Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is a city renowned for its historic churches that are well worth exploring. This article will take you on a journey through time as we delve into the rich architectural heritage and spiritual significance of these remarkable places of worship. You can read here about the other historical attractions of Brussels.
Brussels boasts a wealth of cultural treasures, and its historic churches are among its most cherished gems. Each church has a story to tell, steeped in centuries of tradition and artistry. From the awe-inspiring Gothic splendor of the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart to the hidden charm of the Saint Nicolas Church and the captivating Art Deco beauty of the Church of St. Augustine, these churches offer a glimpse into the city’s religious and cultural past.
While visiting these churches, prepare to be enthralled by stunning stained glass windows, intricate carvings, and architectural styles spanning centuries. Whether you seek architectural inspiration, historical insights, or a serene sanctuary, the historic churches of Brussels promise an unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe of their timeless beauty.
A brief history of Christianity in Brussels and Belgium
Christianity has played a significant role in shaping the cultural and religious landscape of Brussels. From the early spread of Christianity in the region to the present-day diversity of Christian denominations, the history of Christianity in Brussels reflects the country’s journey through different periods of religious, political, and social changes.
The roots of Christianity in Belgium can be traced back to the Roman period when the region was part of the Roman Empire. Early Christian missionaries, including Saint Servatius and Saint Amandus, brought the teachings of Jesus Christ to the inhabitants of what is now Belgium. They established churches and monasteries, laying the foundation for the Christian faith in the region.
According to a local legend, the beginnings of Brussels can be traced back to the construction of a chapel by Saint Gaugericus on an island in the Senne River around 580. The official establishment of Brussels is commonly attributed to the year 979, when Duke Charles of Lower Lorraine relocated the remains of the martyr Saint Gudula from Moorsel (now in the province of East Flanders) to Saint Gaugericus’ chapel.
During the Middle Ages, Brussels emerged as an important center of Christian worship and religious authority. The construction of the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula began in the 11th century, replacing an older Romanesque church. The cathedral became a symbol of religious devotion and architectural grandeur.
The 16th century brought significant religious changes to Belgium with the rise of the Protestant Reformation. The teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin found followers among the population, leading to religious divisions and conflicts. Brussels remained predominantly Catholic, and the Counter-Reformation movement led to the reaffirmation and strengthening of Catholicism in the region.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels was established in 1559. The bishop holds his seat in two cathedrals: St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen and the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels.
The 19th century witnessed a shift towards religious tolerance and secularization in Belgium. The Belgian Revolution of 1830 resulted in the separation of church and state, granting freedom of religion to its citizens. The country became known for its religious pluralism, with the coexistence of Catholicism, Protestantism, and other Christian denominations.
In contemporary Brussels and Belgium, Christianity remains an integral part of the country’s social fabric. The Catholic Church continues to be the largest Christian denomination, with numerous parishes, cathedrals, and religious communities across the country. The archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, led by the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, holds significant influence within the Catholic Church in Belgium.
Additionally, Protestant, Orthodox, and other Christian communities continue to thrive and contribute to the religious diversity of Brussels and Belgium. The city is a meeting place for Christians from different backgrounds, fostering dialogue, cooperation, and interfaith understanding.
The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, located in central Brussels, is a medieval Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to Saint Michael and Saint Gudula. It is renowned for its exquisite Brabantine Gothic architecture and is considered one of the finest examples of this style.
Construction of the cathedral began in the 11th century, replacing an earlier chapel, and it was completed in its current Gothic form by the 16th century. Over the years, the interior has undergone modifications, incorporating elements of late Gothic, Baroque, and neo-Gothic styles. Notable features include late-Gothic and Baroque chapels, as well as stunning stained glass windows from the 19th century.
As the co-cathedral of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, along with St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen, it holds significant religious importance. Being the national church of Belgium and the official seat of the Primate of Belgium, it hosts various official ceremonies, state funerals, and royal weddings.
The cathedral is situated on the Parvis Sainte-Gudule/Sinter-Goedelevoorplein, which can be accessed through Brussels Central Station or Parc/Park metro station. Its grandeur is evident through its impressive dimensions, spanning 360 feet in length, 98 feet in width, and reaching a height of 226 feet.
