*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 23rd of August 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
All right- follow me here, we’ve got a strange show- sort of. Let me explain.
First, do you remember Jan van Ruysbroeck? He was a 14th-century mystic who lived in the Low Countries- near Brussels. He was part of a movement that would become known as the Brethren of the Common Life- a group of Christians that rejected much of the formality in the Medieval Catholic Church- they formed semi-monastic communities devoted to prayer and good works in the community. There are historians who tie these mystics to the Reformation- especially with the development of the Devotio Moderna (the “modern devotion” that sought to go back to the simple piety of the early church).
So- Jan van Ruysbroeck is a key character in the history of the church- so key that a significant statue of him was sculpted and put on display in his home church of St. Gudula. It’s a fine statue. But if you look close, you can see that his right foot is resting on top of something. It is the head of a woman- and the heel of someone crushing someone else’s head is explicit biblical imagery (see Genesis 3:15). So- whose head is it? Here the story gets even stranger- it’s the head of Heilwig Bloemaerts- a Beguine known for her charitable work in Brussels- and for her Silver Chair. Let me explain.
We don’t know very much about the real Heilwig Bloemaerts- here’s what we do know: she seems to have come from the upper class and was put in charge of at least one house of Beguines- that is, women in a religious order that was voluntary- they were semi-monastic and focused on works of charity.
Heilwig Bloemaerts seems to have been a patroness of local churches and was protected from the occasional inquisition by the upper classes who valued her patronage. As a woman and as a mystic, she would have been suspect- especially in this context as there was a group called the “the Brethren of the Free Spirit”. These Brethren (which included women) were accused of pantheism and particular sins of the flesh. It was taught amongst some that they could reach a level of sinlessness such that whatever they did- even if it looked like sin- wasn’t sin (and you can probably see how this could be a suspect theology).
We know very little about Heilwig’s actual thoughts. We do know that she became known as something of a saint with people, especially women, coming to Brussels to be healed by her both when she was alive and after her death. We know that the silver chair was treated as a relic and was given to the Duke of Brabant. And it was perhaps that she was mysterious, wealthy, and a woman that made her an easy target for a later biographer of Jan van Ruysbroeck. The man who wrote the first biography of the Flemish mystic was Henri Pomerius.
It seems that Pomerius was attempting to strengthen the status of Ruysbroeck as a champion of orthodoxy and the church by attributing the problems of the local female mystics and free spirits to Heilwig. Instead of highlighting her work as a patroness and her work devoted to building a hospital, she became a punching bag for Pomerius to not only attack enemies of Ruysbroeck, but his own foes, whom he could also associate with this fictional picture of Heilwig.
And thus, the story of Ruysbroeck was so associated with the supposed errors of Heilwig that the statue forever commemorating him has him crushing her!
But here’s to the Heilwig who doesn’t deserve to be commemorated as a heretic- instead, we know she was beloved for her charitable work and her confidence to be a public figure in the church as a woman (which may have been her downfall) and her legacy- now divorced from Ruysbroeck- as an important Flemish mystic and patroness in the era of dissenting mystical theology in the Low Countries in the later Middle Ages. Heilwig Bloemaerts died on this the 23rd of August, 686 years ago in 1335.
The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from the 3rd chapter of the book of Revelation:
I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of August 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose inevitable statue will have him crushing the skull of some heretic- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who doesn’t have a silver chair but does have a new chair. I’ve started to sit while recording- it’s getting more comfortable. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.