The Little Chapel of the Fourteen Bunders, Netherlands

With tales of oak and mistletoe, holy wells and miraculous images, John Palmer takes us to meet the Virgin Mary in the old wetlands of Flanders


Many of the houses lining the Veertien Bunderslaan, in Blaasveld, have a miniature wooden chapel attached, each containing an image representing the Virgin Mary; the lane leads towards a marsh associated with the discovery of a statuette of the Virgin.

The village of Blaasveld is near Willebroek, near the rivers Rupel and Schelde, though Blaasveld and Willebroek are divided by a canal (begun in 1537) connecting Brussels with the Schelde and the sea.

To the S of Willebroek are also the rivers Zenne, Dijle, and Nete. With so much water, the area was marshy in prehistory, and only on higher ground was there woodland. In the N lived, since at least the 4th century BCE, the Menapians; to the S the Nervians, who refused to have anything to do with Caesar’s invading Romans, and rather than submit fought to their deaths.

In the 11th and 12th centuries CE, polders were created, on which Willebroek arose. It  became a medieval Lordship, but its name reveals the past, stemming from the Germanic wilthja (wild), and broka (marsh, swamp). In 1182 it was mentioned as ‘Willebrot’, in 1190 as ‘Wildebroec’.

One of the last remains of this ancient prehistoric broek or marsh, which was regularly flooded by the river Rupel, is the Broek at Blaasveld. The marshes were virtually impassable until the 13th century, while in subsequent centuries turf was dug there, leaving deep pools of water or small fens. The Broek is the setting for a curious story which was traditionally transmitted within the family associated with the site.

The Van Breedam family used to retain, from father to son, the management of the Princely domain, and it was under the guidance of Geeraard Van Breedam that his son Michel, digging turf in 1636, came across an image of the Virgin Mary. Following custom, this image was attached to the most beautiful oak tree in the area. During a particularly harsh winter in 1760, when thick ice covered all waters, it was seen that the spot where the statuette was discovered remained ice-free, giving rise to the belief that it was a miraculous image.

Word soon spread throughout the region, initiating an influx of pilgrims to the site, where due to the divine intercession of the Holy Virgin there occurred miraculous healings.

A small chapel was built, which was enlarged in 1860. It is said that each pilgrim carried one brick to the site, by a pool of water which for hundreds of years had been used to heal maladies of the eye and elsewhere.

Thus far, the traditional story. The Chapel is known, in Flemish, as ‘Het Kapelleke van Onze Lieve Vrouw der Veertien Bunders’, which translates as ‘The Little Chapel of Our Dear Lady of the Fourteen Bunders’. The word bunder denotes an ancient unit of land measure: one bunder was equal to 400 minor roeden (rods), though the actual value differed from region to region. The measure became only obsolete after the introduction of the abstract metre as a standard unit of measure.

The custom of attaching an image of the Virgin to an ancient oak tree, the King of the Forest, is still prevalent in Roman Catholic landscapes to this very day. The town of Lier, in Flanders, has its ‘Growing Tree‘, a sacred oak that was cut down by St Gummarus. When a local pagan protested, the saint tied his belt around the trunk, making it whole again, and Brussels is believed to have originated at an ancient oak tree. Queen Elizabeth I of England knighted an oak tree after it had protected her during a storm – in which case Her Majesty was lucky, as oaks are notorious for drawing down lightning, hence the common ‘Blasted Oak’.

The true reason why the oak was held inviolable may have its origins with the Iron Age Druids and their use of mistletoe. The Roman writer Pliny recorded a Druidic rite according to which they harvested mistletoe (viscum album) from oaks. They fed an infusion of it to their cattle, believing it to be a strong antidote to all poisons. In England it was also traditionally known as an ‘all-heal‘, and still in the 17th century people cut slips of mistletoe from oaks to sell to apothecaries in London. In 1991, Dr Sigrun Gabius of the hematological-oncological department of the Medical University Clinic of Gottingen, and researchers elsewhere in Germany, found mistletoe to contain a lectine proteine which positively stimulates immune reactions in the human body.

