Scherpenheuvel. Church and City in a HeptagonCopyright: © Tobias Glitsch
Church and City in a Heptagon.
Genesis, Form and Significance of the Belgian Pilgrimage Site of Scherpenheuvel under the Spanish Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella
Since the late Middle Ages a statue of Mary at an oak tree on the eponymous "steep hill", the nucleus of the town of Scherpenheuvel in Flemish-Brabant, had worked countless miraculous healings. In the first decades of the 17th century, this widely visited destination of pilgrimage received a spectacular architectural setting whose design turned the site into a princely foundation and a built manifestation of Catholicism. In 1603 Archduke Albrecht and Infanta Isabella, rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, personally initiated the architectural expansion of the pilgrimage site in the context of the Eighty Years' War with its religious and territorial conflicts between the catholic provinces in the south, loyal to Spain, and the protestant states of the Dutch republic in the north. In the following years they commissioned an extraordinary domed church with a heptagonal plan, located at the top of the hill in the centre of a star-shaped garden and surrounded by a fortified ideal city, both of them likewise based on heptagonal geometries. After the death of Archduke Albrecht in 1621, Isabella continued the expansion and furnishing of the pilgrimage site on her own, adding, among other things, a convent for a newly founded community of Oratorians, which was connected to the centralised church on an east-west axis by way of various annexes and a partially underground passageway.
The research project examines the genesis, design, and programmatic intent of the pilgrimage site at various scales from the layout of the ideal city to the architecture of the church itself to its painted and sculptural decoration. To this end, the entire ensemble, which is unique both from an architectural and from an urbanistic point of view, will not only for the first time be documented and analyzed systematically using the methods of historical building research. Extensive archival research and a review of the current literature will also for the first time allow a full evaluation of the written and pictorial sources in their entirety. The project thus strives to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of this eminently important ensemble with regards to its chronology, its use, its typology, its iconology, its symbolism, and its religious and political objectives.