Sablon, Brussels

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Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon seen from the Petit Sablon's garden

The Sablon (French) or Zavel (Dutch) is a neighbourhood and hill in the historic upper town of Brussels, Belgium. At its heart are twin squares; the larger Grand Sablon or Grote Zavel ("Large Sablon") square in the northwest and the smaller Petit Sablon or Kleine Zavel ("Small Sablon") square and garden in the southeast, divided by the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon.


Antoon Sallaert's The Infante Isabella shoots the jay of the Grand Serment [Crossbowmen's Guild] with a crossbow in the Sablon in Brussels depicts an Ommegang in 1615.

Early history[edit]

The Sablon lies near the Mont des Arts/Kunstberg neighbourhood, and lay not far outside the first walls of Brussels. It was originally an unused open space, with areas of wetlands, grassland and sand, where a hermit made his home. The words sablon in French and zavel in Dutch both mean a fine-grained sand, halfway between silt and sand.[1] Saint John's Hospital (French: Hôpital Saint-Jean, Dutch: Sint-Jansgasthuis) used the area as a cemetery in the 13th century, having run out of space in its own cemetery.[2]

In 1304, the Guild of the brothers and sisters of Saint John's Hospital ceded the land to the Crossbowmen's Guild. They built a modest chapel dedicated to Our Lady on the site, completed in 1318, setting off the transformation of the area.[2] Legend has is that the chapel became famous after a local devout woman named Beatrijs Soetkens had a vision in which the Virgin Mary instructed her to steal the miraculous statue of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw op ‘t Stocxken ("Our Lady on the little stick") in Antwerp, bring it to Brussels, and place it in the chapel of the Crossbowmen's Guild. The woman stole the statue, and through a series of miraculous events, was able to transport it to Brussels by boat in 1348. It was then solemnly placed in the chapel and venerated as the patron of the Guild. The Guild also promised to hold an annual procession, called an Ommegang, in which the statue was carried through Brussels. This Ommegang developed into an important religious and civil event in Brussels' annual calendar.[1]

15th to 18th centuries[edit]

In the 15th century, the neighbourhood began to enlarge substantially. The chapel was rebuilt as the larger and more elegant Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon, still standing today. In 1470, Duke Charles the Bold charged a body with the creation of a street running from his nearby Coudenberg Palace to the church. The church became the site of the baptisms of princes; Archduchess Mary of Austria's baptismal cortège went to Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon instead of the Church of St. Michael and St. Gudula (now a cathedral), which had previously held the honour. Governor Margaret of Austria made it the site of her religious devotions as well. In 1530, it saw the greatest July procession in its history. These symbols of royal favour would ensure the lasting prosperity of the Sablon area. The Wolweide (Dutch: Wool meadow) area, corresponding loosely to the current Rue aux Laines/Wolstraat, was an extension of the Sablon, stretching to the slopes of the Galgenberg hill, where the current Palace of Justice stands.[citation needed]

The Grand Sablon and its market, c. 1900

In the 16th century, Brussels' most prominent noblemen established themselves on the upper Sablon and on the Rue aux Laines. The Egmonts, the Culemborgs, the Brederodes and the Mansfelds were the first, and the De Lannoys, the De Lalaings, the Thurn und Taxis, and the Solres joined them. The result was that by the 17th century, the Sablon had grown to become the most aristocratic and prosperous neighbourhoods in the city. The Egmont Palace on the Petit Sablon is still standing, and gives the best indication of what the area was like at the height of its splendour; the grandiose houses of the Lannoys and the Mérode-Westerloo family still stand on the Rue aux Laines. In 1566, the Culemborg mansion on the Rue des Petits Carmes/Karmelietenstraat was the site of the drafting of the Compromise of Nobles which ultimately led to the Dutch Revolt.[3] To eliminate any trace of this seditious act against the king, the Duke of Alba razed the mansion to the ground in 1568.[3]

The proximity of the cemetery was already an irritation to its aristocratic neighbours in 1554, but it would be another century and a half before the government of Brussels recognised that the situation had become unbearable. They reported that corpses "were often neglected and left in only half-covered graves, from which dogs had several times pulled parts off and run around in broad daylight with arms and legs in their mouths".[4] It was therefore decided in 1704 to move the cemetery to the Marolles/Marollen area.[1]

Wittamer & Co chocolatier on the Place du Grand Sablon. After losing its prestige, the Sablon is chic once again.