The main facade reflects French Gothic influences, featuring three portals surmounted by gables and two tall towers. The absence of a rose window is compensated by a large ogival window in the Brabantine Gothic style. The facade is divided into three levels, adorned with intricate details, pinnacles, and gargoyles.
The cathedral’s interior showcases the splendor of Brabantine Gothic. The nave boasts four-part vaults, robust cylindrical columns with cabbage leaf capitals, and statues of the twelve apostles. It houses a magnificent Baroque pulpit from the 17th century and a sculpture depicting The Education of the Holy Virgin by Saint Anna.
Within the cathedral, visitors can explore various chapels, including the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament of the Miracle, which houses the renowned Drahmal Cross, an Anglo-Saxon cross-reliquary. Other notable chapels include the Chapel of Our Lady of Deliverance and the Baroque Chapel of St. Mary Magdalen.
Stained glass windows play a significant role in the cathedral’s beauty, with notable examples dating from the 16th, 17th, and 19th centuries. The western facade features a remarkable window depicting the Last Judgement, while the transepts exhibit windows portraying prominent figures such as Charles V and Louis II of Hungary.
The cathedral is also home to impressive pipe organs, including the large swallow’s nest organ in the nave and the two-manual choir organ. Both towers house bells, with the south tower holding a 49-bell carillon and the north tower containing the bourdon named Salvator.
The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula stands as a remarkable testament to Brussels’ rich architectural heritage and serves as a symbol of religious and cultural significance in Belgium.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart
The National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels, also known as the Koekelberg Basilica, is a Roman Catholic Minor Basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Its construction began in 1905, but due to the two World Wars, it was completed only in 1970.
This massive Art Deco structure stands on the Koekelberg hill and features two slender towers, a towering green copper dome, and a distinct neo-Byzantine design.
The Koekelberg Basilica is renowned for its size, being one of the largest churches in the world. It measures 292 feet in height, 540 feet in length, and can accommodate up to 3,500 people. The central nave stretches 463 feet, and the cupola has a diameter of 108 feet.
The exterior combines reinforced concrete, terracotta layering, Dutch belvédère bricks, and Burgundy dimension stone, while the roofs and domes are covered in Congolese copper.
Inside, the basilica houses a variety of facilities, including spaces for Catholic Church celebrations in Dutch and French, conference rooms, exhibition areas, a restaurant, a Catholic radio station, a theater, and two museums. The interior displays a remarkable collection of artworks, such as sculptures by Constant Permeke and Jacques Dieudonné, engravings by Joan Miró, paintings by Antoni Tàpies and James Ensor, stained glass windows by Anto Carte, and lithographs by Alfred Manessier and Ri Coëme.
Visitors can access the cupola’s platform via stairs or elevators, offering panoramic views of Brussels and Flemish Brabant. The basilica’s location on the Koekelberg hill makes it a prominent landmark visible from a considerable distance.
The National Basilica of the Sacred Heart represents a significant architectural and religious site in Brussels, attracting tourists and believers alike. Its grandeur, unique design, and rich artistic heritage make it a must-visit destination for those interested in both religious and cultural experiences.
The Saint-Nicolas Church in Brussels
The Saint Nicolas Church, one of the oldest in Brussels, dates back over 1,000 years. Despite its charming appearance, the current building has little remaining from its original structure. The Gothic facade from the 14th century now covers the Romanesque lines of the 11th century, while the tall belfry, once a city watchtower, collapsed in 1714. The church has a historical connection to traders and served as a meeting point for the city council.
In the 12th century, the church was mentioned and a bell tower was built. After several collapses and reconstructions, the belfry was equipped with a carillon and possibly one of the oldest visual clock watches in the world. The church suffered significant damage in 1695 during the French bombardment and was later restored.
Inside, notable features include Rubens’ painting “The Virgin and Child” and the Vladimir Icon from Constantinople dating back to 1131. Relics of the Martyrs of Gorkum, Catholic priests executed in the late 1500s, are also housed there. Despite attempts to demolish the church for traffic purposes, it has been preserved along with the surrounding ancient architecture.
