PhD defence: Intra muros - an archival and literary source investigation into the art inventories of five abolished monasteries in Leuven

Date of news: 17 December 2021

The monasteries in the Belgian city of Leuven were successively closed down at the end of the eighteenth century. Historian Roel Slachmuylders spent years researching the sources for the art inventories of five of these Leuven monasteries. He will defend his thesis on 20th  December.

Some street signs in Leuven still refer to the former monasteries that could be found there: the Augustijnenstraat, the Kapucijnenvoer, the Minderbroedersstraat and the Zwartzustersstraat, to mention a few. In 1773, the Jesuit colleges were closed everywhere in the Southern Netherlands, including Leuven. Then, between 1782 and 1784 the monasteries of the so-called 'contemplative' or praying orders had to go. For the remaining monasteries, the end came a few years after the second French invasion of the Austrian Netherlands and the Principality of Liege in 1794.


The dissolution of the monasteries between 1782 and 1784, during the Austrian period, was carried out with almost Prussian thoroughness. This resulted in an extensive paper trail of records. In each of the monasteries that were to be abolished, a notary drew up an extensive estate list, room by room. On the basis of preserved pictures and ground plans of the monasteries, one is sometimes able to reconstruct the route followed by the notary. The liquidation between 1796 and 1797, on the other hand, took place with the "French stroke". Therefore, far fewer relevant documents have been preserved from this period. In both cases, the struck silverware usually ended up in the melting pot. The church bells suffered the same fate. The rest of the household effects were sold publicly or otherwise. After all, the liquidation had to bring in money. Finally, the monastery buildings were given a new purpose. Some were used for military purposes, often as barracks. The other monastery sites were also put up for sale. Today, almost nothing remains of the old Leuven monasteries.

Former Priory of Saint Ursula and the 11000 Virgins in the Belgian city of Leuven; drawing by Edward Van Even 1860

‘The abrupt disappearance of the monasteries in Leuven raises questions for every right-minded art historian’, says Roel Slachmuylders. ‘Which art objects were present in the abolished and disappeared monasteries? To what extent can research in archives and old publications give us an answer?’ Slachmuylders spent years researching sources, amongst others in the General State Archives in Brussels and the State and City Archives in Leuven. In order to digitise the sources, they were literally typed over.

Five monasteries

Slachmuylders identified thirty-five monasteries in Leuven: twenty-one for men and fourteen for women. ‘There appeared to be sufficient data available. Actually, there was even too much, because analysing and publishing the complete material would take about a lifetime', says Slachmuylders. The art historian therefore selected a representative sample of five monasteries: St Geertrui's Abbey and the priories of the White Women, St Ursula, St Martin and St Monica. They were all inhabited by regular canons or canonesses of St. Augustine.

'Analysing and publishing the complete material would take about a lifetime'

In his dissertation, Slachmuylders first sketches the history of each monastery, then the buildings, then the art possessions at the time the monasteries were closed down, and finally the documented art objects from earlier periods. The objects are presented in the rooms or areas where they were found. These include pieces of furniture, liturgical vestments, stained glass windows, sculptures, paintings, tombstones, tile floors, precious metalwork, bells, musical instruments and illuminated manuscripts or illustrated incunabula.


The research is innovative for two reasons, says Slachmuylders. ‘Firstly, I have consciously tried to bring together all available historical sources on the art objects studied. Secondly, the way in which the found material is presented is new. My aim was to reconstruct the five monasteries almost visually, with their art collections, room by room.’ With this study, Slachmuylders shows that from the fragmentary preserved archives and historical literary sources often an astonishing amount of data can be drawn. Slachmuylders: 'I hope to demonstrate that archive research is also still very relevant to the art world. In archives, large quantities of interesting historical material are waiting to be uncovered by  scientists.’

Detailed description

The result of Slachmuylders research is an impressive, detailed description of the furniture of the five abolished monasteries within the second Leuven city wall. Yet Slachmuylders did not encounter all the items you would expect to find in monasteries in the sources. ‘The lack of information is largely due to the disappearance of contemporary archives', says Slachmuylders. ‘But it is also possible that many items were simply not there. Tapestries, for example, were very expensive.' In addition, the descriptions in the sources are usually not useful for the possible identification of still existing items. ‘The scarce visual sources, such as the etching after the painting of Rubens' Adoration of the Magi in the convent of the white women, are exceptions,' says Slachmuylders. 'But the overwhelming majority of mentions or descriptions of artefacts are so general that they can only be used as sources for the kind of items that were present before the abolition.'

Roel Slachmuylders will defend his thesis Intra muros. An archival and literary source investigation into the art possessions of five abolished monasteries of regular canons or canonesses of Saint Augustine within the second Leuven city wall: Saint Geertrui, Wittevrouwen, Saint Ursula, Saint Martin and Saint Monica on 20 December from 12.30 pm.