The former Pottery Market
In the Middle Ages, this square was a marketplace for earthenware such as pots and jugs. “Snel” used to refer to a “jug” or a drinking container, used in Southern Netherlands. This is the reason why the name of the square was called “Snellenmarkt“.
There was a water well right in the middle of the square just beside the Sint-Annakapel (St Anne’s Chapel). With your back to the inner city gate Sint-Michielspoort, on your left was the Order of the Discalced Carmelite Sisters (Ongeschoeide Karmelietessen). On your right along the Vlamingenstraat was the Convent of the Unreformed Carmelite Sisters (Klooster van de Geschoeide Karmelietessen).
How did the Sint-Annakapel (St Anne’s Chapel) look like?
According to Edward van Even, Leuven’s 19th century historian, the Sint-Annakapel was built in 1620 and it looked “very modest”. The chapel was rebuilt in 1735 to how it looked like in the the archives: it had a round window above its door which featured the classic iconography of Saint Anne with the infant virgin. Inside, it featured a small altar with a statue of St Anne.
The Sint-Annakapel was demolished on 19 April 1798 by the French occupiers. True to the French revolutionary ideology, the site of the destroyed chapel was quickly paved over as if it had not even existed.
The Kartuizerpomp (Carthusian Pump)
In the year after the destruction of the Sint-Annakapel, the city administration decided to move the water pump that was located in the Kartuizerklooster (Carthusian Monastery) located in the Bankstraat.
More than a decade after the Carthusian Monastery was abolished by Habsburg Emperor Joseph II on 25 April 1783, the water pump was installed there in 1797.
With the further degradation of the monastery, it made sense to move the pump here. Furthermore, the pump replaced the water well beside the demolished Sint-Annakapel.
On the sign put up today on the pump was a short poem:
“Mijn allereerste thuis
dat was d’oude kartuis
maar toen ‘t klooster verdween
kwam ik gezwind hierheen.”
“My very first home
that was the old Carthusian
but when the monastery disappeared
I quickly came here.”
The Kartuizerpomp is still there today.
The “Belle Vue” Inn and the West Flemish student activist Albrecht Rodenbach
In the 19th century, there is an inn at the beginning of the Vlaminingenstraat facing the Kartuizerpomp called “Belle Vue“.
The most famous aspect of this inn was its regular customer, Albrecht Rodenbach. Albertus “Albrecht” Petrus Josephus Mansuetus Ferdinandus Rodenbach (27 October 1856 – 23 June 1880) was a student at the University of Leuven from a rich family (you can tell from his long name) in Roeselaere in West Flanders.
Although his mother was actually a French-speaking Walloon from Tournai, Rodenach grew up exposed to (West)Flemish nationalistic ideology from his father and his uncle. Rodenbach was likewise deeply influenced by West Flemish nationalist priest Hugo Verriest and West Flemish poet Guido Gezelle. In his time as a student in Leuven, together with his friend Karel Maria Polydoor (Pol) de Mont, the two started the Flemish Student Movement. However, Rodenbach died of tuberculosis at the age of 23 in his hometown. His poetry and writings became a symbol of the nationalist movement, rather than his actual activities.
Today, the building houses the restaurant “Gainsbourg” that honours French singer Serge Gainsbourg.
The Higher Institute of Philosophy
What one cannot miss, is the beautiful wooden facade in the background of the square. One of the few rare wooden facades left in Leuven, the house belongs to the Hoger Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte (Higher Institute of Philosophy) founded in 1889 by priest Désiré-Joseph Mercier (21 November 1851 – 23 January 1926).
The wooden building itself dates back to the 16th century and went through substantial renovations in the 19th and 20th centuries. It used to be the President’s House belonging to the priest president. Inside houses an elegant wooden landing staircase, ground floor salons with intricate wall decorations and fireplaces. The private chapel of Mercier was likewise fully intact.
As the institute was promoted by Pope Leo XIII as a centre of research and education, the complex is known today as the “Hoger Instituut van Wijsbegeerte en Seminarie Leo XIII” that extends to the Vesaliusstraat.
The Kardinaal Mercierplein (Cardinal Mercier Square)
In the aftermath of the First World War, Leuven was in ruins. Most crucially, the precious collection of its great university library was gone, forever.
In his vehement opposition to the German invasion, the now Archbishop of Mechelen Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier became the symbol of Belgian resistance to the Germans. After the war, he undertook huge efforts to raise funds to restock the library, and travelled to New York to obtain the necessary money.
In honour of what he has done for Leuven and for founding the Higher Institute of Philosophy, the former Snellenmarkt was named the Kardinaal Mercierplein (Cardinal Mercier Square).
From a tiny chapel with a water well, to a great war hero and a drunken nationalist student activist who died too early, the Sint-Annakapel and the pottery market where it once stood have seen so much of history that perhaps anyone who passes by the huge water pump today should stand still for a minute and ponder about the events and the people who left their mark here.
“Louvain dans le passé et dans le présent”, Edward van Even, 1895
Nieuwsblad: Het Kardinaal Mercierplein: van kruispunt naar terraspleintje
Leuvense Historische Weetjes (Facebook)