Portraits (no photographs here) are also everywhere in the Begijnhof: faces from other centuries, Beguines, Saints, Nobility and bygone priests and modern day sisters. The famous Flemish primitives were portraits of ordinary workaday people but not so much here in the Begijnhof. The first portrait with whom I made serious acquaintance was the Beguine in the hall on the way to the chapel. She is more than life size and very imposing. When I inquire about her identity, no one seems to know. Perhaps, she is meant to be unknown representing the hidden and devoted self sacrifice of the Beguines; their creed was living in mystical union with God and serving others and not themselves. Best, she is unknown and only her good deeds follow after her. Her hand rests on a skull, silent reminder that life here on earth comes to an end and keep your eyes on death, the door to heaven and eternal life. The next portrait is a rather holy looking priest, deacon or bishop in the entrance hall of the old ‘Grand Dame of the Beguines’ home. I hope he was not as unapproachable and serious as he looks.
The chapter room has other paintings of rather serious and unapproachable Beguines some who were prioresses in their own right and then one portrait of a man, the founder of the Filles de L’Eglise, who has found his way onto the wall. Fortunately, the later Prioresses have photographs on the wall and have a smile and they feel considerably more approachable. The Begijnhof guest house has ten huge portraits on the wall, all of a single family I am told, but no one seems to know whom or why. Or at least no one I asked seemed to know.
These portraits are comforting; these long ago devout personages albeit now in heaven are walking along with me on the Christian path. God says he is not the God of the dead but the living so somehow although my limited human nature can not grasp the concept they are walking along with me. Here are bygone persons who tried to live as I am trying to live, devout whether they be a priest, a Benedictine sister, Beguine or nobility. We are truly a family of God and maybe — no, surely! — when my time comes, I will meet these portraits alive and welcoming in heaven. That is the hope, comfort and joy of the Gospel.