Thursday, December 30, 2010

Desolation at Argenteuil

Here is a rather sad slideshow of the estate of Argenteuil fallen into disrepair. The photographs date from 2004, two years after the death of Princess Lilian, and the same year that Jean-Marie Delwart purchased the property. Although I have nothing against Monsieur Delwart, I wish Argenteuil could have been maintained, as Lilian had hoped, as she left it, as a memorial to Leopold III and his second family. It seems tragic that such a rich chapter in Belgian royal history should slip into oblivion. I can understand why Madame Jeannine Degrève, the most faithful member of the household of Argenteuil, who had remained in Princess Lilian's service for 53 years, locked up the empty, deserted mansion for the last time with tears in her eyes.

It must have been even more painful for Prince Alexandre and Princess Esmeralda to see their youthful home stripped bare. While the state furnishings, borrowed in 1961, returned to Laeken, the children had to preside over the sale of many family treasures, including Princess Lilian's wardrobe and much of King Leopold's library, since they were unable to keep them at Argenteuil or accommodate them in their own homes. Their sister Marie-Christine's insistence on receiving her portion of her mother's inheritance in cash rather than in goods also made it necessary to sell family goods for profit. Furthermore, forced to empty Argenteuil in haste, Alexandre and Esmeralda could give only general instructions to those responsible for classifying the chateau's contents and setting items aside for sale. Objects of special historical value, intimately linked to the lives of past Belgian kings, were dispersed because Lilian's heirs could not oversee everything in detail.

Unfortunately, however, often unaware of these practical problems, many Belgians harshly criticized Alexandre and Esmeralda. In the press, they were portrayed as heartless, greedy individuals, crassly dilapidating the "national heritage" for money. The attacks seem quite unfair and ironic, as Lilian's heirs had battled, for months, to preserve Argenteuil, essentially intact, as a memorial to their parents' cultural, scientific and humanitarian work, and it was the Belgian state that had made this impossible... Ironically, too, there was a singular lack of public indignation at the government's sale of Argenteuil itself!

Photographs courtesy of Tatiana Faber

More photographs, of the interior of the mansion

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Albert I in the Holy Land

In 1933, to mark the 1900th anniversary of the Redemption, King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. With his usual piety and simplicity, the King was seen praying at all the sanctuaries; with his usual thoughtfulness, meditating upon the Gospel in solitude. A beautiful photograph taken by the Queen, and published in Le Roi Albert et les missions (1936), shows the King standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, intently reading his New Testament. As pictured above, the royal couple also visited the Garden of Olives. The King of the Belgians, who would himself die tragically, only a year later, at the feet of a rustic crucifix in the Ardennes, contemplated the sacrifice of Christ where the King of Kings had prepared for His Passion.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Royal Chapel of Argenteuil

In her Will, Princess Lilian of Belgium asked to be buried at the foot of her chapel at Argenteuil. This little Gothic gem had been erected in the Loire valley at the time of Henri IV. Centuries later, it was dismantled to facilitate a construction project, but was subsequently acquired by Count Paul de Launoit, a faithful counsellor of King Leopold III. The Count transported the pieces of the chapel to Belgium. In 1961, he reached an agreement with the Minister of Public Works, enabling the chapel to be reconstituted and donated to Leopold and Lilian.

The chapel was rebuilt in a a glade near the grassy esplanade to the south of the mansion of Argenteuil. In this intimate, mystical little sanctuary, Leopold and Lilian would practice their religion for decades. Princess Lilian, in particular, almost never attended any other place of worship. For forty years, her spiritual needs were served at Argenteuil by her confessors, including Henri Collart, S. J. and Raymond Thils, a brave military chaplain, greatly admired by the King and his wife, who had served in the Resistance during World War II.

