by John Palmer
This sacred site is situated at the Broek of Blaasveld, in the Belgian province of Antwerpen. Blaasveld is near the rivers Rupel and Schelde, at the side of an important canal (begun in 1537), which connects Brussels, the capital of Belgium, with the river Schelde and the sea.
The name Willebroek stems from the Germanic wilthja, meaning wild, and broka, meaning morass. The name was mentioned in 1182 at Willebrot and in 1190 it was spelled as Wildebroec. At nearby Blaasveld, are the remains of this ancient broek (brook), which was regularly flooded by the river Rupel adding alluvial deposits. This morass or swamp was impassable until the 13th century; in subsequent centuries turf was dug there, creating deep pools of water, or small lakes. This brook is the setting to the following charming, captivating story.
In 1636, Michel Van Breedam unearthed, from a turf ditch, a statuette representing the Virgin Mary, which “after ancestral custom” was attached to “the most beautiful oak tree in the region”. In 1760, during a particularly harsh winter, when all the waters were frozen over by a thick layer of ice, it was observed that the pool where the image of the Virgin was discovered, remained ice-free. Even today, it is said this pool never freezes over.
People became convinced this statuette of the Virgin was a miraculous image. Hence, they founded a small wooden chapel, or Oratory, to house the divine image. Word spread throughout the region and the spot became a place of pilgrimage. It is believed that many miraculous healings occurred at the little chapel, sited at the edge of the mystical pool, of which the water was primarily used to heal eye diseases.
These wonders, it is said, were formerly faithfully transferred by word of mouth within the ancient lineage of the Van Breedam family, who traditionally managed the land for the local prince. Today, twenty-five members of the family still live in Willebroek, although they do not appear to be involved with the chapel’s upkeep.
In the year 1860, the tiny wooden chapel was “enlarged”, meaning it was rebuilt as a brick structure. Legend relates that each brick was transferred to the site by devout pilgrims.
The chapel is known in Flemish, as Het Kapelleke der Veertien Bunders, which translates as The Little Chapel of the Fourteen Bunders. The word “bunder” denotes an ancient unit of land measure; one bunder was equal to 400 minor roeden, or rods, of which the value differed from region to region.
The veneration of the Virgin is also apparent at the municipality of Boom, meaning tree, situated opposite Willebroek, across the river Rupel. Boom has retained an image of the Virgin on its heraldic shield. Legend at this site tells of an image of the Virgin being discovered within a tree of rare hardwood, which had drifted to Boom along the river Rupel. Another version of the story relates the Virgin was carved by an unknown local sculptor from the wood of this rare tree.
Another notable example is found somewhat further afield, at Hakendover, in the province Brabant adjoining the province of Antwerpen. Here, there is a chapel devoted to Onze Lieve Vrouw ten Steen, meaning Our Dear Lady of the Stone, which possibly replaced an ancient, prehistoric megalith. This theory is supported by a number of sites in the region where megaliths once existed. Indeed, at Zemst, where the borders of both provinces intersect, there still remains a megalith, known as the Halvensteen, possibly stemming from alf or elves or the Fairy Stone.
Returning to Willebroek, situated in the south of the area of the rivers Rupel, the Zenne, the Dijle and Nete, it follows that due to these rivers it was probably a morass in prehistory, while on somewhat higher stretches of land existed dense woods. Since the 4th Century B.C., the tribal Nervians lived in the south and the Menapians to the north. In the 11th and 12th centuries, polders (areas of land reclaimed by the sea and protected by dikes) were created in the area, which gave rise to Willebroek, which later became a lordship in the middle ages. More recently, in 1977, Blaasveld, along with other nearby villages, became confused with Willebroek.
By reason that turf takes thousands of years to form, and because the broek at Blaasveld was impassable until the 13th Century AD, it is probable that the original statuette of the Virgin “discovered within the turf”, can hardly have been a genuine medieval relic. Therefore, the original image from this site may have been a far more ancient, prehistoric image of a pagan Mother Goddess. The Virgin Mary may be considered a chaste reflection of this primordial tradition (the oldest free standing sculpture, on European soil, is the naked Goddess of Vestonice, termed a “Venus” figurine, which is 37,000 years old), a tradition which in far prehistory was linked to the manifold transformations within nature coupled with fertility.
Naturally, this in no way detracts from the significance and importance of the statuette of the Holy Virgin preserved within the Chapel of the Fourteen Bunders. The statuette, is most likely not early medieval, though it likely dates from the 17th century. It was probably carved from wood by an (unknown) local artist, and possibly polychromed. The lovely figurine is about one foot tall, and is dressed, as is customary, in a wide blue mantle, adorned with lace. On one arm she carries the tiny figure of the Christ child, her other hand clasps a palm branch.
Recently, there was a discovery within the broek of the remains of a prehistoric settlement or village. The houses or huts were supported by wooden posts, to overcome regular floods caused by the river Rupel. This discovery of an iron-age village may lend further credence to the initial supposition that the original divine image may have been a prehistoric figurine.
The Protection Process
During the process of researching this enigma, however, I learned that the Little Chapel of the Fourteen Bunders had suffered several attacks by unknown vandals. Literature states that the chapel had, “so far survived all attacks of vandalism”. However humble this chapel may be, it too, is part of a spiritual and cultural heritage.
Modern houses have been built near the chapel and even though the inhabitants may keep a watchful eye on the chapel, it remains an open question whether this is sufficient to combat further attacks of vandalism. It is hoped that this article and other publicity for the site might help prevent further acts of vandalism.
Another means of achieving this aim concerns officially listing the chapel, thereby implementing full, legal protection, which allows vandals to be directly apprehended. This possibility was neglected by the municipality of Willebroek, which managed to list and legally protect the old chestnut tree near the chapel, even though the chapel is mentioned in a recent guide published by the town.
John Palmer is an artist living in Den Haag, Netherlands, currently working with large format view cameras in landscape photography