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Ommegang recognised by Unesco as Intangible Cultural Heritage

20:09 12/12/2019

Brussels’ annual Ommegang procession, which re-enacts Charles V’s visit to the city in 1549, is now inscribed on Unesco’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unesco’s list raises awarness of cultural practices around the world that “encourage dialogue, reflect cultural diversity and testify to human creativity”.

Heritage agency applied for Unesco heritage status for the procession 2.5 years ago. Unesco uses several criteria to approve an event or practice for the prestigious list, including the number of participants and meaning to the larger community.

Ommegang brings together almost 1,200 participants of various backgrounds, including families who are descendants of those who welcomed the Emperor in the 16th century. It sees actors playing the royal family as well as the knights, jugglers, fire eaters, stilt-walkers, musicians, dancers and many others who performed for Charles V and his family in 1549. A procession precedes the entertainments, which take place in Grand Place on two nights in early July.

While the current event has taken place every year since 1957, the procession called Ommegang goes back to the 1300s. ‘Ommegang’ is the old Flemish word for ‘circumambulation’, or the act of carrying a sacred object.

Suitably impressed

In Brussels’ case, the sacred object was a statue of Mary, brought to a chapel on the Sablon from Antwerp. This was at the behest of a religious woman who said that Mary spoke to her and wanted the statue to be placed at the chapel on the Sablon.

Every year, the Guild of Crossbowmen, whose job it was to protect the statue, carried it from the church to the Grand Place in a show of loyalty and devotion. This grew in size year after year, until many guilds, local authorities, religious groups and wealthy families were all taking part in the procession.

When Charles V was set to arrive in Brussels in 1549, the city did not miss their chance to show off its community procession. Charles was suitably impressed.

The procession died out in the 18th century, but was revived in 1930 to celebrate the centenary of othe Kingdom of Begium. It was based on the descriptions of the procession that Charles attended in 1549.

It would be another 27 years before it was planned again, and then it remained. “The values that the Ommegang continues to convey are the cohesion of the social, economic, political and even police communities of the city,” said heritage agency in a statement. “There are few occasions when all these groups work together on a joint project. A heritage event that recalls the roots of the urban community, this historical procession promotes the identity of the city, the Capital-Region and the European capital.”

Photo courtesy Ommegang

Written by Lisa Bradshaw