Saint Peter’s Church
Saint Peter’s Church (Dutch: Sint-Pieterskerk) of Leuven, Belgium, is situated on the city’s Grote Markt (main market square), right across the ornate Town Hall. Built mainly in the 15th century in Brabantine Gothic style, the church has a cruciform floor plan and a low bell tower that has never been completed. It is 93 meters long.
The first church on the site, made of wood and presumably founded in 986, burned down in 1176. It was replaced by a Romanesque church, made of stone, featuring a West End flanked by two round towers like at Our Lady’s Basilica in Maastricht. Of the Romanesque building only part of the crypt remains, underneath the chancel of the actual church.
Construction of the present Gothic edifice, significantly larger than its predecessor, was begun approximately in 1425, and was continued for more than half a century in a remarkably uniform style, replacing the older church progressively from east (chancel) to west. Its construction period overlapped with that of the Town Hall across the Markt, and in the earlier decades of construction shared the same succession of architects as its civic neighbor: Sulpitius van Vorst to start with, followed by Jan II Keldermans and later on Matheus de Layens. In 1497 the building was practically complete, although modifications, especially at the West End, continued.
In 1458, a fire struck the old Romanesque towers that still flanked the West End of the uncompleted building. The first arrangements for a new tower complex followed quickly, but were never realized. Then, in 1505, Joost Matsys (brother of painter Quentin Matsys) forged an ambitious plan to erect three colossal towers of freestone surmounted by openwork spires, which would have had a grand effect, as the central spire would rise up to about 170 m, making it the world’s tallest structure at the time. Insufficient ground stability and funds proved this plan impracticable, as the central tower reached less than a third of its intended height before the project was abandoned in 1541. After the height was further reduced by partial collapses from 1570 to 1604, the main tower now rises barely above the church roof; at its sides are mere stubs. The architect had, however, made a maquette of the original design, which is preserved in the southern transept.
War and after war
The church suffered severe damage in both World Wars. In 1914 a fire caused the collapse of the roof and in 1944 a bomb destroyed part of the northern side.
A very late (1998) addition is the jacquemart, or golden automaton, which periodically rings a bell near the clock on the gable of the southern transept, above the main southern entrance door.
Artworks and relics
Outstanding are two paintings by the Flemish Primitive Dirk Bouts, the Last Supper (1464-1468) and the Martyrdom of St Erasmus (1465). The street leading towards the West End of the church is named after the artist. The Nazis seized The Last Supper in 1942. Panels from the painting had been sold legitimately to German museums in the 1800s, and Germany was forced to return all the panels as part of the required reparations of the Versailles Treaty after World War I.
An elaborate stone tabernacle (1450), in the form of a hexagonal tower, soars amidst a bunch of crocketed pinnacles to a height of 12.5 meters. A creation of the architect de Layens (1450), it is an example of what is called in Dutch a sacramentstoren, or in German a Sakramentshaus, on which artists lavished more pains than on almost any other artwork.
One of the oldest objects in the art collection is a 12th-century wooden head, being the only remainder of a crucifix burnt in World War I.
There is also Nicolaas de Bruyne’s 1442 sculpture of the Madonna and Child enthroned on the seat of wisdom (Sedes Sapientiae). The theme is still used today as the emblem of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.