The origins of St. Peter’s Abbey go back to the seventh century. Amandus, a missionary from Aquitaine, came to Christianize our regions with the support of the Merovingian and Frankish kings.
Soon a fierce battle emerged between St. Bavo's Abbey and St. Peter’s Abbey about which of the two was first founded by Amandus. Both abbeys resorted to gross falsifications of history to prove their case. Consequently, it is almost impossible to trace the early history.
The richest monastery in Flanders
In the first half of the ninth century, we could describe St. Peter’s (then called Blandinium) as a relatively poor monastery. Count Arnulf I (918-965) changed this by leaving his favourite abbey a great deal of property and giving it its various relics, which then generated generous donations to the abbey. In 964 the English king Edgar, cousin of Count Arnulf, even donated London properties to it. Indeed, in the second half of the tenth century St. Peter's Abbey became the richest monastery in the county of Flanders.
Under the leadership of Count Arnulf I the so-called Blandinium monastery was completely renovated into a fully-fledged Benedictine abbey which remained one of the most powerful monasteries in Flanders until the French period.
The medieval monastery based on the rule of Benedict
The oldest plan, the so-called Red Plan, reflects the state of St. Peter's Abbey in the fifteenth century. Many of the buildings in this plan are older and reflect the different functions as recorded within a medieval Benedictine abbey from the tenth century.
Abbey life was headed by an abbot, who made all the decisions together with his monks. All the living and working space of the monks was located within in a claustrum, a closed community that was isolated from the outside world. An outer wall enclosed the whole abbey. The Red Plan covered an area of approximately 2.5 ha, which was much larger than the size of the current still preserved buildings. The idea of a claustrum was also reflected in the central cloister, an indoor garden that was surrounded by four corridors and is indicated on the Red Plan as 'Pant'. The cloister was the centre of monastic life, a crossroad of paths running between the praying and working monks.The original entrance was located near the current Kramersplein. On the south side this was the only connection with the outside world.
The oratory was situated on the north side of the cloister. Remembrance stones in the floor of the northern corridor refer to abbots who were buried here. Halfway along this corridor there is an extension. This was the mortuary or chapel of the dead.
The large hall on the east side of the abbey is the chapter house where the abbot and the monks met daily.
Initially the monks slept in a common dormitory above the chapter house with a direct connection to the church, which made it easier for night services. On the south side is the refectory. Originally it was smaller at the level of the corridor, with a doorway leading from the lavatorium. Here the monks washed their hands before they went into the refectory for their meal. The infirmary with pharmacy and medicinal herb garden lies separately in the present abbey garden.
Each abbey had to function autonomously: granaries, workshops, warehouses, a bakery and a “rosmolen”, or horse-driven mill, were located together with a brewery on the south side of the outer wall. Anyone who knocked at the monastery gate had to be taken in. As guests were not allowed to interfere with the life of the abbey community, the guest house was located some distance from the central abbey buildings near the entrance gate. Meals for the guests and the abbot had to be prepared in separate kitchens. This explains the existence of multiple kitchens.
The church on the Red Plan, possibly had a pre-Roman nucleus. The oldest nucleus is probably situated under the current dome section.
Part of St. Peter's Village was incorporated within the town limits in 1254. Citadellaan and Charles de Kerckhovelaan broadly follow the course of the late medieval moat around the town.
In the fifteenth century the last three abbots began a true construction campaign in which the care of the library and the scriptorium and the preservation of the privileges as well as the beautification of the abbey church and other buildings played a central role. The refectory moved to a new upper floor with a staircase connecting it to the southern corridor.
Education of international fame, is still big job for bibliophiles
To support the abbey school during this period St. Peter's Abbey established a library with a rich collection of classical authors. In the second half of the tenth century the reputation of the abbey school extended far beyond Ghent. In 984 Gerbert of Aurillac, later Pope Sylvester II, then director of the cathedral school of Reims, inquired whether students from Reims could be admitted to St. Peter's. Its fame as a centre of the artes liberales (liberal arts) with a high cultural level continued into the eleventh century. The collection of school books was the most interesting in Europe.
Pioneers in cultivation
Agriculture enabled the monks to meet their daily needs. St. Peter’s Abbey owned and exploited land, even as far as in England, sometimes even whole villages. It played a pioneering role in Flemish cultivation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in which forests, moors and marshes were transformed into fertile farmland. Donations from benefactors, who thus hoped to cleanse their blemished souls, ensured that its wealth only increased.
Sixteenth century: a century of struggle and destruction
It began with the Ghent revolt of 1540 in which Charles V took away all the power. Through the dioceses reform of 1559, St. Peter’s Abbey footed the bill for the seven years of opposition from the former citizens of Bavel against the transfer of their chapter to the bishop.