19th century to present[edit]

The Sablon neighbourhood was remodelled in the 19th century as the Rue de la Régence/Regentschapstraat was driven through the area, creating a Haussmann-style artery between the Royal Palace of Brussels and the new Palace of Justice. The new street skirted the church, and all buildings immediately adjacent to it were demolished starting in 1872, opening up new views of the church. On that occasion, buildings not directly adjacent to the church were renovated and improved.[5]

From the 19th to early 20th centuries, the Grand Sablon became a renowned site for a sport called jeu de balle or balle pelote [fr], a ball game similar to modern handball. Though the sport is no longer played much today, it enjoyed immense popularity at the time. The Kings of the Belgians would frequently be seen among the spectators of a match; Leopold II explained that he would frequently come watch the games, as he lived in the area.[6]

The social composition of the neighbourhood changed over the course of time. In the 19th century, it was incrementally abandoned by the aristocracy in favour of newer, more chic neighbourhoods, such as the Leopold Quarter. In the 20th century, the Square du Grand Sablon/Grote Zavelsquare was occupied by a more modest populace, characterised by small workshops and warehouses. At the end of the 1960s, the character of the area began to change yet again. Multiple antique stores moved to the area, following demolitions in the nearby Mont des Arts area.[7] Bit by bit, the Sablon became a desirable area once again, giving rise to the neologism "sablonisation", a local version of gentrification. Recently, a number of chocolatiers and confectioners have come to the area.,[1] which is once again the heart of the Brussels upper class.[8]

Grand Sablon[edit]

Fountain of Minerva [fr] on the Square du Grand Sablon/Grote Zavelsquare


The Square du Grand Sablon/Grote Zavelsquare lies to the northwest of the church. It is in the shape of a long triangle, around 50 m (160 ft) wide in the southeast, terminating in a point around 130 m (430 ft) to the northwest. When Brussels' residents refer to the "Sablon" without qualification, they are usually referring to the Grand Sablon.[9] The Grand Sablon was linked to the Petit Sablon by the Rue Bodenbroek/Bodenbroekstraat and the Rue des Sablons/Zavelstraat, though the division between the two Sablons was accentuated by the Rue de la Régence/Regentschapstraat cutting through the area.[1]

In the 16th century, the Grand Sablon was known as the Peerdemerct (Middle Dutch for Horse Market, Latin: Forum Equorum), due to the horse market which was held there from 1320 to 1754. The place was also known as the Zavelpoel ("Sandy pond")[10] due to a pond in the centre which would last until 1615. After the pond was filled in, a fountain was erected in its place in 1661. Water was brought to the fountain by a new conduit from Obbrussel (now Saint-Gilles). This fountain was replaced in 1754 by the present Fountain of Minerva [fr], which was a posthumous gift from the exiled British nobleman Thomas Bruce, 2nd Earl of Ailesbury, who wished to thank the people of Brussels for their hospitality. The fountain was renovated in 1999.[11]

The Grand Sablon was often the stage for festivals and competitions, but also for tragic events. On 1 June 1568, it was the site of a mass execution, as 18 signatories of the Compromise of Nobles were decapitated.[12]

Saint-Verhaegen festivities

Present day[edit]

The Grand Sablon is nowadays a genuine neighbourhood with residents and small businesses, while at the same time being a popular place to stroll and a tourist attraction. Surrounding the square are numerous antique stores, fashionable boutiques, hotels, restaurants, an auction house, and numerous pastry shops and well-known Belgian chocolatiers, including Neuhaus, Pierre Marcolini and Godiva. On Saturdays and Sundays, the Grand Sablon hosts the Sablon Antiques and Books Market.[1]

As is the case with many other public squares in Brussels, the Grand Sablon has been partially transformed into a parking lot. A plan to refurbish the space is being investigated.[citation needed]

Each year, the Sablon is the starting point for the Ommegang of Brussels procession. On 20 November, it hosts the beginning of the Saint-Verhaegen student parade, which celebrates the founding of the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel universities.[13]

Petit Sablon[edit]

Fountain of Counts Edgmont and Horn in the Petit Sablon's garden

To the southeast of the church, and slightly uphill, lies the Square du Petit Sablon/Kleine Zavelsquare. It is a roughly rectangular garden, featuring trees, hedges, flowers and most notably, statues.