Unfortunately, the Belgian government did not allow Lilian to be buried at Argenteuil as she had hoped. Prior to her funeral at Laeken, however, her children, Alexandre and Esmeralda, organized a memorial service in her beloved chapel to honor at least the spirit of her last wishes. Monsignor Édouard Massaux, rector of the Catholic University of Louvain, and a friend of the Princess, in his homily, described the viciously vilified Lilian of Belgium in the following terms:
"It is a great Lady who has just left us... All those who truly knew her well and who often spent time with her knew what she was, knew her brilliant intelligence, her opinions, her passions, her vast culture, her indefectible attachments, her courage in the many ordeals she endured, her great tolerance, her respect for the convictions of others, her unfailing fidelity to the causes dear to her. They knew her acceptance of living in the shadows for many years without the slightest resentment...her very great generosity towards the poor and the most disadvantaged, whom she aided financially, with attentiveness and in total discretion, even traveling abroad if it were necessary to do so."
Christian de Duve, Nobel prize winner and close collaborator of the deceased princess in her Cardiological Foundation, later remembered the precious moments he had spent in the humble but delightful medieval chapel:
"[A]llow me to recall with special emotion those intimate gatherings in the lovely Argenteuil chapel, where, each year, on the 25th of September, the military chaplain Canon Thils with the faithful Guy in attendance, celebrated the souvenir of the late King, and where, on June 10 of last year, we said our last goodbye to our beloved Princess."(Christian de Duve, "Princess Lilian: reminiscences", in Proceedings of the Princess Lilian Cardiology Foundation Symposium to commemorate its Patron, HRH Princess Lilian of Belgium, "Cardiology and cardiovascular surgery at the onset of the XXIst century," Acta Cardiologica- An International Journal of Cardiology, suppl. to volume 59, 2004, p. 16, quoted by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil, 2006, p. 62)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

[T]he virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer, and her back was turned to the manger, but her face was lifted to heaven, towards the east. Thus with her hands extended and her eyes fixed on the sky she was standing as in ecstasy, lost in contemplation, in a rapture of divine sweetness. And while she was standing thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle, that St. Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle, and so sudden and instantaneous was this way of bringing forth, that I could neither discover nor discern how, or by means of which member, she gave birth. Verily though, all of a sudden, I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty. . . . When therefore the virgin felt, that she had already borne her child, she immediately worshipped him, her head bent down and her hands clasped, with great honour and reverence and said unto him, Be welcome my God, my Lord and my Son. . . 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 1909: The Accession of Albert I

On December 23, 1909, six days after the death of his uncle, Leopold II, Prince Albert of Belgium swore allegiance to the Constitution before Parliament, becoming the third King of the Belgians, just two days before Christmas. By a joyful, yet sobering coincidence, then, Belgian Catholics celebrated the accession of their new, earthly King, only two days before hailing the birth of their heavenly King! Leopold I and Leopold II had taken the constitutional oath only in French; Albert innovated by repeating it in Dutch. The people heartily welcomed their retiring, studious, conscientious and progressive young sovereign and his lively, artistic, philanthropic consort, born Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria. Already blessed with three children, Prince Leopold (b. 1901), Prince Charles-Theodore (b. 1903), and Princess Marie-José (b. 1906), their warmth and domestic virtues, contrasting vividly with the deceased King's coldness and flagrant scandals, had already earned Albert and Elisabeth widespread love and veneration. The royal couple's heroism amidst the horrors of World War I would only enhance these popular sentiments. During their own reign, the King and Queen would pass into legend.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Tragedy of Baudouin I

John J. Conley, S. J., discusses King Baudouin's courageous moral stand in the tragic abortion crisis of 1990. It is a very interesting account, with passages from the monarch's letters and diaries revealing his inner torment at this saddest moment of his reign. (King Leopold III, however, surrendered to the Nazis after 18 days of fighting, not 10 days, and the popular consultation held in 1950 concerned Leopold's return from exile to resume his royal functions, not the maintenance or abolition of the monarchy itself.) Although many would disagree with me, I actually think Baudouin inherited much of his backbone and moral fibre from his much-maligned father, and from his even more maligned step-mother, the indomitable Lilian de Réthy!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"L'affaire des meubles de Laeken"

Empire-Furniture at the Royal Palace of Brussels, with old Beauvais tapestry, a wedding present by French king Louis Philippe to his son-in-law, Leopold I. Photo courtesy of the Belgian Royal Household
Since we just commemorated the Golden Wedding of King Baudouin I and Queen Fabiola, perhaps it is appropriate to examine an infamous affair of state, obscured by malicious gossip, rumor and misunderstanding, which erupted in the aftermath of the royal marriage: the fate of the furnishings of Laeken Castle, following the departure of the groom's father, King Leopold III, with his second wife, Princess Lilian, and their three children, Alexandre-Emmanuel, Marie-Christine, and Marie-Esmeralda, to the country estate of Argenteuil, a government property near Waterloo. For the first nine years after his abdication, Leopold and his second family had continued to live at Laeken with Baudouin in close and cordial harmony. Political pressure, however, had ultimately obliged Leopold, Lilian and their children to leave Brussels. The move took place during the honeymoon of Baudouin and Fabiola.

