Bruges is one of the prettiest, most romantic cities in Europe. But it’s also home to one of the more unusual celebrations we’ve ever experienced in our travels – Heilig Bloedprocessie, or the Procession of the Holy Blood.
The procession centers around a capsule that allegedly holds drops of Christ’s blood.
There are a few stories of how the relic came to end up in Bruges. This story is the most common:
In 1150, Thierry d’Alsace, Count of Flanders, returned to Bruges from the second Crusade. He claimed to have a piece of the bloodied cloth that Joseph of Arimathea used to wipe Christ’s wounds after his body was taken down from the cross. Supposedly, his brother- in-law, Baldwin III of Anjou, King of Jerusalem, gifted it to him as reward for his heroism in battle. The drops of blood, sealed in a crystal capsule, is now kept in the Basilica in Bruges.
Another theory goes like this:
During the fourth Crusade, the crusaders sacked and looted Constantinople. Baldwin IX, a Count of Flanders, became emperor, and he sent the looted relics to Bruges. One of those relics was the rock-crystal capsule containing Christ’s blood. Since the oldest document mentioning the relic of the Holy Blood only dates to 1256, this second theory might be closer to the truth.
The first procession celebrating the relic of the Holy Blood took place in 1291. In 1400, the Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood was founded to protect the relic. In 1578 Bruges fell under a Calvinist regime, which banned the procession, and the relic was moved to a safe place. Once the regime fell in the 17th Century, the relic was returned to Bruges and the procession was revived.
The Procession of the Holy Blood takes place annually on Ascension Day, which is 40 days after Easter. It’s believed that the dried blood turns back to liquid on this day. UNESCO even added the procession to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
Frankly, we didn’t even plan to arrive in Bruges to witness the procession. We just happened to show up on the day it was taking place. On our way to our hotel, we noticed bleachers and sections of streets being blocked off, so we asked hotel staff what was going on. I’d heard about the procession but didn’t realize we were there just in time to see it in person! So once we got settled into our hotel, we took off to get a spot in the growing crowd in central Bruges.
You can purchase tickets for seating, or you can stand and watch the procession for free. Just note that if you decide to stand, you’ll want to find a good viewing spot early.
This is the Markt, Bruges’ center square. As you can see, they were still prepping the area for the procession.
Apparently, between 60,000 to 100,000 spectators watch the procession each year. Considering that Bruges itself only has a population of around 118,000, this is an incredible number! Over 3,000 people participate in the procession, making it a huge production.
The procession has evolved somewhat over the centuries. But it’s a fascinating, and at times perplexing mash-up of musicians, religious story-telling, parade floats, and acrobats. It’s like Medieval Times, Carnival and the Bible all thrown together. You’ll see what I mean.
The procession has three parts – scenes from the Old and New Testaments; a reenactment of Thierry of Alsace returning to Bruges with the relic in 1150; and finally, the procession of the Holy Blood relic itself.
But in between those stories, some seemingly random groups came through the procession. I’m sure the locals knew of their importance, but we didn’t have a program or anything so we were flying blind.
I’m not sure what group these ladies represent, but they stopped occasionally along the procession to throw their hats into the air.
These girls carried letter signs spelling out Heilig Bloedprocessie:
And then this band came by, consisting of…Canadian Mounties? Maybe they aren’t Mounties, but their uniforms are very similar!
Now the first act truly begins: scenes depicting the Old and New Testaments. This is, of course, Moses:
And here’s Moses carrying the Ten Commandments:
I believe this actor represents King Herod, but correct me if I’m wrong!
We weren’t expecting animals as part of the procession. But they actually had quite a few, including these well-behaved sheep. (Apparently, some sheep busted loose during the procession in 2016 and ran into a couple shops, leaving a bit of a mess behind!) As if the sheep weren’t cool enough, it soon got even better.
There were camels. Real live camels! This delighted the little kid in me so much. I don’t know where the camels came from, if they’re from a farm or a zoo or what. But look: camels!!!
I don’t know what group or order these men represent, can anyone fill in this blank for me?
This float depicts the Last Supper:
And here’s Jesus after he’s arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane:
Jesus carrying the cross:
Jesus on the cross:
The procession taking Jesus’ body to the tomb. These costumes were especially powerful:
This float depicts the day Jesus rose from the dead. This float was particularly clever as it had two sides. The front of the float depicted the Roman soldiers guarding the entrance to the closed tomb. The back of the float depicted the tomb after Jesus came back to life:
And this is Thierry d’Alsace, bringing the Holy Blood relic to Belgium in 1150:
After the somber moments detailing the life of Jesus, there were light moments of entertainment, such as these jugglers. You see what I mean when I say it’s an interesting mash-up of genres:
The music and street performers led up to the big climax of the procession: the presentation of the actual Holy Blood relic itself.
The clergy and the Brotherhood of the Holy Blood surround the precious cargo. The Holy Blood relic is encased in a rock crystal vial, inside a glass cylinder capped with gold crowns on both ends.
As the relic passed by, the crowds went silent and stood in reverence:
Over all, the procession lasted at least a few hours, and was one of the most visually stunning and culturally fascinating events we’ve seen on vacation. It was amazing to be part of a local celebration, especially one with such a long, rich history.
Location: Basilica of St Basil, Burg Square, Markt Square and streets in the centre of Bruges
When: Heilig Bloedprocessie takes place in Bruges every year on Ascension Day, which is 40 days after Easter.
You can purchase tickets for the stands and benches in advance through the official website. Or you can stand to watch the procession for free.