St George and the dragon in the arts city of Mons

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part of the Doudou procession

part of the Doudou procession

Mons’ designation as European Capital of Culture marks the historical city as a landmark for art and culture in 2015. The opening of five new museums in Mons at the same time in April is not an occasion that occurs in the history of a city that often. The highlight of these museums are that two are UNESCO world heritage sites, the Belfry and the SILEX. The Belfry, which was constructed in 1672, was recently renovated with a new centree devoted to it in Belgium whilst the SILEX is one of the oldest Neolithic flint mines and important archaeological locations in Europe.

Other museums in the city include Artothèque, a former chapel, housing Mons’ art and cultural collections, the Mons Memorial Museum, dedicated to the history of World Wars I and II and the Musée Doudou which tells the story of Ducasse de Mons, the Doudou festival and St George and the Dragon.

I arrived in Mons again in May to witness how the city transforms itself into a mass celebratory ritual on the weekend of Trinity Sunday during the Doudou festival.

the procession continues but seems to get bigger and bigger

the procession continues but seems to get bigger and bigger

The whole city partakes in celebrating Ducasse de Mons, as it is more properly known. Every corner of the old medieval town leading to the main square is decorated and food and drink stalls are set up to serve the large crowd. The locals, young and old, children and all family members gather in cobbled streets and are joined by tourists and people from nearby villages and cities. Modern and traditional Belgian music plays loudly from every street. I had never witnessed such a huge celebration in one city.

The people of Mons celebrate the city’s founding matriarch, St Waudru, the patron saint of the city who lived in the seventh century. The Doudou festival dates back to 1348-49 when the city was in anguish due to the outbreak of a plague. On the church’s initiative, a procession was organized and the shrine of St Waudru carried through the streets of the city. Miraculously, the plague was overcome. Since then the procession takes place every year, parading the relics of St Waudru, which are held in two separate caskets, as a gesture of gratitude and as a blessing upon the city. The remains of St Waudru were identified in 1803and in 1997, DNA analysis confirmed that the remains do indeed belong to a woman who lived in the 7th century. The festival has been recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It was an important proclamation by UNESCO and which raises awareness among the local community of the importance of protecting their cultural heritage and maintaining their traditional expressions.

the caskets

the caskets

On Saturday evening, locals and officials gathered in the Collegiate Church of St Waudru. Children in yellow uniforms entered followed by nuns in white rather than black habits. Other groups of children, men and women dressed in different traditional church garb marched through the halls, passing both the seated and standing participants and taking their positions in front of the church. The ceremony continued after the mayor of Mons, read his speech in front of church leaders. The ceremony came to an end when the shrine of St Waudru was brought down from its resting place above a high platform, and delivered to the mayor of Mons in trust. The crowd in the church chanted and welcomed the moment when the reliquary was placed in the middle of the church for people to pay their respects, seeking health and prosperity. As I mentioned earlier, there are two golden caskets: one holding the head and another containing bones. I was told that it was an old tradition to keep the body and the head separately in case one is lost. The groups in religious outfits marched again, bowing in front of shrines to pay their respects before leaving the church.

On Sunday morning the procession, one of the most significant events in Wallonia and in the whole of Belgium, set off from Sainte-Waudru Collegiate Church and marched through streets of Mons entering the Grand-Place (the central square of Mons) and passing in front of the city hall. More than a thousand local volunteers dressed in traditional medieval costumes arrived in an orderly manner, representing various guilds, societies and religious bodies. There were 71 groups from Mons fellowships and parishes, 160 policemen, 180 musician, 50 horse riders and 100 choristers accompanying the groups along the procession. Some of them carried a flag related to their group or religious statues.

as the "battle" approaches people gather

as the “battle” approaches people gather

At the end of the procession, the Car d’Or carrying the two caskets along with the priest and choristers (a heavy wagon decorated in gold and bronze built in 1781) was pulled by six horses to the front of the town hall. The priest read his testimony and reminded the crowd of the story of the plague. Then, the Car d’Or returned to the church signaling the end of the ceremony. But the wagon had to climb a steep stone-paved street, the Rampe Sainte-Waudru. In order to get up this street, people gathered behind it to push it to the top. Some local people believe that if it does not reach the top in one go then the city will have to face adversity. When the crowd had accomplished their mission, they shouted, ‘Et les Montois ne périront pas!’ (‘And the people of Mons shall never perish!’)

The Doudou festival, which is a combination of religious and modern traditions, continued in the main square in front of the Hotel De Ville with a re-enactment of a battle called the Lumecon. It symbolises the famous battle between St George and the Dragon.

St George was seated on a horseback, protected by the 12 Chin-Chins, men dressed in horse-skirts. The eleven men in white controlled an odd-looking green dragon whilst its long tail was carried by eight, green leaf-men. St George circled in a clockwise motion on the ground and the dragon moved in the opposite direction, followed by policemen, firemen and devils. The Chi-Chins fight a tough battle with the devils who were equipped with balloons made of cow bladders to protect St George. St George attacked the dragon and tried to kill it with a sword. The scene looked like a chaotic battle of good versus evil, but all has been planned and rehearsed by Mons’ volunteers.

the chin-chins prepare

the Chi-Chins prepare

Sometimes the dragon moved towards the large crowd which had gathered around the battlefield. The people tried to pull horsehair from the dragon’s tail which provides a symbol of good luck. As the passion and excitement increased young men climbed over each other to reach the tail. I witnessed several men who fell to the ground.

Finally, St George killed the dragon with a gun which seems totally incongruous given the mediaeval nature of the ceremony because attempts to kill the dragon with his sword failed

The celebration continued in the main streets and square until late. Restaurants, cafes, and food stalls remained full of people in festival mood throughout the city. The music continued to play and entertain the crowds till the revelry ended and they returned home. Until 2016 that is when, on Trinity Sunday, the event will be re-enacted again.

The city of Mons has a lot to offer, from the symbolic figure of St George to modern monumental art works and hosts many exhibitions throughout the year. It includes the exhibitions of Van Gogh and Verlaine, two major pioneers in modern art, whose works were greatly influenced by their time in Mons.

The diversity of the city’s offerings appeals to many tastes, drawing in art experts and the general public alike. This is a showcase to display the works of local, national and international artists in all levels from unknown and famous to the old and the young.

Mons is certainly a place to be in 2015 to experience an impressive wealth of art and culture.

Images © www.amirinia.com. For more images of Doudou Festival go to www.amirinia.com/doudou-festival/ or click here.

For more information about Doudou and Mons 2015, Click here or visit the Belgian Tourist office website: www.belgiumtheplaceto.be.

 

 

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