Culture of Belgium

Culture of Belgium

A discussion of Belgian culture requires discussing both those aspects of cultural life shared by 'all' or most of the Belgians, regardless of what language they speak, and also, the differences between the main cultural communities: the Flemish people from Flanders, Brussels and the French-speakers from Brussels and Wallonia. The grouping of Brussels and Wallonia as one cultural community is rejected by the Manifesto for Walloon culture as well as certain regionalists from Brussels.[1]

Most Belgians tend to view their culture as an integral part of European culture or Western culture; nevertheless, both main communities tend to make their thousands of individual and collective cultural choices mainly from within their own community, and then, when going beyond, the Flemish draw intensively from both the English-speaking culture (which dominates sciences, professional life and most news media) and the Netherlands, whereas French-speakers focus on cultural life in Paris and elsewhere in the French-speaking world (la Francophonie), and less outside. A truly scientific discussion would also include discussion of the different cultures of Belgian ethnic minorities such as the Jews who have formed a remarkable component of Flemish culture — in particular that of Antwerp — for over five hundred years.




Some of the most impressive museums in Belgium are The Royal Museum for Fine Arts, in Antwerp, which has an admirable collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens, the Groeningemuseum, in Bruges, with the Flemish Primitives, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, which has a cinema, a concert hall, and artworks of many periods, including a large René Magritte collection.

Furthermore, the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, a world heritage site, is the complete factory of the largest publishing house of the seventeenth century.


Belgian literature was more cohesive in the past but is now divided between a Flemish literature and a Belgian Francophone literature. Until the mid-XXth century, Belgian writers more often wrote in French even if they were Flemish, due both to the then-dominant position of that language in worldwide culture and its dominant position within Belgium itself (e.g. Suzanne Lilar, Emile Verhaeren or Maurice Maeterlinck), and many French-speaking individuals come from originally Dutch-speaking families (particularly in Brussels, e.g. Jacques Brel). As the Flemish movement grew in importance, Dutch-penned authors became more and more prominent in Flanders and even played an important role in the said movement - see for example Hendrik Conscience. Important contemporary Flemish authors are Tom Lanoye or Dimitri Verhulst.

Belgian Francophone literature is sometimes difficult to distinct from French literature as a whole, because several great French authors went to Belgium for refuge (e.g. Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and recent tax-refugee Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) and conversely, top French-speaking writers sometimes settle in Paris (e.g. Simenon, Amélie Nothomb). Belgian Francophone literature is characterized by authors who achieved a nationwide success in Belgium while being little known in France, and shares traits that are perceived as typically Belgian : use of black humour, self-derision, surrealism and absurdism (in a similar vein as Belgian painters such as René Magritte), and references to Belgian history and society (such as Belgian royalty, language conflicts, former colony of Congo, Belgian beers and gastronomy, and whatever is typically Belgian) and they are often active in Belgian medias as columnists or entertainers. Such authors are Thomas Gunzig, Juan d'Oultremont, Jacques Mercier, etc.

There have also been writers in the Walloon language, such as Nicolas Defrecheux and Edouard Remouchamps.

Most famous Belgian authors are : Guido Gezelle (1830–1899), Emile Verhaeren (1855–1916), Max Elskamp (1862–1931), Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949), Paul van Ostaijen (1896–1926), Henri Michaux (French born and educated in Belgium, 1899–1984) and Jacques Brel (1929–1978) and prose writers: Hendrik Conscience (1812–1883), Charles de Coster (1827–1879), Willem Elsschot (1882–1960), Michel de Ghelderode (1898–1962), Georges Simenon 1903-1989, Louis Paul Boon (1912–1979), Hugo Claus ( 1929–2008 ), Pierre Mertens (born in 1939) Ernest Claes (1885–1968), and, Amélie Nothomb (born in 1967).


Belgium has numerous well-known cartoonists, such as Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin), Peyo (The Smurfs), Franquin (Spirou et Fantasio, Marsupilami, Gaston), Willy Vandersteen (Spike and Suzy), Morris (Lucky Luke), Edgar P. Jacobs (Blake and Mortimer), Jef Nys (Jommeke) and Marc Sleen (Nero).

More recently, Jean Van Hamme (XIII, Largo Winch, Thorgal, etc.), Raoul Cauvin (Les Tuniques Bleues, Agent 212), François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters (Les Cités Obscures) are among the most read cartoonists.

