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Bonnefanten: The Building That Connects Past With Present

April 9, 2009

by Claire Moncla

Claire Moncla, a professional writing major in the College of Arts and Sciences, participated in the Baylor in Maastricht study abroad program. Her essay below is one in a four-part series chronicling her experience in the program.

Buildings reflect the passing of time - the unfolding of history. Buildings keep the records of cities' changes, baring the marks of artistic influence, political control, conflagration and war. Cities across the world, each with continuous social, political and ecological changes, provide an ever evolving backdrop as buildings rise and fall like empires in time, altering the identity of the city, it's face.

Maastricht is a city in The Netherlands whose face - whose buildings - tell its history as easily as any book, poem or speech. One building in particular holds the history of four centuries within its walls: the Bonnefanten building.

Through its renovation and rebirth, the Bonnefanten building tells the tale of the transformation of Dutch society and culture.

Six nuns of the order of The Holy Grave, or "sepulchrijnen" first erected the Bonnefanten building in 1627 as a cloister. During this time, many cloisters were built in Belgium and in The Netherlands. The cloister was also a school and derives its name from the French term "bons enfants," which means "good children." In fact, the Bonnefanten cloister was built as a sister cloister to the Sainte Elisabeth des Bons-Enfants cloister in Liege.

"Yet nothing from that time is in the building," said Rene Verspeeks, director of the student services centre at the University of Maastricht. "The biggest part of the building was of wood" and was rebuilt because of a fire.

The building was rebuilt from stone in 1709, and is now the current Bonnefanten building. At the top of the entrance, the date 1709 can be seen etched in the stone. Yet even though the building's structure has stayed the same, its purposes continue to change.

"In 1794, the French came to The Netherlands and that was the end of the cloisters," said Verspeeks. "They kicked out the nuns." The building remained a school for several years and then from 1815 to 1919 the building stored army materials and served as quarters for soldiers.

The building stayed empty until 1924 when it was "a place for poor people to live," explained Verspeeks. It remained as inexpensive housing until World War II.

Then in 1940 it became a home for painters. "More and more artists came here," Verspeeks said. And in 1947 the building converted into a school for painters. The original chapel is now the visitor's center, but then was the site where the majority of the artists' lessons took place. The artists' school is now called the Jan van Eyck Academie and is located up the cobblestone street from the Bonnefanten building.

In the 1960's, the building changed yet again, this time from an artists' school to a museum, yet it's conversion into a museum proved a slow process. "It takes more than 20 years," said Verspeeks. "A lot of discussion went on about restoring this building for a museum." Thus the building did not become a museum until 1971 after moving the objects and art from their previous location.

The Bonnefanten building remained as the Bonnefanten museum for only nine years before the museum moved into a new location across the Maas river.

After the museum left, the University of Maastricht bought the building. "It is three years before it is transformed into a building for the university," said Verspeeks. Then from 1982 until 2000 it served as a library for the students, with most of the books stacked where the majority of artists' lessons took place: in the chapel.

Finally between 2000 and 2003, the Bonnefanten building became an office building for the student services centre of University of Maastricht, along with a coffee shop.

The renovation and alteration of the Bonnefanten building over the centuries is stunning. As the world changed around it, as history took place, the building changed along with the inhabitants of Maastricht.

Each phase of the building is a reflection of the city's history. When Louis XIV expanded France's borders into The Netherlands - then called the United Provinces - in the 18th century, the cloister and school are terminated because of war, and when The Netherlands again controlled the city in the 19th century, it becomes an ammunition storeroom and soldier barracks. It changed to fit the times.

In the 1920s, when the world economic crisis swept Europe, the building became housing for the homeless Again, it reflected the city's needs.

Post World War II, the building developed into a school for painters to reflect the focus of the city: a turning away from destruction and war to beauty and rebirth expressed in art.

This focus on beauty and rebirth changed subtly as the building then became a place of remembrance - a museum - a place to store history in instead of reflecting it.

Finally, the building shifted to demonstrate the importance of academia in Maastricht as the University of Maastricht became an important fixture in the city at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

Looking at Maastricht's history through the windows of the Bonnefanten building provides a unique view of the passing of time and the importance of preservation.

Walking down the slanted cobblestone alley along the grey walls of the building, you wouldn't even recognize the old cloister until you come out of the alley into a little open triangle and a joining of small streets. The front of the building rears up unexpectedly and you have to look at its imposing carved archway and tall walls. It stands in the midst of the city's mix of different buildings and times as a reminder - a piece of living art and history.

Many times as Americans we are too quick to knock down a building and create something new and up-to-date, inventive and experimental, instead of preserving the beauty that is already present and letting something old transcend time. The Bonnefanten building is a lesson in preservation and transformation. History and art are not only confined to books and canvases; they can stand among us and be our schools and houses - our records. We need to preserve our past and our history.

Read Claire's other essays on her time in Europe:

Sunday Mass in the Notre Dame Cathedral
By spending time in one of the world’s most famous churches, Claire offers insight on where church really is.

Carnival in Maastricht
An incredible four-day celebration, Carnival offers lessons in putting aside worries and stress for spending time with friends and family.

Dunmore East
No gift shop, no t-shirt, and no fancy souvenirs here. Ireland’s Dunmore East offers a landscape of captivating beauty and peace.