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Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis (Municipality, Region of Brussels-Capital, Belgium)

Last modified: 2008-04-05 by ivan sache
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[Flag of Saint-Gilles]

Municipal flag of Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis - Image by Ivan Sache, 14 May 2006

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Presentation of Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis

The municipality of Saint-Gilles (French) / Sint-Gillis (Dutch) (44,767 inhabitants on 1 January 2007, 43% of them being foreigners; 252 ha) is one of the 19 municipalities forming the bilingual region of Brussels-Capitale.

Between the VIIth and XIth century, the hamlet of Obbrussel (Upper Brussels) formed in the northern part of the parish of Forest. In the beginning of the XIIIth century, Brussels experienced a big economic and demographic growth; in 1216, the abbey of Forest granted the villagers of Obbrussel an independent parish and a specific court (échevinage). The village of Obbrussel was administratively incorporated to the town of Brussels in 1296.
In the beginning of the XIVth century, the second city wall of Brussels was built, which incorporated one fifth of the territory of Obbrussel to Brussels intra muros. However, the village remained small and had only 41 houses in the XVIth century. In 1670, the Count of Monterey was commissioned by the King of Spain to increase the fortifications of Brussels; in 1675, a big citadel was built on the heights of the town, on the today's site of Saint-Gilles. The citadel was suppressed as well all the fortifications of Brussels at the end of the XVIIIth century.

The municipality of Saint-Gilles was created during the French rule, on 31 August 1795. The village had then some 2,500 inhabitants; the Mayor, the Municipal Council and the municipal administration were set up in 1799 only. The limits of the municipality were fixed in 1811 after due hearings of all the involved municipalities.
Brussels became the capital of the new Belgian state in 1830 and Saint-Gilles evolved from a small rural village, where the first Brussels sprouts had been grown, to a completely urbanized suburbs. Agricultural plots were replaced by workshops and factories, including a chemical plant and a linen mill. Saint-Gilles had 4,138 inhabitants in 1846, 33,214 in 1880 and some 60,000 in 1910. In 1862, the urbanist Victor Besme drafted his "General plan for the increase and the improvement of the town of Brussels" (Plan général pour l'extension et l'embellissement de l'agglomération bruxelloise), which included five new boroughs in Saint-Gilles. In 1864, the building of the South railway station (Gare du Midi, still the biggest station in Belgium) induced the building of a new borough in a grid pattern.

Saint-Gilles is famous for its rich houses and apartment buildings built in the Art Nouveau style, whose master architect in Belgium was Victor Horta (1861-1947). Horta was born in Ghent, where he studied architecture. From 1878 to 1880, he studied in Paris with the architect Jules Debuysson. In 1881, he moved to Brussels and was trained by Balat, the architect of King Léopold II. Horta designed several houses and general stores in Brussels (Saint-Gilles, Forest, Schaerbeek, Jette), Ghent, Ronse, Tournai, Frankfurt (Germany), as well as pavilions for international exhibitions. In 1913, he was appointed Director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. He went to London in 1916 to take part to a conference for the reconstruction of Belgium and had to stay in the USA until 1919 since the Germans prevented him to come back to Belgium. Horta was made Baron in 1932. He built his house and workshop in Saint-Gilles in 1898, which were transformed into the Horta Museum in 1969. One of its most famous buildings in Brussels is the Waucquez general store, built in 1906 and today the seat of the Belgian Center for Strip Cartoon (Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée).

St. Gilles' life is related in the Golden Legend, a compilation of saints' vitae published by Jacques de Voragine (c. 1230 - c. 1298), a Dominican friar and Bishop of Genoa, at the end of the XIIIth century. The Golden Legend was a best seller that allowed everybody to read the saint's lifes, which were until then available only in liturgical books. As a medieval compiler, Voragine did not question his sources and was severely evaluated by later theologians and erudites, who nicknamed the book "The Lead Legend". However, it was the main inspiration of the Christian medieval iconography: Emile Mâle (L'art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France) has shown that several coloured glass-windows of the cathedrals literally illustrated the vivid stories compiled by Voragine. I guess that several saints' heraldic representations and attributes can also be traced back to Voragine.
Gilles (c. 640-720, celebrated on 1 September) was also known as Aegidius, from the Greek roots a, "without", geos, "land" and dyan, "famous" or "divine"; his name means that he was not interested in material things, was famous because of his science and divine because of his love. Gilles was from the royal lineage in Athens; once going to the church, he noticed a sick beggar and covered him with his cloak, and the beggar was immediatly healed. After the death of his parents, he transferred his wealth to the church and lived in poverty. Once back from church, he met a man beaten by a snake, prayed and expelled the venom; later, he expelled the devil from a possessed man who caused trouble in the church. Then he moved to Arles where he met the famous bishop Saint Césaire and healed several people. Since his miracles made him famous, he went into the desert, where a doe sent by God brought him milk. The doe was chased by the king's hunters but the dogs refused to enter Gilles' hermitage. An archer inadvertently hit the saint when trying to cut the thorns hiding the place. The king was told about Gilles' life and built for him a monastery, which the saint reluctantly accepted. The monastery bacame famous and the town of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard was built around it. Gilles later prayed for another king, who had committed such an horrible sin that he could not even tell him; an angel brought God's pardon and since then, everybody praying saint Gilles for a sin will be pardoned, provided he promises to stop committing it.


Ivan Sache, 14 May 2006

Municipal flag of Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis

The municipal flag of Saint-Gilles is vertically divided blue-yellow, as shown in La Tribune de Bruxelles # 176.
The colours of the flag are taken from the municipal coat of arms, "Azure, a saint Egidius abbot or".

According to Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones, these arms were adopted by the Municipal Council on 21 November 1856, confirmed by Royal Decree on 22 January 1858 and published in the Belgian official gazette on 5 February 1858.

Jan Mertens, Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 14 May 2006