Belgium is home to some of the most important European comics magazines and publishers, with Dupuis (Spirou magazine), Le Lombard (Tintin magazine) and Casterman.


The romanesque Collégiale Saint-Gertrude de Nivelles (1046) and Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Tournai, gothic 15th-century Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp and baroque Brussels Grand'Place. Mosan Renaissance style is typical of the architecture within the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. Famous Art Nouveau architects Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde have influenced the early 20th century architecture in Belgium and abroad.


Belgium cinema has already been rewarded several times at Cannes Film Festival (Benoît Poelvoorde, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, etc.) and in other less-known festivals. Belgian movies are generally made with small budget, and are mostly funded by the regional governments (the Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, and Wallimage, among others) and private corporations by means of sponsorship and product placement.


Many important classical composers were born in Belgium. The most famous is undoubtedly César Franck but Henri Vieuxtemps, Eugène Ysaÿe, Guillaume Lekeu and Wim Mertens are also noteworthy. Many great Medieval and Renaissance composers, such as Gilles Binchois, Orlande de Lassus, Guillaume Dufay, Heinrich Isaac and Jacob Obrecht came from the area which is now Belgium (see the Franco-Flemish School).

Well-known singers include pioneer Bobbejaan Schoepen, Jacques Brel, Arno, and Maurane.

Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, was born in Belgium. The country has also a very active jazz scene that is achieving international recognition with bands like Aka Moon, Maak's Spirit and Octurn. Harmonicist Toots Thielemans, guitarist Philip Catherine and Django Reinhardt are probably the best known Belgian jazz musicians.

Hooverphonic, formed in the mid-1990s, is a Belgian pop / trip hop band that achieved international recognition through their inclusion on the soundtrack Bernardo Bertolucci's 1996 film Io Ballo da Sola (English: Stealing Beauty). Other popular Belgian pop music comes from Axelle Red, Vaya Con Dios, Kate Ryan and K's Choice.

Belgium has also influenced electronic music with a.o. Front 242, Praga Khan (also known as Lords of Acid) and 2 Many DJ's, and rock music with dEUS and Soulwax.

Belgian hip-hop started with the rise of Starflam, CNN (a Brussels-based crew) and 't Hof van Commerce in the mid 1990s.


Good cooking and fine beers are seen by many as part of Belgian culture. One of the many beers with the high prestige is that of the Trappist monks. Technically, it is an ale and traditionally each abbey's beer is served in its own glass (the forms, heights and widths are different). There are only seven breweries (six of them are Belgian) that are allowed to brew Trappist beer.

Although Belgian gastronomy is connected to French cuisine, some recipes were reputedly invented there as e.g. French-fried potatoes (despite the name), stoofkarbonnaden (or carbonade flamande in French, a beef stew with beer, mustard and bay laurel), speculaas (a sort of cookie), Brussels waffles (and their variant, Belgian waffles), waterzooi (a broth made with chicken or fish, cream and vegetables), endive with bechamel sauce, Brussels sprouts, Belgian pralines (Belgium has some of the most renowned chocolate houses), and Paling in 't groen (river eels in a sauce of green herbs).

Belgian cookies are noted for their aroma and unique texture.


Festivals play a major role in Belgium's cultural life. Nearly every city and town has its own festival, some that date back several centuries. These are not merely aimed at tourism but authentic celebrations that take months to prepare. Two of the biggest festivals are the three-day carnival at Binche, near Mons, held just before Lent (the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter), and the Procession of the Holy Blood, held in Bruges in May. During the carnival in Binche, "Gilles", which are men dressed in high, plumed hats and bright costumes, lead the procession. Several of these festivals include sporting competitions, such as cycling, and many fall under the category of kermesse.

An important holiday (which is however not an official public holiday) takes place each year on December 6. This is Sinterklaas in Dutch or la Saint-Nicolas in French (English: Saint Nicholas). This is sort of an early Christmas. On December 5 evening before going to bed, children put their shoes by the hearth with water or wine and a carrot for Saint Nicholas's horse or donkey. According to tradition, St. Nicholas comes at night and travels down the chimney. He then takes the food and water or wine, leaves presents, goes back up, feeds his horse or donkey, and continues on his course. He also knows whether children have been good or bad. This holiday is especially loved by children in Belgium and the Netherlands. Dutch immigrants imported the tradition into the United States, where Saint Nicholas is now known as Santa Claus.

See also

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