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. Just as with 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' (brook of Beguine), tributary of the River Demer.
When you walk under the Rubensian gateway dating from 1671, you immediately feel the serene atmosphere and the enclosed character of the medieval Beguine life. The round arch Baroque gateway 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. Solomon sings of the bride as an enclosed garden. Beguines see themselves as the bride of Christ.
The Saint Catherine church is a typical beguinage church dating from the fourteenth century. It was established with resources that were limited at the time and built with typical 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 church was recently restored and coated with lime plaster on the outside.
On the main altar you can see 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 as it were, a city within a city.
Originally, it consisted of a hotchpotch of mud 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 into it. He built a clergy house outside the gateway, 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, safer houses had to be built from 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 saints. They reflect as it were, the great gateway.
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 shacked up together in convents. At the end of the seventeenth century there were nine residing Beguines in the 'Engelenconvent' (angelical convent). It now serves as museum of the 'Grauwzusters' (grey-robed sisters who lived in accordance with the Third Order of St Francis).
The Beguinage is freely accessible every day.
'Xaverius – Flemish centre for dining and table culture' – kitchen with herb garden: opened from spring to autumn, on the first Sunday of the month.
Tel. 013-32 57 51