Biblical murder on the brass of Abel Porcket (d. 1509) in Bruges (Belgium)
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Dijver 17, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
Dijver 17, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
A brass from the Sint-Juliaansgodshuis, the Hospital of St Julian in Bruges, which memorialises local citizen Abel Porcket (d. 1509) in a visually clever way
In 2019 the Gruuthuse Museum in Bruges (Belgium) reopened after a five-year renovation (fig. 1). This impressive city palace was once the home of Lodewijk or Louis de Bruges, Lord of Gruuthuse (1422-1492), a Flemish nobleman, courtier and bibliophile who had close relations with both the English and the Burgundian court. The museum is furnished with objects from the Burgundian period, from manuscripts and sculptures to stained glass and tapestries. It also has on display an interesting monumental brass that has nothing to do with the Gruuthuse palace or family; instead it came from the Sint-Juliaansgodshuis, the Hospital of St Julian in Bruges (fig. 2). The brass was probably made in Bruges and memorialises local citizen Abel Porcket (d. 1509) in a visually clever way (fig. 3a-b).
Porcket’s well-preserved brass is of high quality but relatively small, measuring 83 x 57 cm. The marginal inscription in elegant raised gothic textualis letters around the four sides of the brass reads in Dutch:
Hier licht broeder Abel / porcket tsine[n] ou[er]lyde[n] meester ende ontfa[n]gher / va[n]de[n] zelue godhuuse. die. / ou[er]leet. a[nn]o. XVc. IX. de[n]. xxiiijen. dach. i[n]. april. bit. ove[r de]. ziele.
(Here lies Brother Abel Porcket, at [the time of] his death master and receiver of this same hospital, who died in the year 1509 on the 24th day in April. Pray for [his] soul.)
Not long before his death in 1509 Abel Porcket was sworn in as master-receiver of the Hospital of St Julian in Bruges. This institution had originally been founded around 1275 by the Filles-Dieu from Atrecht (Arras), a congregation of religious women, who placed themselves under the protection of Maria Aegyptiaca (St Mary of Egypt), patron saint of penitents. Their aim was to offer shelter to travellers and homeless people. In this aim they were to benefit from their location on Boeveriestraat to the south-west of the city centre and west of the Beguinage, not far from the Boeveriepoort that would form part of the new city walls built by the city in 1297. The road through this (since demolished) city gate led to the important cities of Diksmuide, Ieper (Ypres) and Rijsel (Lille).
From 1290 the hospital of the Filles-Dieu received financial support from the city of Bruges, but in 1305 the city council decided to merge it with a nearby shelter for the poor that was dedicated to St Julian. By 1315 the combined new Hospital of St Julian had built a chapel, followed by a hospital ward (1398), and further expansions during the fifteenth century comprising new wings and service buildings, including a brewery and a horse mill. Around 1600 it merged with yet another religious house on the same street, Sint-Hubrecht-ten-dullen (dedicated to St Hubert), which looked after foundlings and especially the mentally ill. Care for psychiatric patients became the main purpose of the new Hospital until it finally closed in 1931.
Abel Porcket’s brass probably came the Hospital’s chapel, which was rebuilt in 1384. During his life Porcket is known to have enriched this chapel with religious art, including a retable, so it is very likely that after his death his body was laid to rest there. He may also have commissioned or even designed the brass himself as the iconography is unusual and markedly personal.
First of all, the engraving in the centre of the brass is a dramatic illustration of the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, which is described in Genesis 4:8:
And Cain said to Abel his brother: Let us go forth abroad. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him.
Both brothers are bearded and wear ‘primitive’ clothes. Cain is pressing down with his right knee on the crouching figure of Abel, grabbing him by the hair (fig. 4), and raising a jaw-bone in his right hand to slay his brother. The biblical account does not actually mention the manner of Abel’s death but traditionally Cain is believed to have used a jaw-bone, perhaps that of an ass or camel. Of course, this scene of Abel’s murder is an allusion to Porcket’s first name.
The personalisation of the brass continues with the quatrefoil medallions in the four corners, which each contain a small pig or piglet and a banderole with the word ‘porck’ (fig. 5). Such quatrefoils in the corners of brasses and incised slabs of this period usually feature the evangelist symbols or heraldry. Porcket instead chose the image of a pig as a visual pun on his surname, perhaps because the Porcket family did not have its own coat of arms.
In 1873 Porcket’s brass was donated to the former Oudheidkundig Genootschap (Archaeological Society) of Bruges, which is how it became part of the Gruuthuse Museum collection. Little remains of the medieval buildings of the Hospital of St Julian today. However, in March 2023 archaeologists digging at the ‘Boev(e)rie’ building site discovered part of a wall of the Hospital and the foundations of its chapel along with a large number of skeletons of adults in and around the chapel; one body had been laid to rest in a painted burial cist and two in a double burial vault. Could one of these skeletons be the remains of Abel Porcket?