Unfortunately, it provoked yet another series of tragic and tiresome calumnies of Leopold III, who had already been driven to abdication by unfair charges of betraying his country and allies during World War II. Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens, who had offered King Leopold little support during these sad events, and who disliked Princess Lilian, accused the couple of plundering the furnishings of Laeken and installing them at Argenteuil. In his memoirs, he insinuated that Baudouin and Fabiola had returned home to an empty palace! Endlessly repeated by politicians, journalists and even some historians, this version of events has become deeply entrenched in the public mind. In Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal (2006), however, Michel Verwilghen demonstrates in meticulous detail, on the basis of official documents, that this account cannot be true.

It is true that Leopold and Lilian transferred some furnishings from Laeken to Argenteuil. In fact, they were more or less obliged to do so, as Argenteuil, at that point, was largely unfurnished. Thus, as he had a perfect right to do, King Leopold installed part of his personal property in his new home. It is also true that he transferred to Argenteuil some state property, pieces he particularly loved for their historic value. Yet, even this is not outrageous. The furnishings were merely moved from one government estate to another; it is not as though the public patrimony was actually depleted. In any case, Leopold and Lilian certainly did not leave Laeken empty! On the contrary, even after their departure, the official inventories of the Castle of Laeken and the Royal Palace of Brussels listed hundreds and hundreds of lavish furnishings; over a thousand pieces, in fact, the personal property of King Leopold. In 1975-1976, a commission evaluated the furnishings owned by Leopold, but left at the royal palaces, at nearly 19, 000, 000 Belgian francs of the time! At Argenteuil, Leopold and Lilian simply lacked the space to accommodate these treasures. Accordingly, in 1977, the former King sold them to the Belgian state. If anything, he was a victim rather than a villain in all these transactions!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Marriage of King Baudouin I and Queen Fabiola

Today is the 50th anniversary of the magnificent wedding of Baudouin I, King of the Belgians (1930-1993) and his Spanish-born, aristocratic consort, Doña Fabiola de Mora y de Aragón (1928-). The couple were married in Brussels on December 15, 1960, just ten days before Christmas! We do not really know the details of how Baudouin and Fabiola met, although the late Cardinal Suenens, Archbishop of Malines and one of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, claimed, many years later, to have played a major role in bringing them together. 

In any case, Baudouin and Fabiola proved to be a deeply devoted couple. Sadly, they remained childless, but stoically bore this sorrow. For nearly 33 years, the popular, unassuming King and Queen tenderly supported each other in their difficult public role, serving Belgium with admirable dedication. If Baudouin and Fabiola were criticized at times for their perceived lack of glamor, this slightly stodgy image may actually have worked in their favor by helping to shield them from even the suspicion of scandal. And, whatever the critics might say, the charming bride in her beautiful Balenciaga gown certainly cut an elegant figure!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Vlaams Belang

A disturbing article on a controversial topic. The leaders of the VB pose as wholesome defenders of freedom and family values, but are they? For my part, I absolutely detest the way this party has hijacked conservative causes in Belgium by linking them to the Flemish separatist agenda. As a result, many well-meaning people, who might be able to draw Belgium out of its current moral, political and religious mire, are alienated from their king and country.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

A tribute to the beautiful aunt, godmother and namesake of Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. Apparently, the memory of her glamorous but troubled forebear was always something of a trial for her great-niece, Princess Marie-José of Belgium, the last Queen of Italy. To her biographer, Luciano Regolo, Marie-José humorously described her long-standing irritation with the romantic cult of the tragic empress. Once, at a dinner in Paris, with a group of historians, the Italian queen had endured the sentimental posturing of her neighbor at table, who nostalgically sighed "Sissie...oh Sissie..." throughout the entire evening. When he began rhapsodizing over the empress's eyes, Marie-José lost patience. "Pardon me," she inquired, ironically, "did you perhaps know her?" The man turned purple and fell silent.

