Cities History West Flanders

The Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges

Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges

At the centre of this annual event is a vial containing the blood of Christ

Every year in Bruges, on Ascension Day (Thursday May 10th this year), the Procession of the Holy Blood takes place in Bruges. It’s an event recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The centrepiece is a small vial containing a 2000-year-old cloth stained with the blood of Jesus Christ. But how did it end up in Bruges? And how can anyone be sure it’s Christ’s blood when its history is, to put it mildly, rather “cloudy”?

Based on an article I wrote for a Belgian newspaper a few years ago, here’s an overview of the timeline of this strange event.

Around 33 AD

The body of Jesus Christ is taken down from the cross after the crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea wipes the Saviour’s wounds with a cloth. Little did Joseph know how popular this bit of cloth was going to be. Unfortunately we don’t hear anything about it for over 1000 years, until …

1150

Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders, arrives in Bruges from the Holy Land. In his possession is – yes, you’ve guessed right – a small fragment of Joseph’s original blood-stained cloth. Thierry received it from his brother-in-law, Baldwin III of Anjou, King of Jerusalem, as reward for his exceptional heroism. Thierry brings the relic to the Basilius chapel in Bruges. All goes quiet for nearly 100 years …

Procession of the Holy Blood -13
Thierry of Alsace returns from his holidays abroad with more than a suntan

1256

This is the date of the oldest document concerning a relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges.

1291

The first procession of the Holy Blood is held in Bruges. It’s mentioned in the Charter of the Unloaders’ Guild. (The guys who unloaded boats, barges, carriages etc.).

1303

As the relic is regarded as property of the city, the procession becomes a civic event. The guilds of Bruges are obliged to participate, as well as artisans, commoners, city councillors and clergy all marching and merrymaking with the relic around the city walls.

Procession of the Holy Blood -10
Thousands participate in the Return of the Holy Handkerchief

1310

Bruges city council combines the two weeks of festivities around the Holy Blood with the city’s month-long Annual Fair, thus immediately swelling the popularity of the event.

1400

Relics need protecting, and who could do it better than the newly formed “Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood”? Its 31 members must be resident in Bruges and be “honourable people”. The Brothers wear a black silken tabard on which is embroidered a pelican feeding her young with her own blood. The pelican is a symbol of Christ. (Don’t ask!).

Mid 16th century

A processional route around the city is agreed, which is still used today. The procession’s Biblical scenes are sexed up with profane scenes, giants, and the mythical Bayard Horse.

Post-1578

Oops. Bruges goes all Calvinistic. The procession is banned. The relic is taken to a safe place.

Early 17th century

The relic is dug out of some old cupboard, dusted down, and the procession re-commences with even greater splendour.

1617

The Holy Blood needs a better container, so one is specially made. It’s set with hundreds of precious stones, including the Black Diamond from Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. It’s still used today.

holy blood 4
Now that’s more appropriate to hold Christ’s blood

1798-1819

Sacrebleu! The French rule Bruges. The procession is temporarily abolished and the relic gets put back in the cupboard until the French depart.

20th century

A whole plethora of changes in the themes and the presentations are introduced. The event increases in international popularity. And profitability.

2008

Martin McDonagh’s hit movie “In Bruges” draws attention to the Holy Blood relic. Holed up in the city, two hit men familiarise themselves with local customs and sights. In one amusing scene, they visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

2009

The Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges is added to the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

2018 – What to expect?

The Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood still lead the procession. The honorable brothers are accompanied by brass bands, hundreds of tableaux and floats, and over 1,700 citizens re-enacting stories in three parts.

holy blood

The first consists of scenes from the Old and New Testaments; the second shows the 1150 return of Thierry of Alsace to Bruges; the third is the procession of the Holy Blood relic itself.

Thousands of people will attend the event, along with dignitaries from Church and State. The procession concludes with prayers in several languages. The relic is then enshrined once more in the Basilica of the Holy Blood where it is displayed each Friday, before and after the mass.

Basilica of the holy blood, Bruges
Basilica of the Holy Blood | © Jan D’Hondt, Visit Bruges

If you’re going, enjoy your day. Seats are sold out but there’s standing room along the route, if you don’t mind a crowd.

About Denzil

Discovering Belgium is my personal blog describing places to visit in Belgium. It mainly focuses on walking and cycling in nature, but also covers cities and events.

22 comments on “The Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges

  1. We didn’t get to see the Holy Blood relic when we were in Bruges. Not enough time. Nice to have this bit of history for when we go back.

  2. So interesting, Denzil! And I’m glad to know a Christian based celebration is recognized as an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity.’ Looks like a fantastic procession. -Molly

    • I’m glad it’s a dry day Molly. A few years ago it had to be cancelled due to incredibly heavy rain.

  3. We went to the Basiiica specially to see the relic up close. The festival would be a fun event to attend. I bet those two hit men didn’t get ticked off for trying to take a photo inside the church. 🙂

    • You’re right Carol. And there would have been a lot more cameras taking photos too! Mind you, that scene was actually not filmed in the Basilica but in the Jerusalem Church. So maybe even famous movie directors couldn’t bend the rules.

  4. This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing. Never knew such a thing existed.

  5. Wonderful costumes, they really go all to create a spectacle. The reliquary, if that’s the right term, looks like a wonderful piece of craftsmanship.
    Whatever our beliefs about the Crusades and such relics, it’s so impressive for a community to maintain such a procession since 1291. And I love the idea of an Unloaders’ Guild – – I think at the time of that movie, Colin Farrell was still an honorable member of the Get Loaded Guild.

    • Ha you’re right there Robert (about Colin Farrell). And yes, I guess the Unloaders’ Guild sounds much better than “Roadies”!

  6. Wow, I had no idea there was such a history behind this procession! The timeline format was very helpful to be able to trace the series of events. I can’t imagine Bruges with a several thousand extra people – I bet it’s quite crowded!

  7. Pingback: Naples, Saint Januarius and the Miracle of the Blood | Have Bag, Will Travel

  8. Thanks for sharing Denzil. I always learn a lot from your posts. Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks Reid; much appreciated. Best wishes to you from Belgium

      • I can’t wait to visit Belgium someday. My ancestors were Dutch so I’m planning a trip to the Lowlands someday soon. It’s gonna be awesome. Your blog is helping me with my trip planning. Thanks so much! Reid

        • Where did they originate from Reid? Do you have much of their family history?

          • Hey Denzil, I know a little bit. My dad was born in 1943. His dad was born in America in 1913. Then his father was born about 1883. He may have been born in Netherlands. I believe the Groningen area? I think I’ve seen a Wiersema family seal with a goose on it. Most of what I’ve learned is from a guy in The Netherlands who is married to a Wiersema. He contacted me and many others here in America and has done a family tree. I need to look it up again but yes it is very interesting. Thanks for asking. Are you Belgian? Thanks! Reid

            • Looks like Friesland is where your ancestors come from. No I am not Belgian, I am British but have lived here for 31 years. Good luck with the family history research!

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