The Saint Nicolas Church remains an important part of Brussels’ historical and cultural heritage, attracting visitors with its rich history and artistic treasures.
Saint Mary’s Royal Church
Saint Mary’s Royal Church, also known as Église Royale Sainte-Marie in French and Koninklijke Sint-Mariakerk in Dutch, is a Roman Catholic parish church situated on the Place de la Reine/Koninginneplein in Schaerbeek, one of the 19 municipalities of the Brussels-Capital Region.
It is officially dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption and is closely associated with Queen Louise-Marie, the first Queen of the Belgians, which is why the square where it stands is called “Royal.”The church is conveniently served by the Botanique/Kruidtuin metro station on lines 2 and 6 of the Brussels Metro.
Designed by architect Henri Désiré Louis Van Overstraeten, construction of the building took place between 1845 and 1888. The architectural style of the church is a unique blend of neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic, Byzantine, and Roman influences. Jean-Baptiste Capronnier, a renowned stained glass artist, designed the beautiful windows. Although it remains unfinished, the church opened for worship on 15 August 1853.
Following Van Overstraeten’s death in 1849, his father-in-law Louis Roelandt took over the project until his passing in 1864. Architect Gustave Hansotte then assumed control. After Hansotte’s death in 1866, François Thomisse and Alexandre Struyven became the directors of the site. The completion works were officially accepted on 11 January 1888.
However, extensive interior fittings continued long after the church’s solemn consecration on 14 October 1902, which took place on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and was presided over by Cardinal Goossens, the archbishop of Mechelen.
The church encountered various challenges over the years. Rainwater infiltration necessitated costly repairs as early as 1870, exacerbated by work interruptions. Despite sporadic restoration efforts over the following decades, deterioration persisted, leading to the church’s closure in 1965 due to safety concerns.
In 1963, after several stones fell from the tower attached to the church’s side, designed by Hansotte, the tower crown was demolished. The building received protected status by royal decree on 9 November 1976. Restoration work took place from 1982 to 1996, although a fire in 1985 destroyed the previously restored dome and roofs, causing an interruption. The restoration recommenced in 1992 and concluded in 1994, with the church reopening on 17 April 1996.
Structurally, the church’s main body is octagonal, with the southern side opening onto a porch and the northern side featuring an elevated sanctuary and a large crypt in the basement. Eight pillars surrounding a 82 feet diameter inner circle form the framework of the building. An ambulatory, 16 feet wide, encircles the circular nave.
Six chapels occupy the remaining sides of the octagon, and the pillars are connected by horseshoe arches. A staircase leads up to the sanctuary, and on either side of the stairs, two flights descend to the Romanesque-style crypt, which includes a lower floor called the “sub-crypt.”
Church of Our Lady of Laeken
The Church of Our Lady of Laeken, also known as Église Notre-Dame de Laeken in French and Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk van Laken in Dutch, is a neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church located in Laeken, Brussels. Originally built as a memorial for Queen Louise-Marie, the wife of King Leopold I, the church was designed by architect Joseph Poelaert.
The church houses the Royal Crypt, the main burial place for members of the Belgian Royal Family, along with notable artisans buried in the nearby cemetery.
After Queen Louise-Marie’s death in 1850, King Leopold I desired her burial in Laeken, where the Royal Palace is situated. A royal decree authorized the construction of the church in her memory and as her mausoleum, with a budget not exceeding 800,000 Belgian francs.
Joseph Poelaert was selected as the architect. Initially, the project proposed a simple brick building with a single spire, but it evolved into a more monumental neo-Gothic design with three spires, exceeding the original budget.
Construction began in 1854, but due to Poelaert’s involvement in the Law Courts of Brussels project, other architects took over. The church was consecrated in 1872, but completion works faced significant delays. King Leopold II resumed the project in 1896, and in 1907, Baron Heinrich von Schmidt was commissioned to examine and complete the facade, porches, and central tower. Pope Pius XI crowned the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the church in 1936, and the venerated Marian image later inspired the image of Our Lady of China, crowned by Pope Francis in 2021.
