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Scherpenheuvel-Zichem (Municipality, Province of Flemish Brabant, Belgium)


Last modified: 2015-07-28 by ivan sache
Keywords: scherpenheuvel-zichem | montaigu-zichem |
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[Flag of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem]

Municipal flag of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem - Image by Ivan Sache, 7 December 2004

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Presentation of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem and its villages

The municipality of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem (in French, Montaigu-Zichem; 22,100 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 5,050 ha) is located in the region of Hageland, 10 km south-west of Diest, on the borders with the Provinces of Antwerp and of Limburg. The municipality of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem is made since 1976 of the former municipalities of Scherpenheuvel, Zichem, Averbode, Messelbroek and Testelt.

Scherpenheuvel (lit., "the sharp hill", in French mont aigu) was once a hamlet of the ancient town of Zichem. In 1605, the hamlet was granted municipal rights and transformed into a new town built on a seven-pointed star pattern centered on the basilica. The seven points of the star symbolize the Blessed Virgin's seven blisses and seven sorrows.
Started in 1609 with the support of the Archdukes Albert and Isabel on a plan drafted by the architect Wenceslas Cobergher, the baroque basilica of Scherpenheuvel was achieved in 1627. Cobergher was inspired by the Italian baroque architecture, and prehaps also by the Duome of Florence designed by Brunelleschi two centuries earlier. The Nole brothers, members of the St. Luke Guild in Antwerp, sculpted the angels, prophets and evangelists placed inside the church, which was also embelished by Theodoor van Loon's baroque paintings placed in the Rosary chapel and above the main altar. Protected by lead sheets and without any opening, the dome of the basilica is decorated with 298 golden seven-pointed stars. The lateral chapels surrounding the dome at half height were built with ferruginous sandstone extracted in the neighbouring village of Langdorp. Placed behid the dome, a quadrangular, four-floored tower built in sandtone houses a 49-bell peel. The gallery appended to the tower is a revamped part of the baroque gallery, originally built in 1624 for an Oratorian convent and partially suppressed during the French Revolution.

Zichem was mentioned for the first time in chart signed by Godfried, Duke of Lotharingia, in 1134. In 1248, Duke of Brabant John I transferred Zichem, Aarschot and the neighbouring villages to his brother Godevaart van Vierson. This lord granted in 1302 municipal rights to Zichem, while the building of the town walls had started one year before. The rights granted to Zichem were similar to those previously granted to Leuven. Later lords of Zichem belonged to the families Gullik, Schoonvorst, Diest and Orange-Nassau, the latter lineage keeping Zichem until the French Revolution. The Prince of Orange-Nassau was Baron of Breda, Diest and Zichem.
In the XVth century, the population of the town dramatically decreased because of wars, epidemics and floods by the river Demer. The town reemerged in the XVIth century thanks to agriculture and cattle breeding. However, a comet spotted in 1577 "announced" hard times for Zichem; on 23 February 1577, the town was seized by the Spaniards, who drowned most burghers into the Demer and burned the town. Sacks and slaughters were frequent until the XVIIIth century.
Zichem is the birth town of the writer Ernest Claes (1885-1968), one of the most popular Flemish writers, whose birth house was transformed into a museum in 1967. In his most famous book, the picaresque novel De Witte published in 1920, Claes portrayed Louis Verheyden, an inhabitant of the village of Wolfsdonk in Aarschot. In 1932, Jan Vanderheyden adapted the book for the cinema and directed the first Flemish fiction film. Another version of the film, named De Witte van Zichem, was directed by Robbe de Hert in 1980. Claes supported the Flemish nationalist movement and was jailed for a few months in the prison of Saint-Gilles in 1944 for having supported the pro-German Vlaams Nationaal Verbond.