In the Middle Ages, the Zavelbeek ("Sablon Brook") had its source in the Petit Sablon. It flowed in nearly a straight line into the Senne river, joining it roughly at the current Place Fontainas/Fontainasplein. Its course is still followed by the streets in the area to this day.[14] The Petit Sablon was the site of Saint John Hospital's cemetery, mentioned above, until it was moved.[1]

The present-day garden was created by the architect Henri Beyaert, and was inaugurated in 1890. It is surrounded by an ornate wrought iron fence inspired by one which once decorated the Coudenberg Palace. The fence is punctuated by tall stone pillars; atop each pillar is a statue of one or more historical professions, with 48 statues in total. To ensure that the statues were stylistically coherent, Beyaert asked the painter Xavier Mellery to design all of the statues. Each pillar has a unique design, as does each section of fence.[15]

In the centre of the garden lies a fountain-sculpture of Counts Edgmont and Horne, who were symbols of resistance against the Spanish tyranny that sparked the Dutch Revolt. This monument was initially in front of the King's House on the Grand Place, the site of their execution. It is surrounded by a semicircle of ten statues of political figures, intellectuals and artists from the 16th century.[16]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Le Sablon" (in French). City of Brussels. Archived from the original on 21 April 2014. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
  2. ^ a b (in French) Le Sablon. Le quartier et l'église, Ville d'Art et d'Histoire. n° 9, Editions Solibel & Brussels-Capital Region, 1995, p. 3
  3. ^ a b Monica Stensland (2012). Habsburg Communication in the Dutch Revolt. Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 9789089644138.
  4. ^ (in French) « ...estoient souvent négligés et mis dans les fosses à moitié couverts, dont les chiens avoient plusieurs fois tiré des pièces et couru en plein jour avec les bras et les jambes... » Alexandre Henne and Alphonse Wauters, Histoire de la ville de Bruxelles, Éditions Libro-Sciences, 1968, Tome 3, p. 401
  5. ^ (in French) Le Patrimoine monumental de la Belgique: Bruxelles, Volume 1C, Pentagone N-Z, Pierre Mardaga éditeur, 1994, p. 274
  6. ^ (in French) Jacques Dubreucq, Bruxelles 1000. Une histoire capitale, Edited by the author, 1996, Volume 1, p. 258
  7. ^ (in French) Itinéraire de la rénovation des quartiers anciens à Bruxelles : 8 km à pied à travers le Pentagone et Molenbeek , Collection Hommes et Paysages, Société Royale Belge de Géographie, 2001, p. 63
  8. ^ "De week van tvbrussel vanuit het Museum van de Stad Brussel" (in Dutch). TV Brussel. 23 August 2014. Retrieved 18 September 2014.
  9. ^ (in French) Jean d'Osta, Dictionnaire historique et anecdotique des rues de Bruxelles, Le Livre, 1995, p. 293
  10. ^ (in French) Roel Jacobs, Bruxelles, l'histoire de la ville, Éditions Marc van de Wiele, 1994, p. 78
  11. ^ (in French) La fontaine de Minerve coule à nouveau, Le Soir, 4 December 1999
  12. ^ (in French) Louis Verniers, Un millénaire d'histoire de Bruxelles. Des origines à 1830, Éditions A. De Boeck, 1965, p. 227
  13. ^ "Saint-Verhaegen calme et fraîche: moins d'interventions qu'en 2012" (in French). RTBF. 20 November 2013. Retrieved 24 April 2013.
  14. ^ (in French) Roel jacobs, Bruxelles. L'histoire dans la ville, éditions Marc van de Wiele, 1994, p. 70
  15. ^ "Le Petit Sablon : Les 48 statuettes des Corporations Professionnelles - Bruxelles Pentagone" (in French). eBru. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
  16. ^ "Square du Petit Sablon" (in French). City of Brussels. Retrieved 24 April 2014.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°50′26″N 4°21′20″E / 50.84056°N 4.35556°E / 50.84056; 4.35556