Restoration projects were undertaken on the front facade, towers, roofs, and side facades from 2003 to 2012.
The church’s cemetery, known as the “Belgian Père Lachaise,” contains interesting graves, tombs, and sculptures, including an original cast of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. The Royal Crypt holds the tombs of the Belgian Royal Family, including former Kings of the Belgians.
The church is open in the afternoon, while the cemetery is open all day from Tuesday to Sunday. Visitors are advised to check the mausoleum’s opening hours before visiting, usually available on Sunday afternoons.
Church of St. James on Coudenberg
The Church of St. James on Coudenberg, located in the Royal Quarter of Brussels, Belgium, is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint James, one of the Twelve Apostles. Built from 1776 to 1787, it replaced two previous places of worship and features a neoclassical design by architects Gilles-Barnabé Guimard and Louis Montoyer.
The church’s facade resembles a Greco-Roman temple, with a triangular pediment and six Corinthian columns. The portico houses bas-reliefs, statues, and a coloured fresco by Jean Portaels depicting The Consoling Virgin of the Afflicted.
The interior, designed in a neoclassical style by Louis Montoyer, exudes simplicity and solemnity, with notable features such as Corinthian columns and a white marble altar. The altar includes bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Nativity, Last Supper, and Entombment.
Sculptures by Gilles-Lambert Godecharle and Adrien Joseph Anrion adorn the church, representing figures like Saint Peter and Religion. The central nave displays a memorial to parishioners who perished in World War I, a pulpit by Jozef Van Meeuwen, and a sculpture of Saint Joseph and Child by Laurent Delvaux.
The church houses a gallery pipe organ dating back to 1844, crafted by renowned organ-builder Pierre Schyven, with elements from an earlier work by Koenraad van Eyck in the 18th century. Large paintings by Jean-François Portaels, including The Crucifixion and The Cross, are displayed in the transept, while the side aisles feature The Stations of the Cross, a relief by Jean Geefs.
As a royal parish church and the cathedral of the Military Ordinariate of Belgium since 1986, the Church of St. James on Coudenberg holds historical significance. It is easily accessible via Brussels Central Station and nearby metro stations. With its spacious and luminous atmosphere, the church captivates visitors with its architectural grandeur, artistic adornments, and spiritual ambiance.
Church of St. John the Baptist in Molenbeek
The Church of St. John the Baptist, located in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, Brussels, is a Roman Catholic parish church dedicated to the patron saint of the area. Built between 1930 and 1932 in Art Deco style, it is one of three major churches in Brussels made of reinforced concrete. The church is situated on the northern side of the Parvis Saint Jean-Baptiste and can be reached via the Comte de Flandre metro station.
Designed by architect Joseph Diongre, the church’s construction was motivated by financial considerations, opting for reinforced concrete instead of traditional materials. The building was completed in a record time of fifteen months, and its exterior features a concrete structure covered with Brauvilliers stone.
The facade showcases a bas-relief depicting the baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist, created by sculptor Albert Aebly. The steeple, adorned with a modernist clock, stands tall and offers panoramic views of Brussels from a 68-meter-high platform.
Inside, the church exhibits a bright and colorful ambiance. The space is defined by slender parabolic arches and columns, creating a voluminous nave. The stained glass windows, reminiscent of the Church of Notre-Dame du Raincy in Paris, were crafted by Frans David Crickx.
Some interior elements, such as 17th-century choir stalls and an 18th-century statue of Saint John the Baptist attributed to Pieter-Jozef Verhaghen, were salvaged from the previous church.
The Church of St. John the Baptist is an architectural gem, showcasing the distinctive Art Deco style and offering a vibrant and spacious interior for worshipers.
Church of St. Augustine in Forest
The Church of St. Augustine is a Roman Catholic parish church located in Forest, Brussels. Designed by architects Léon Guiannotte and André Watteyne, the Church of St. Augustine is one of three prominent reinforced concrete churches in Brussels. It is located on Place de l’Altitude Cent, near Duden Park and Chaussée d’Alsemberg.
