Oud Leuven: Wittevrouwenklooster

Oud Leuven: Wittevrouwenklooster

  • Name in 1649:


  • Other names:

    Witte Vrouwenkazerne, Rijschool, Technische school

  • Current name:

    Tweebronnen Stadsbibliotheek

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On the spot of Leuven’s city library “Tweebronnen Stadsbibliotheek” along the Diestsestraat, once stood the Convent of the White Sisters (“Wittevrouwenklooster”) from 1248 to 1796. Also known as the order of the sisters of Mary Magdalene, the white sisters were an order formed by repentant female ‘sinners’ such as former prostitutes.


Who were the White Sisters (“Wittevrouwen”)?

Founded in 1227 by Rudolf of Worms, Cannon of the Saint Maurice church in Hildesheim in today’s Germany, the community was aimed to help ‘repentant female sinners’ (“bekeerde zondaressen” in Dutch) lead a better life under the patron saint of the biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene.

Once established in Trier that year, these Convents of Mary Magdalene spread rapidly in the German states and in the Duchy of Brabant such as Leuven, Brussels and Tienen. Members of the community were dressed entirely in white, a symbol of purity.

However, to prevent these ladies from falling back into old habits, these nuns were required to engage themselves in girls’ education and caring for the sick.


The Wittevrouwenklooster in Leuven

Not long after the order was founded, a community was set up on the Diestsestraat (Diest Street) in 1248, against the inner city wall and before the Heilige-Geestpoort (Holy Ghost Gate). It was likely not a coincidence, as the city’s charity administration named after the Holy Spirit was located nearby.

The convent did not stop operating until its dissolution in 1796 under the French Occupation.

What's so special about this place?

The Great Fire of 1589 and the Great Reconstruction

Nothing was known about the 13th century convent buildings as they were completely destroyed by a great fire on 22 September 1589.

For decades, the nuns lived among the ruins. Until 1626, when the Prioress Anna van Zeverdonck started its reconstruction. The reason might be that her sister Cecile was married to the Ambroise van Onckle, the Royal Treasurer. By the following year, the church was rebuilt, and the rebuilding would continue until 1632.

As was the custom back then, the new church altar needed a painting. And that was when something beautiful happened.


“The Adoration of the Magi” by Peter Paul Rubens

The painting that graced the altar of the restored Wittevrouwenklooster in Leuven happened to be none other than by Peter Paul Rubens, the most influential painter even in his time.

For the convent, Rubens painted in 1633, within eight days “De aanbidding van de drie koningen” (The Adoration of the Magi).

According to 19th century historian Edward van Even, there was even a rumour back then that perhaps Rubens had a cousin in the convent. He even verified the obituaries to see if this was true, yet he did not find any.

French traveller Darival who saw the painting more than a hundred and fifty years later in 1783 remarked in his book “Le Voyageur dans les Pays-Bas autrichiens“:

La composition en est savante et plein de finesse: la Vierge est jolie; elle a une physionomie si douce, qu’il est impossible de la considérer sans intérêt.”
“The composition is educated and full of finesse: the Virgin is pretty; she has such a gentle physiognomy that it is impossible to consider her without interest.”

But by that time, the painting has already lost much of its magic. Another French traveller Descamps who saw the work even earlier in 1768 said “this painting is spoiling, making it appear weak in colour.” In fact, Darival also made the same exclamation why “the painting was so neglected that it has spoiled.”

Under the edict of 28 April 1783 by Habsburg Emperor Joseph II to suppress all convents, all religious institutions in the empire, including the Wittevrouwenklooster in Leuven, were banned.

Together with the buildings and furniture, Rubens’ ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ were put up for auction in Brussels in 1785. A certain Mr Horion bought it for 8,400 florins. After his death, it was again auctioned in 1788 for even less at 8,000 florins, into the possession of William Petty Fitzmaurice, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne in England. It was again sold in 1806 to Robert Grosvenor, 1st Marquess of Westminster and was passed down the family.

In 1959, the painting was auctioned at Sotheby’s by the estate of Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster. It was bought at a world-record price of £250,000 by property millionaire Alfred Ernest Allnatt. Then two years later Allnatt offered it to the King’s College in Cambridge.

Today, the painting is once again an altarpiece at King’s College Chapel.


The Return of the White Sisters

After their expulsion from their convent on 30 June 1783, the Wittevrouwen took refuge in the Klein Begijnhof. The city of Leuven bought the land of the convent with the idea of turning it into a new grain market.