Averbode is the place of a famous Norbertine abbey founded in 1134-1135 by Count of Loon Arnold II on a hill already hosting a chapel founded by the Benedictine abbey of Sint-Truiden. The first monks and nuns came to Averbode from the St. Michael abbey in Antwerp. Placed under the Augustinian rule by a Papal Bull in 1139, the abbey set up farms to fund the community and its wealth increased swiftly. The building of the first abbey church started in 1194. In the XIIIth century, the abbey split and the nuns were sent to Keizerbos, where they would stay until 1796; Averbode ran some 30 parishes in the neighborhood.
Elected abbot in 1368, Arnold van Tuldel completely reformed the abbey: accounts books and a cartularium were added in 1370 and 1380, respectively. Arnold let build the oldest part of the abbey kept until now, the monumental gate made of local ferruginous sandstone. In 1408-1410, the abbot of Averbode took the party of the Duke of Brabant against the Prince-Bishop of Liège, who seized the abbey, which had to be purchased back by the abbot. Destroyed by a blaze onn 25 October 1499, the abbey church was rebuilt in 1501, when Gerard vander Schaeft was abbot (1501-1532); during that period, the church was embelished with several artworks but the abbey was plundered in 1501, forcing the monks to exile to Diest. In 1578, the monks had again to flee to Diest via Sint-Truiden.
In 1604, Abbot Valentijns, aka "The Second Founder", completely revamped the abbey; mills and farms were built and the religious discipline was restored both in Averbode and Keizerbos, as prescribed by the Council of Trento. The number of monks increased up to 80 in 1670. In 1664-1672, Abbot Servaes Vaes commissioned architect Jan van den Eynde to rebuild the abbey church in baroque style, with some gothic elements and let make a cartography of the whole domain owned by the abbey. In spite of a few sacks, the XVIIIth century was the Golden Age of the abbey.
After the French Revolution, the abbey was plundered once again and the 88 monks were eventually expelled on 14 February 1797. The abbot had already saved the archives and the library of the abbey in 1794. In 1802, Friar Ignatius Carleer purchased back the abbey and resettled it, together with a few friars, but the community did not increased further. In 1826, Carleer had to sell any kind of stuff, including artworks. The decline of the abbey stopped after the independence of Belgium in 1830; an apostolic nuncio sent by the Pope to refund the abbey in 1834 noticed that there remained only 12 old monks (61-86 years old) in the abbey. In spite of the appointment of four new monks, the economic situation of the abbey was not secured. When Leopold Nelo was appointed first abbot of the refounded abbey of Averbode on 18 August 1872, the community included 43 members, nine of them living in the abbey.
The printing house founded in 1881 released the first issue of its newspaper in 1886 and is the origin of Averbode Publishers (Uitgeverij Averbode), publishing today 20 different magazines for children (Nelly and Caesar are recurrent characters of Averbode magazines). Abbot Gummarus Crets (1887-1942) was able to increase the number of monks up to 235. In 1921, Averbode took the control of the priory (elevated to an abbey in 1925) of Bois-Seigneur-Isaac, refounded in 1903. On 8 February 2006, Jos Wouters was elected the 52nd abbot of Averbode.

Messelbroek and Testelt were mentioned for the first time in 1147, when the Bishop of Liège transferred his rights on the churches of the two villages to the abbey of Averbode.


Ivan Sache, 3 November 2007

Municipal flag of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem

The municipal flag of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem is horizontally divided black-red-black-red-black.
According to Gemeentewapens in België - Vlaanderen en Brussel, the flag was adopted by the Municipal Council on 30 December 1987, confirmed by the Executive of Flanders on 13 December 1988 and published in the Belgian official gazette on 8 November 1989.
The five stripes symbolize the fiver former municipalities merged to form Scherpenheuvel-Zichem, while the colours of the flag are taken from the arms of Scherpenheuvel, "Gules three chevrons sable".

According to Servais, the arms of Scherpenheuvel were granted by Royal Decree on 11 April 1843, with the Blessed Virgin stainding behind the shield in front of a tree, recalling the mythic origin of the basilica of Scherpenheuvel (like in many other pilgrimage places, a statue of the Blessed Virgin was found hanging in a tree and nobody could remove it, so it was understood that a sanctuary had to be built there). These arms are shown on the only known municipal seal (late XVIIIth century). The three chevrons are taken from the arms of the lords of Zichem, once lords of Scherpenheuvel, but the colours of the arms were changed for an unknown reason.
Zichem bore "Argent three chevrons sable", granted by Royal Decree on 25 February 1845. The arms of the lords of Zichem have been consistently shown with three chevrons since the XIIIth century, but with different colours. The arms of Zichem were designed after a municipal seal dated 1793.
The today's arms of Scherpenheuvel-Zichem are "Per pale, 1. Sable three chevrons azure, 2. Gules three cinquefoils or".

Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 3 November 2007

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