01/04/2022 - 02/10/2022

The Story of a Girl who Drove a Medieval City Mad

The story of the Irish princess Dymphna reads like a tragic fairy tale. When her mother dies, her father the king asks her to marry him. Maddened by grief at the loss of his wife, he decides his daughter would be the perfect replacement. But Dymphna bravely rebuffs his proposal and flees to the Continent, eventually finding her way to Geel in the Kempen region of what is now Belgium. The king tracks Dymphna down and beheads his rebellious daughter with his own hands. All the same, the princess’s courageous resistance made her hugely popular amongst local people, and before long she was proclaimed a saint. From the High Middle Ages onwards, pilgrims flocked to Geel, where Dymphna was venerated as a protector of the mentally ill. Her martyrdom led to a centuries-long tradition of care, mercy and charity. Geel is known to this day for its extensive care network and its unique approach to psychiatric patients, who are placed in the homes of local residents.

At the height of Dymphna’s cult Goossen Van der Weyden – grandson of the celebrated painter Rogier Van der Weyden – created an exceptional masterpiece: a monumental altarpiece made up of scenes depicting the Irish saint’s life and martyrdom. It was painted around 1505 for the Norbertine monks of Tongerloo Abbey, who gave it a prominent place in their church.

The Dymphna Altarpiece was recently acquired by The Phoebus Foundation and subjected to a large-scale conservation project lasting over three years. History had been extremely hard on the painting: in its five hundred years of existence, the masterpiece was cut down, neglected, vandalized, stolen and simply forgotten. A team of conservation specialists from The Phoebus Foundation has collaborated intensively with experts from Belgium and abroad to restore the work to its original glory. Discover the exceptional stories, forgotten for centuries, that unfolded beneath those layers of dust and dirt. An interactive scenography totally immerses you in Dymphna’s extraordinary world.

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Goossen Van der Weyden, Scenes from the Life of Saint Dymphna: the Flight to Antwerp, c.1505