Palace of the Prince-Bishops

For over eight centuries, from 980–1795, a large swath of what is now Belgium was ruled from Liège by a succession of Prince-Bishops (Princes-Évêques), who as the name implies were both the secular and the religious rulers. Separation of church and state was a concept whose time had not yet come (and would no doubt have horrified these rulers if they had ever heard of it).

Victor Hugo had mixed feelings about this palace when he visited in 1840. While walking around in a labyrinth of narrow streets “adorned here and there with Madonnas above which, like concentric circles, there were large ribbons of tin covered with pious inscriptions”, he suddenly came upon “a vast and somber wall of stone” which he recognized as the rear façade of a medieval palace. He went in and looked around the courtyard, of which he wrote:

“Nowhere have I seen an architectural ensemble that was more bizarre, more morose and more superb. Four high granite façades topped by four wonderful slate roofs, carried by four galleries of arched arcades that seem to expand and collapse under the weight, limit the view in all directions. Two of these façades, perfectly intact, present a balanced combination of arcs and flattened arches that characterize the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth.”

But he didn’t like the more modern parts:

“Unfortunately the other two façades, which were destroyed by the great fire of 1734, were rebuilt in the sickly style of that era and somewhat spoil the overall effect. However, their dryness has nothing that completely contradicts the austerity of the old palace.”
(From Letter VII of Le Rhin by Victor Hugo, my translation.)

Front façade of the palace

After looking for a long time at all the architectural details of the arcades, Hugo left the courtyard by the main gate where he could “contemplate the current façade, a glacial and emphatic work by the disastrous architect of 1748. It was like seeing a tragedy by Lagrange-Chancel in marble and stone.”

Evidently Victor Hugo was not at all an admirer of the now-forgotten French playwright François Joseph Lagrange-Chancel (1677–1758). He was also not a fan of modern architecture, ‘modern’ for him being anything that was built after 1710 or so.

My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2020.

See more posts about Liège, Belgium.
See more posts about the author Victor Hugo (1802-1885).


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