But the Brabant Revolution that happened between October 1789 and December 1790 returned the convent to the nuns. For the following six years, they lived in the emptied buildings, determined to rebuild their community.

Yet again, the White Sisters were to meet another stop to their religious life. In 1796, French occupiers expelled them from the convent by dragging them out by soldiers and policemen.

What was left of their furniture was once again sold off. The land was given back to the city while the army took over and converted it into a military base and hospital.


The “Witte Vrouwenkazerne” Army Barracks (1810-1914)

By decree of 23 April 1810 signed by Napoleon himself, the Wittevrouwenklooster was transferred in full ownership to the city while it was used as army barracks. With the defeat of the French in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Low Countries were finally reunited under the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (“Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden” in Dutch). Because it was de facto ruled by Protestant King William I of the House of Orange-Nassau of the former Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (1579–1795) that formally broke away from the Catholic Habsburg Netherlands in 1581, Protestants thrived in this brief period.

The unused church of the former Wittevrouwenklooster was thus utilised by the Protestants from 1816 until the Belgian Revolution of 4 October 1830.

Even after independence, the Witte Vrouwenkazerne continued to be used to house Leuven’s military garrison together with three other barracks.

In 1837-1838, a new military riding school was set up on the property of the former Wittevrouwenklooster together with a new road, called the “Rijschoolstraat” named after the school, that cuts through the property from the Vaartstraat to the Vital Decosterstraat, and then continues to Sint-Maartenstraat. The riding school also services the Sint-Maartens barrack across the street.

To increase the garrison’s capacity from 3,000 to 4,000, additional accommodations were carved out in the barracks, including the church building of the former Wittevrouwenklooster.

But with the Great Fire of Leuven in the night of 25 August 1914, through bombardments by German troops, the entire Witte Vrouwenkazerne was severely damagaed.

While there were plans to rebuild the barracks here, or elsewhere in Leuven, the government in the end sold the property, and a new vocational school for boys was built on the site after the war.


Technical School (1940-1984)

With the military barracks and remaining parts of the former Convent of Mary Magdalene laid in ruins, architect Henry Van de Velde was commissioned, together with the Leuven’s city architect Vital Rosseels, to design a technical school for boys. Every single trace of the 17th century former convent buildings was completely removed.

A red-bricked and concrete building you see today opened in 1940 as the Stedelijk Nijverheids-, Handels- en Beroepsschool” (Municipal Industrial, Trade and Vocational School). This became in 1956, the Rijksinstituut voor Technisch Onderwijs” (Royal Institute for Technical Education). The school functioned here until 1984 when it moved to the Redingenhof.

Current situation

Today, the site of the former Wittevrouwenklooster is occupied by the municipal library called Tweebronnen” (Two Sources), named after the house of 16th century Valencian humanist scholar Juan Luis Vives who once lived next door. The building was renovated in 1997-1999 for this purpose, and it also houses the city archives and an exhibition space.


Are there still traces of the former Wittevrouwenklooster?

If you ever wondered why the entrance of the library on the Diestsestraat is so narrow for a convent, this was actually a small gated alleyway that led to the Wittevrouwenklooster. Virtually all features of the technical school have been retained in the 1990s renovation.

There are two spots which I found that might have belonged to the Wittevrouwenklooster:

In the courtyard of the Tweebronnen library, there is still an old wall next to the café. Check out the tiny hexagonal holes that are still there. These were holes used to put candles in back in the middle ages. You can also see holes for beams, which were likely used to hold up stairs, ceilings or an upper floor.

The next spot is less convincing. On the left side of the riding school building, which is now a sports hall, where there is an alley, you can see the unpainted brick wall of the former military riding school. The bricks of the lower part of the wall up to a metre or two high are clearly rougher and more worn out than the ones above. This might point to the use of an older wall from the convent when the riding school was being built.

With the somewhat minute traces left of the former Wittevrouwenklooster, little does the population of Leuven realise the immensely rich history of the site, from a safe space for former prostitutes and the only location in Leuven to have housed a famous Rubens painting, to its military past that has seen several wars.





“Louvain dans le passé et dans le présent”, Edward van Even, 1895 (Image)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Rubens,_Cambridge) (image)
https://www.delcampe.net/nl/verzamelingen/postkaarten/belgie/leuven/leuven-louvain-caserne-des-dames-blanches-rue-de-diest-detruite-par-les-bombardements-de-la-guerre-1914-1918-406274053.html (image)
https://web.archive.org/web/20180718001611/ (image)
https://belgiummilitary.wordpress.com/2018/06/02/leuven-witte-vrouwen-kazerne/ (image)


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