Nivelles is a municipality in the Belgian province of Waloon Brabant with a population of around 28,000 in 2016. It is said that starting in the 4th millennium B.C., the region had gradually been cultivated as agricultural land by the Danubean settlers. The land was invaded by the Romans in the 1st century, and in turn by the Germanic tribes in the 3rd century. By the 7th century it belonged to the Frankish kingdom. The archaeological excavations of the site of the present Romanesque church have yielded traces of two Merovingian and three Carolingian houses of worship which stood there between the 7th and 10th centuries. The church was for a Benedictine nunnery which was founded in 650 by Itta of Aquitaine, widow of Pépin, the Elder of Landen. Their daughter, Gertrude was the first abbess, who would be declared a saint by Pope Clement XII in the 17th century.
During the Middle Ages, it was one of the larger abbeys in Europe due to a great number of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela who would pass through Nivelles and pay homage to the would-be saint. By the 15th century the abbey was organized as a collegiate church for canonesses, and continued to function until the end of the 18th century when it was dissolved. While there is no reference to the successive master builders, it is documented that construction was begun at the dawn of the 11th century for the main body of the church that stands today, and it was consecrated by Wazo, Prince-Bishop of Liège in 1046 in the presence of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor.
Exterior view from southwest across Grand’ Place, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The first sight of the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude a visitor might catch when approaching the town center of Nivelles is its imposing westwork, completed in the last years of the 12th century, one and a half century after the church structure itself was dedicated.
Elevation view of Westwork, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
It has the hall-mark of a mature Romanesque architecture of the Rhineland as found in churches such as Worms or Maria Laach. The westwork had a Gothic central tower through stylistic transformation before the destruction in the World War II, but it was restored in the Romanesque style through a referendum of townspeople, at the time of post-WW II restoration. The westwork of Sainte-Gertrude has a very sculptural composition due to its semi-circular western apse expressed on the façade, together with a series of columned openings at multiple gallery levels on the slab-like vertical mass, a pair of cylindrical stair turrets with bells on either side of the block, and finally, the octagonal Romanesque central tower.
If it had been said that the Westwerk of Sainte-Gertrude is of the mature Rhineland Romanesque style, the main body of the church is built in the Ottonian style. The plan is laid out with a nave of eight bays in two compartments of four bays each, defined by half round diaphragm arches which spring from sturdy cross-shaped piers.
Plan, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant)
The longitudinal view of the nave toward east shows that there are two aisles, square eastern crossing with transepts of same width as the nave, and a rectangular western crossing and narrow transepts.
View of nave to east, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The nave arcades are as thick as the piers with only a hint of demarcation by a thin cornice. The groin vaultings of both the eastern and western transepts are lower than the timber nave ceiling, a design characteristic found in the Meuse valley region in the Ottonian architecture. The square-ended eastern apse with three lancet windows, raised over a crypt serves as the principal chancel today.
The modern altar is placed well into the nave on wooden extension of the choir.
View of nave and eastern sanctuary, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The church of Sainte-Gertrude has a length of 102 meters, a generous scale recalling “ the splendor of the Ottonian liturgy,” as poetically described by Donnay-Rocmans writing in a chronicle of the patrimony of Wallonia.
The view looking up at the timber ceiling of the crossing and the nave shows the relatively new carpentry, as the restoration after the bombing in 1940 was completed only 30 years ago.
View of wooden ceiling over the eastern crossing, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The axial view from the eastern choir toward the west amply illustrates the square crossing, spacious transepts as well as the substantial diaphragm arches demarcating the two halves of the nave.
View of nave from the eastern choir to west, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The groin vaults for the aisles were constructed at a later stage of the church building. The view of the north aisle shows off solidly bonded groin vaults with gilt ornaments of rib crossing.
View of north aisle to east, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The view from the rectangular western crossing with a font toward west shows the semi-cylindrical western choir.
View of western choir from western crossing with font, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The closer view of the tribune level on the north wall of the apse brings to fore well-lit chambers beyond at the tribune level in the cylindrical volume.
View of north tribune at western choir, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The precision with which the dome for the western choir has been re-built gives a visitor an awareness of the painstaking efforts and high caliber of the post-WW II restoration architects and the craftsmen for the rebuilding project begun in the 60’s and completed two decades later.
View of dome over western choir, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The view of the north wing at the western transept shows that the vaulting is at a lower height than the nave ceiling, as mentioned earlier (Photo 12).
View of north transept at western crossing, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
Finally, the wall elevation scheme shows that while there is a cornice running the length of the nave.
Elevation scheme of northern nave wall, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
The nave wall is basically flush, as though the arcades and clearstory windows are punched out of a sheer masonry plane.
View looking up toward nave ceiling, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm
At Sainte-Gertrude in Nivelles, the unity of piers and arcades, and the pure surface of the nave wall all contribute to an ascetic spatial ambience, which one would almost describe as modern in sensibility.