In the 1560s the Low Countries became immersed in a religious political crisis that would drag on for decades and have disastrous consequences for the abbey. The wealth and luxury of the abbey and its residents attracted the iconoclasts. The good relations with the monarch and his government and the fact that the abbey had always supported the persecution of heretics in and around Ghent fuelled their hatred. In 1566 the Iconoclasm erupted. In the abbey church the altars, paintings, stained glass and furniture were damaged, broken or destroyed and the church itself was no longer usable. The library was looted. The iconoclasts also vented their fury on the abbot’s residence, the deanery and the priory.
The infirmary suffered the least damage and was used as temporary residence for the monks and the refectory wing served temporarily for worship. Most other buildings were rendered virtually useless.
In 1578 the abbot and his monks fled to Douai. The abbey buildings were sold at public auction and partly demolished. The materials this produced were used to construct the new wall around the city that was built to protect it from attack by the governor’s troops. In 1584 the buildings came back into Catholic hands. The abbey church and the dormitory were partly destroyed and demolished, the abbot’s residence and the deanery had suffered heavy damage and the library had been looted.
Seventeenth century, the phoenix rises from its ashes
Early in the seventeenth century under Abbot Schaeck, the extension of the refectory and the dormitory was carried out. The cloister was given a top floor with rectangular windows and stained glass windows depicting the life of Benedict (they disappeared in the late eighteenth century). The east wing with the chapter house (1615-1635) was extended southwards to provide more cells or monks’ rooms. The result was rooms with high ceilings, large windows, wide staircases and a wide vaulted network of passages as in the larger civic complexes.
Each monk had his own cell and in 1619 the abbot had a prestigious residence built for himself. In 1629 construction started on a new abbey church modelled on St. Peter's in Rome.
Ghent had a strong Catholic revival. This trend which started in the seventeenth century continued into the eighteenth century with more pomp and a show of power. The majestic St. Peter's Church is an example of this. It is a culmination of Baroque architecture in the Southern Netherlands. Originally the niches contained statues of Benedict, Peter and Paul, but these have since disappeared. The tympanum depicts the coat of arms of the abbey with the three keys, flanked by two allegorical figures representing Love and Hope.
The abbey became the perfect venue for meetings, ceremonies and celebrations. As a result, the abbot had to receive prominent figures in style. The entrance gate, the guesthouses and the abbot’s residence were therefore important items in the building programme.
The secular luxurious building style could rival those of castles and city palaces. The prelate's house of abbot Musaert (1720-1730) had classic Louis XIV architecture with gardens and greenhouses and an orangery.
His successor Filip Standaert (1730-1759) had the refectory redecorated. Ceiling paintings were created with biblical and mythological scenes relating to the importance of food and drink. The old dormitory was converted into a beautiful library with more than ten thousand books. The room was undoubtedly one of the finest interiors in the abbey. The interior finishes included panelling interrupted by doorways and mirrors. The new dormitory was enlarged and embellished, and construction was started on new deanery.
With Seiger (1760-1788), nicknamed Le Magnifique, this was the start of a brilliant period for the abbey. The parties, balls and banquets however, were in stark contrast to the austerity one could expect to find in a place of silence and ascesis. His official dwelling was like a royal residence where the governor, ministers and other dignitaries were regularly received.
Charles de Lorraine (1748-1780) urged the abbot to refurbish or replace the old infirmary. This was done in great style but was not very practical. Initially, the stairs and latrines were (deliberately?) forgotten, hence its nickname 'Verlorenkost’ (Lost Cost). Today it is home to the World of Kina.
The old infirmary was demolished together with the adjoining prebendary priory buildings. The ruins in the garden are all that remains. The line of fifteenth-century development can still be seen in the southern facade of the church. A monumental terrace garden was laid as well as a path between the eighteenth-century wing and the garden, a service connection with the Scheldekaai.
The successor of Abbot Seiger, abbot Martinus Van de Velde, experienced difficult times. First there was the Brabant Revolution, followed by the recovering of power by the Austrians and the French occupation of the abbey in 1793. It was the first step of the closing down. On 1st September, 1796, all religious institutions were abolished. The goods were listed as national treasures. With one stroke of the pen St. Peter's Abbey in Ghent ceased to exist.
In 1798 the library was emptied and initially transferred to the former Baudelo Abbey. From here the precious manuscripts and prints of St. Peter’s Abbey were taken to the University of Ghent, where they are still preserved.
Through the actions of the historian Van Lokeren, in 1798 the abbey church was used as a Musee du Département de l'Escaut, the forerunner of the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1801 the church was given back to the Catholic worship service. It received the double name of Our Lady of St. Peter’s Church. Here you will find many treasures from the time of the abbey.
Towards a cultural function
The abbey itself became a national heritage building. It was partially demolished. All the buildings west of the baroque church and the central monastery wings were pulled down for the construction of a military training ground. Until 1948 several army units were housed in the main abbey buildings.
In 1810, the remaining abbey buildings became the property of the city of Ghent. Around 1950 the city decided to restore St. Peter’s Abbey and give it a cultural function.