Not far from Willebroek is the municipality of Bornem, situated at the Old Schelde river, where at a hamlet is found the small Chapel of Luipegem. Built in 1613 (restored 1926), a few years earlier than the Chapel at Blaasveld, it is adjacent to a spring, also said never to freeze over, and as at Blaasveld, the waters were used to heal eye disorders.

Rather further afield, another chapel stands at Marouil in Nord Pas de Calais, France, at a site known as ‘Le Mont Cesar’ in the territory of the Iron Age Atrebates. In the middle ages this was part of Flanders. The small brick-built chapel is dedicated to St Bertille (feastday October 8), daughter of St Gertrude, and located by a spring once again said to cure eye problems.

This leads me to wonder whether the people of the day suffered from a lack of vitamin A, which may lead to failing eyesight. Today, law decrees that manufacturers of margarine add vitamin A to their product; in Holland, vitamin D is added for good measure. In former ages though, no one knew about vitamin A and its connection with failing eyesight – nor indeed about the causes of toothache.

At Tisselt, twinned with Willebroek, is a chapel originally dedicated to St Appolonia, once invoked in dire cases of toothache. In 1992, however, the local priest decided to re-dedicate the chapel to St Francis, saying that the time when people went to the saints with their medical problems had passed, after which he dedicated the chapel (built 1859) to the good cause of Peace.

Returning to the subject of the local veneration of the Virgin, this is also apparent at Boom, across the canal from Willebroek. The name Boom literally means ‘trees’. Boom retained an image of the Virgin on its heraldic shield; legend tells that this image was discovered within a tree of a hard and rare wood which had drifted to Boom along the river Rupel. Another version, however, alleges that the image was carved by a local sculptor from the wood of that tree. A similar legend, telling of the discovery of an image of the Virgin within a tree, is known at Foye Notre Dame, near Hastiere (Wallonia, Belgium).

Interestingly, at Hakendover in Brabant in Flanders, is a chapel dedicated to ‘Onze Lieve Vrouw ten Steen’, ‘Our Dear Lady of the Stone’, where the chapel possibly replaced an ancient megalith.

Amazingly, I recently learned that within the Broek or marsh at Blaasveld was discovered the remains of an Iron Age village where the houses were built on wooden posts to overcome the regular floods caused by the nearby river Rupel. This may lend further credence to my supposition that the divine image or statuette unearthed by Michel van Breedam in 1636 may have been an ancient pagan image re-interpreted as the Virgin Mary. The oak tree to which the image was attached may perhaps have been part of an Iron Age sacred grove…

This does not detract from the importance and significance of the statuette of the Virgin Mary now in the Chapel of the Fourteen Bunders, protected by metal bars running across the width of the chapel. It is about one foot tall, dressed as Queen of Heaven in a wide blue mantle, adorned with lace on one arm. She carries the tiny figure of the Christ Child; her other arm clasps a palm branch (medieval pilgrims returning from Palestine carried a palm branch and thus became known as Palmers).

Focussing on the frail hands and possibly polychromed face, I doubt that the statuette is early medieval; it seems most likely it was indeed carved during the 17th century, when Michel Van Breedam supposedly discovered the image.

I have had some qualms over the recent management of one of the last remains of an ancient broek in Flanders; however; its present owners, the Vlaams Gewest, have laid paths through the marsh, building in the middle, adjacent to the forester’s house, a ‘visitor centre’; if such was thought to be necessary, why not build it at the edge of the broek? Modern houses have been built up to the edge of the marsh, encroaching on the old Chapel. More worrying was a statement in a recent brochure issued by the Willebroek Department of Tourism, which claims that “the Chapel has so far survived attacks of vandalism”, leading me to wonder how well it is now protected! I have made representations to the responsible bodies to ask them to ensure the protection of the site, though a response is slow in coming; an old chestnut tree nearby has been listed and is legally protected, and I hope the Chapel will also be so.

The visitor who arrives during the evening at the Chapel of the Fourteen Bunders is welcomed by the glow of burning candles, illuminating the Chapel’s interior. When a tradition is continued, these are magical moments, bridging the abstract concept of time as one finds the hallowed image waiting within.

Published in NE88, Winter 2001, p20-22