauwzusters' (grey-robed sisters who lived in accordance with the Third Order of St Francis) focusing on their monastic life and the care for psychiatric patients.