Constructed in the Art Deco style using reinforced concrete, the church was completed in two years (1933-1935). It was consecrated on Easter Monday in 1935. However, finishing works continued until 1950.
Over time, the poor quality of the concrete used in the church’s construction led to deterioration, with water penetration causing damage to the roof and metal reinforcements. Recognized as an architectural heritage monument, the debate regarding its potential demolition was halted due to its protected status and the enduring interest in Art Deco and modernism in Brussels. Extensive renovation work was undertaken from 1996 to 1998 to restore the church.
The Collegiate Church of St. Peter and St. Guido
The Collegiate Church of St. Peter and St. Guido in Anderlecht, Brussels, is a remarkable Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Guy. This Brabantine Gothic-style church, constructed between the 14th and 16th centuries, showcases the late medieval architecture of Brussels.
The church’s neo-Gothic spire was added in the 19th century, complementing the original structure attributed to the Flemish architect Jan van Ruysbroeck. Designated a historic monument in 1938, the church is located near notable landmarks such as Erasmus House, the old beguinage of Anderlecht, and the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Situated on the northern side of Place de la Vaillance/Dapperheidsplein, the church is easily accessible via the Saint Guidon/Sint Guido metro station.
The current structure replaced a Roman-style collegial church built in the 11th and 12th centuries. The church’s Roman crypt beneath the choir remains a place of worship for relics, drawing large pilgrimages. With its rich collection of art and funerary monuments, the Collegiate Church of St. Peter and St. Guido offers visitors a glimpse into Anderlecht’s religious and historical heritage.
Church of St. Clement, Watermael-Boitsfort
The Church of St. Clement in Watermael-Boitsfort, Brussels, is a Roman Catholic church known for its early Romanesque architecture. Dating back to the 11th century, the church features a nave and bell tower that are among the oldest parts of the structure. In 1871, the church underwent restoration, during which various architectural elements were added and historic tombstones were recovered.
The church boasts a robust Romanesque tower built with sandstone, which historically served as a refuge for the local population during times of danger. The tower comprises three levels, including a ground floor with a neo-Romanesque gate, a first floor with arched bays, and a second floor featuring twin windows. Topped with a slate-covered pyramidal spire, the tower stands as an impressive architectural feature.
Inside the church, the nave is illuminated by slender windows and adorned with a wooden ceiling. The pillars exhibit a substantial appearance due to the gradual raising of the ground over the centuries. The former parish cemetery has been transformed into a garden, with preserved tombstones now adorning the exterior walls of the nave. The Church of St. Clement offers visitors a glimpse into the rich architectural and historical heritage of Watermael-Boitsfort.
Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon
The Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon is a Roman Catholic church located in the historic Sablon district of Brussels. Built in the 15th century, the church served as a place of worship for the nobility and affluent citizens of Brussels.
It showcases late Brabantine Gothic architecture on the exterior, adorned with neo-Gothic decorative elements added in the 19th century. The church is considered a historic monument and is renowned for its rich interior decoration, including two exquisite Baroque chapels.
Situated along Rue de la Régence, between Place Royale and the Palace of Justice, the church is in close proximity to notable landmarks such as the Royal Museums of Fine Arts and the Square du Petit Sablon.
Constructed with stone from the Gobertange quarry, the church boasts striking features like pillar-less columns in the nave, apostle statues, and a remarkable triforium with vesica piscis motifs. The choir is adorned with polychrome murals from the 15th century, while the stained glass windows are the work of talented artists.
The church houses a magnificent triptych by Michiel Coxie, a Baroque pulpit by Marc de Vos, and various funeral monuments. The highlight of the church is its two splendid Baroque chapels, commissioned by the Thurn und Taxis family and featuring exceptional sculptures and architecture of the High Baroque style.
Adjacent to the church is a memorial plaque marking the former residence of the Thurn und Taxis family, who established the first international postal service in 1516. The Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon stands as a remarkable testament to Brussels’ religious and artistic heritage.