Here is an interesting contrast between Elisabeth of Austria and Elisabeth of Belgium, from the memoirs of Count Sforza. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Madonna of Bruges

A Michelangelo in Belgium. To quote Mary Ann Sullivan, of Bluffton University:
Scholars have speculated that this work was first conceived for an altar in the Siena Duomo commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini. At some point Michelangelo must have been persuaded to sell the sculpture to an affluent Bruges gentleman, Jan de Moscron, who in 1514 donated the work as part of a sumptuous altar to the Church of Our Lady. It is also speculated that the sculpture had originally been conceived with a lower viewing angle, which would explain the odd proportions and the downcast eyes of both Jesus and Mary. During Michelangelo's lifetime, this work was the sole sculpture by him outside of Italy although today both the Louvre and the Hermitage own works by him...
Unlike many depictions of the Madonna and Child, this work is sober and serious. Symbolically, it illustrates the traditional idea that the Virgin was aware of her Child's tragic destiny; her pensive gaze seems to reflect this. In addition, Jesus steps down from her lap as if he too is aware of his future role. Here he seems ready to walk and to begin symbolically the journey that will lead to his Passion.

(Image credits and permissions, HERE and HERE.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hugh Gibson: A Diplomatic Diary

The World War I diaries of diplomat and humanitarian Hugh Gibson, Secretary of the American Legation in Brussels, may be read here. Gibson worked for Herbert Hoover's Commission for Relief in Belgium and attempted to prevent the execution of Edith Cavell. His account is very interesting and contains many touching testimonies to the heroism of the Belgian king, queen, army and people. At the same time, the style is sober and avoids the excessive panegyrics of much of the literature of this period.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lilian of Belgium: The Lights and The Shadows

Here are some interesting articles, courtesy of La Libre Belgique, on Lilian Baels (1916-2002), the ravishing Flemish commoner who secretly married the widowed, captive King Leopold III amidst the torment of the Second World War. The articles (in French) date from the aftermath of Lilian's death, which took place on June 7, 2002, exactly a year after she had published her husband's posthumous memoirs. I find it very sad that Lilian is still often seen as a vulgar, ambitious, spiteful trollop. She was not perfect or saintly, and had a potentially difficult personality. Yet, I believe, as many of her intimates have testified, she was a genuinely noble lady; courageous, dignified, intelligent, cultured and generous. These articles give a glimpse of some of the lights and shadows of this much misunderstood princess:

~"Lilian, princesse de Belgique"
~"Trois questions à Herman de Croo, Président de la Chambre"
~"Simple et digne"
~"Des funérailles sobres pour Lilian"
~"Ma mère telle qu'on l'a peu connue"

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Our Lady of Belgium" (1916)

A little gem of a novel about Queen Elisabeth. Although tinged with the hagiographic tone typical of Great War literature, it offers a very touching and sensitive portrayal of Elisabeth's spiritual development.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Belgian Tiara

A magnificent gift from the court of Leopold II to Pope Pius IX. To quote the Exiled Belgian Royalist:
By tradition Belgium has always been a Catholic country but in those days (1860-1870) religious faith in Belgium was especially strong and the Belgians were, overall, not happy with the Italian liberal-nationalists invading the States of the Church, effectively to depose Pope Pius IX from his position as the local king in Rome. Hundreds of Belgians bravely volunteered for service with the Papal Zouaves, the army of the Pope named after the flamboyant style of their uniforms, grey and red, the style taken from Algerian fashion that was introduced by the French army during their North African service. The first papal military commander and the Belgian Minister of War for the Pope were veterans of service in North Africa and this probably explains why the general dressed his soldiers in Algerian style uniforms. However, as you read in the previous post, the assignment the Pope gave to Bishop Xavier de Merode was really an impossible one (everyone must have known that) and ultimately unsuccessful.
When it was over and the Pope lost his political authority he secluded himself inside the walls of the Vatican in protest. Many Catholic powers tried to show the Pope that they still respected his authority even while political circumstances forced them to come to terms with the new Kingdom of Italy. One of these was the court of King Leopold II of the Belgians. The Ladies of the Royal Court raised funds for the design of a very unique and magnificent papal tiara for Pius IX. This was a way many countries showed support for the authority of the pope, by sending him a new crown. The “Ladies of the Royal Court of the King of the Belgians” (then Leopold II) presented the crown to the Pope on June 18, 1871. The crown, often known as the “Belgian Tiara” was not like any other. It was designed by Jean-Baptiste Bethune of Ghent with a unique shape for the three jewel-encrusted crowns and the tiers decorated with the words, “CHRISTI VICARIO - IN TERRA - REGUM”.