As our partnership has deepened, we have started to wonder what inspires them. More specifically, what inspired their name? What does ommegang mean?
It turns out that ommegangs and Beekman have a lot in common, specifically our love of working with artisans and being proud of where you’re from.
The perfect mix of pageantry and crafts
So what is an ommegang? Ommegang means “walk around” and that is the simplest way to the describe these events. However, there’s much more to an ommegang than a quick trip down the lane. These processions were a way for makers to show off their wares, to honor nobility and to celebrate what a city had to offer. These events have continued into the modern age, with events happening around Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France.
One of the very first ommegangs was religious in nature and has a surprising backstory. The Ommegang of Brussels, celebrated every July, was first used as a ceremony to honor the safe arrival of a statue of the Virgin Mary that traveled from Antwerp to Brussels.
According to legend, one morning a local woman named Beatrijs (pronounced like Beatrice) Soetkens had a vision. In this vision, the Virgin Mary told Beatrijs that there was a statue of Mary located in Antwerp, and that Beatrijs needed to take it. The statue was named ‘Onze-Lieve-Vrous op ‘t Stocxken’, which roughly translates to “Our Lady on the little stick.” Beatrijs, being a very devout woman, set about fulfilling the duties given to her in her vision.
The determined Beatrijs set about traveling the roughly 27.5 miles to Antwerp to retrieve the statue. In 1348, she was able to bring the statue back to Brussels by boat and proceeded to install the statue in the chapel of the Crossbow Guild. The Guild promised to honor the statue and Beatrijs’s accomplishment by holding an annual procession throughout the city.
As the years progressed, the procession took on a broader celebratory nature. The annual ommegang was no longer just about showing off the statue of the Virgin Mary, but about showing the total wealth of the city. Artisans and merchants throughout the city would take to the streets to set up stalls and show off their best pieces. The parade held by the Crossbow Guild slowly included more honorable members of the city, like nobility and other government leaders.
Charles V and Philippe make their grand debuts
This lead to the second event that the Ommegang of Brussels commemorates,
The “Joyous Entry” of Emperor Charles V. These Joyous Entries are events marking the first official visit of a reigning member of the nobility. Charles V was not only a leader in Belgium, but also a Roman Emperor and a king of Spain. He was beloved by the majority of Belgians and holds a special place in Belgian history.
Fresh off a battlefield victory, Charles V decided that the perfect time for his Joyous Entry would be during the city’s ommegang. He also used that year’s ommegang to introduce his heir to the throne, his son Philippe. Everyone from peasants to the aristocracy stepped up to the occasion, bringing out the crème de la crème of costumes, food, music, wares and more. Artisans created opulent displays for their items and there was friendly competition between the vendors on who could create the best stand, show off the best items, etc. The entire city was turned into a display of wealth and artistry.
The emperor and his family walked in the traditional procession and then took seats in the city square to enjoy displays from musicians, stilt walkers and other types of entertainment. It all culminated in a display of ‘gilles’, presenters dressed in costumes that honored the emperor’s heritage, who did ritual dances in the center of the city.
Emperor Charles V’s Joyous Entry is a significant one in Belgian history and is reenacted in the city every year during the annual ommegang. Over time, the event has expanded from a one-day event to a multi-day extravaganza.
Ros Beiaard: Just horsin’ around
Other famous ommegangs include the Ros Beiaard Ommegang in Dendermonde. This is another ommegang with a fanciful origin story. It honors Beiaard, a magical horse owned by Renaud de Montauban, a fictional hero of many French fables. This horse was said to easily carry Renaud and his three brothers around with little effort and could understand human speech. In the fables of Renaud, he had to give up his beloved horse to an enemy. That enemy then took Beiaard and tried the drown the horse in a river. But Beiaard, magical and cunning as can be, escaped his attacker and, according to legends, lives in the woods to this day.
To celebrate the stories about Renuad, his brothers and his trusty steed Beiaard, an ommegang is held every ten years. In this ommegang, in addition to the regular walk around the town to see artisanal products, a giant wooden horse is carried around the town center. The Ros Beiaard of Dendermonde horse figure is carried from underneath by 12 people, while four costumed, biological brothers (representing Renaud and his brothers) sit on top of the horse.
The reason this ommegang is held every 10 years is because, frankly, it’s a complicated event to hold. The horse is very heavy, weighing around 1,763 pounds, and that’s before the four brothers climb aboard. It is also roughly 15-feet high and 17-feet long.
The selection of the brothers to ride the horse during the ommegang is also difficult. To qualify to ride on top of Beiaard, you and your brothers must have been born consecutively, with no sisters in between. You, your brothers, your parents and grandparents must have all been born in Dendermonde. You and your siblings must currently live in Dendermonde or in one of its suburbs. Finally, you and your siblings must be between the ages of 7 and 21 years old.
So, after all of those boxes have been checked, you and your brothers have the honor to wear traditional costumes and ride on top of one of the biggest and most magical horses in the world. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.
From celebrating a religious pilgrimage, to honoring leaders and even celebrating a magical horse, ommegangs across history all have one thing in common at their core, artisans and producers. A walk around would not be complete without these valuable makers and their wonderful wares.