Church of Our Lady
The early Gothic 'Church of Our Lady' is the oldest preserved building in Diest. Previously, the castle chapel of the noble family of the Lords of Diest stood here. They ruled the city and surroundings from their castle on the 'Warande', a lithostratigraphic formation (hill terrain), since then known as the 'burchtheuvel' (Castle Hill). To allow greater numbers of people access to the services, construction of a larger church began in 1253. This was inaugurated in 1288.
The architectural style is in keeping with the tradition of early Cistercian Gothic. Characteristic of that movement are its simplicity and sober architecture. The floor plan is shaped as a Latin cross that is 62 metres long and 21 metres wide.
As building material, locally sourced rusty-brown ironstone was used, just as it was for the Beguinage Church and Saint Sulpitius’ Church. In the Gothic period this ironstone was excavated and used for the construction of most churches along the Demer. It became a characteristic of the Gothic architecture found in Diest. The ironstone originates from the quarries of Rotselaar, Gelrode, Langdorp, Schaffen and Tessenderlo.
The church was badly damaged during the iconoclasm in 1580. The church wardens refused to pay a ransom to the Geuzen (confederacy of Calvinist Dutch nobles), who then stripped and robbed the church of its metal. They destroyed most altars and artworks. To make matters worse, the tower collapsed, destroying the roof and the vault of the nave in its fall. Only the shell of the tower, the transept and the chancel were left standing.
The damage was repaired around 1600. Instead of the slender spire, the current tower was built, which is far too small for the heavy substructure. Eight years later, the tower clock, which had been hidden during the iconoclasm, was returned to the tower. The new clock comes from Mechelen. A little later, the triumphal group above the chancel entrance would be restored and new stained-glass windows fitted. The Gothic portal was replaced in 1777 by a Baroque bluestone portal.
In 1830, part of the cross-rib vaults collapsed. A number of stained-glass windows and the choir stalls from 1641 came to an end. Due to a lack of funds, the idea of abandoning the church was considered. The church was, however, eventually restored according to the plans of architect Langerock, from 1898 to 1899. He also wanted to instigate the building of a 65 metre, monumental west tower, but the shortage of money put pay to these ambitions. Eye-catching highlights inside are the copper baptismal font, the neo-Gothic pulpit, the Lourdes Grotto and the copper Madonna of Fatima (Kamiel Colruyt, 1946).
During the Middle Ages, the church was very popular with pilgrims. They streamed in from afar to worship the statue of Our Lady of Beilaer. During the course of the fifteenth century, the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Seven Woes was established in the church.