Liège reminds me a bit of Hull – I doubt if anyone has said that before, but they’re both honest workaday cities, a bit rough at the edges but with hidden jewels. There’s a hodgepodge of architectural styles in Liège, with glimpses of medieval stonework mixed in with later stuff.
At the meeting of three rivers, this site was occupied 100,000 years ago, and the Romans established a settlement on the site of the present Place St Lambert. This became the site of the country residence of the bishop of Maastricht when Bishop Lambert was killed in about 700 (696 or 705 are also possibilities) on what is now Place St Lambert, in front of the present Palais of Justice (close to Liège-Palais station), because he refused to bless the cup of Alpaïde, mistress of Pépin II, Duke of the Franks (and mother of Charles Martel). Lambert was buried in Maastricht but brought back here in 709 (or 718) by his successor St Hubert; the martyrdom site drew pilgrims and in about 800 the seat of the bishopric of Tongeren-Maastricht was moved here. In 980 the Holy Roman Emperor gave Bishop Notger (972-1008) and his successors full temporal power as prince-bishop, ruling a quarter of present-day Belgium. They implemented a ‘politique de grands travaux’ reminiscent of President Mitterand’s in Paris, building a cathedral, a palace, the churches of St Jean-Baptiste and Sainte-Croix, then after Notger’s death the Collégiale St Barthélemy and the Abbey of St Jacques, and in 1032 an arched bridge across the Meuse.
The Prince-Bishops held power here until 1795, as part of the Holy Roman Empire (although the trade guilds were involved in running the city from the 14th century), with their palace (now the Palais de Justice, with a 16th-century interior court, an 18th-century neo-Classical façade and a 19th-century neo-Gothic west wing) facing the cathedral. Squeezed between warring nations, they established a principle of neutrality from 1492, recognised by the Spanish Netherlands (later Belgium, more or less) in 1654 and the United Provinces (later the Netherlands) in 1673. A month after the fall of the Bastille in Paris, on 18 August 1789, a revolution here overthrew the Prince-Bishop and the area became part of France as the département of the Ourthe from 1795. In this period of evolutionary turmoil the cathedral was demolished (although it took 15 years, block by block). In 1815 Liège became part of the Netherlands and in 1830 part of Belgium, where it remains; the 19th century brought industrialisation (notably glass- and gun-making) and the development of new suburbs on drained land; the dry loop of the river around the old town is still very obvious.
The present cathedral, to the south in the current city centre, was originally the collegiate church of St Paul, founded in the 960s and rebuilt between 1240 and 1439; the belltower was added after 1812, apparently by request of Napoléon Bonaparte – something of a turnaround from the cathedral-demolishing fervour of the earlier French Revolution. Architecturally, it does feel like a real cathedral but without being anything amazing – the main attraction is the Baroque sculptures of Jean Del Cour (1631-1707), born near Liège, who studied with Bernini in Rome and then spent his career working for the church back in Liège. Highlights here are the tortured figures of John the Baptist (1682) and Christ in the Tomb (1696). There’s also striking stained glass installed in 2013-6, with 14 nave windows by Gottfried Honegger (1917-2016) (Zurich) and five in the aisle by the Korean Dominican priest Kim en Joong (b 1940), as well as a window in the south transept dating from 1530. Also worth seeing are a painting of the Descent from the Cross by Gérard Seghers (1591-1651) at the east end of the south aisle, and a mural of the Crucifixion (c1558). And don’t miss the reliquary of St Lambert – his remains were transferred here in 1805 and this huge silver casket was produced in 1896.
There’s more fine silverwork and other treasures in the Trésor (2-5pm Tues-Sun, €6; tresordeliege.be), off the cloister, which reopened in 2016 after refurbishment. Perhaps the finest piece there is the reliquary of Saint Lambert, made in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) by the silversmith Hans von Reutlingen in around 1512, which is the largest late-Gothic reliquary-bust remaining in Europe.
Another of the town’s collegiate churches is St Jacques (Mon-Fri 9am-noon, Sat 10am-noon, 3-5.30pm, Sun 10am-noon), founded in 1015 by Notger’s successor, Prince-Bishop Balderic. It still has its Romanesque nave (c1170), but the nave was rebuilt in Flamboyant Gothic style in 1514-38; the choir dates from 1417 below window level and 1514-38 above. Its most striking architectural feature, however, is the porch by which you enter, built in Italian Renaissance-style in 1558-68; the sandstone sculpture of the Coronation of Virgin above the inner door dates from c1390. It’s another cathedral-scale space which makes a fine setting for more of Del Cour’s sculptures, notably a row of saints along the nave columns and a plaster copy of his Immaculate Conception (1692; the original is in the abbey of Floreffe). St-Jacques also boasts some of Belgium’s finest stained-glass, notably the five windows of the apse, completed between 1525 and 1531.
The Place du Marché, immediately east of the Palais de Justice and squeezed between the huge dome of the church of Saint-André and the Hôtel de Ville (1714-8), is lined with 17th-century houses, most now housing cafés that spill out across the square. In the centre, the column known as Le Perron is the symbol of Liège, with a sculpture of the Three Graces by Del Cour on top (and rather hard to make out).
About 400m further east along Féronstrée is the collegiate church of Saint-Barthélemy (Mon-Sat 10am-noon, 2-5pm, Sun 2-5pm; €2), consecrated in 1015, which is home to one of the masterpieces of Mosan art, a brass font made between 1107 and 1118 for Liège’s parish church of Notre-Dame. Mosan refers to the style of Romanesque art produced between the 11th and 13th centuries in the Meuse valley straddling present-day Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (more or less the diocese of Liège) – this was the heartland of the Carolingian Empire (or Holy Roman Empire), so the style contains more classical and Mediterranean elements than the more familiar Romanesque style of France, Spain and England. It’s seen in metalwork and stone-carving, and also in architecture, enamels and illuminated manuscripts. There’s a useful free video about the font and also the huge restoration (and excavation) of the church in 1999-2006.
There’s more on Liège’s museums and art in my next post.