As you could read before, last weekend I went in for my second round of the Banad Festival. First stop of the day: Atelier Ernest Salu, located next to the cemetery of Laeken. I had never heard of this place before. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that we have our own version of the Père Lachaise in Brussels and even more than that. The atelier is the only one world-wide to be focusing on funerary art. I know I know, that does sound creepy. But once you enter the building, you see how that’s actually a really nice thing. Let me give you a sneak peek.
First thing you should know: there’s not just one Ernest Salu, there were three of them. Ernest I, Ernest II and Ernest III. Luckily for them they were more talented in sculpturing than in making up names. Ernest the First studied Arts in Brussels and after finishing his first funeral monument, he decided to buy some land next to the cemetery of Laeken. That proved very successful and ten years later he was able to build his very own atelier and a house next to it.
Now let’s have a look at the cemetery first. If you’ve visited the place or if you just have a look at the pictures, you’ll notice that it’s not just your ordinary one. The reason for that is quite simple. The first king and queen of Belgium – Leopold and Louise-Marie – wanted to gain some credibility and prestige by founding their very own church with crypt. And decided to do so in Laeken. Because of the royal presence there, the upper class of the Catholics in Brussels were very eager to reserve their own tombs nearby. That created a large demand for luxurious funeral art. Now let’s get back to our Salus.
Three generations Salu were able to stand their ground in the atelier. The original decoration of the Salle d’Expo (exhibition hall) provides proof for that. Damask, expensive armchairs and even a fountain with goldfish created the perfect background for extravagant balls – according to the two daughters of Ernest the Third. Once more affordable tombs made their way into the market, sales rapidly dropped and the atelier closed its doors. Luckily, there are still plenty of remnants left to marvel at. And the three men also provided plenty of photographs which can be consulted online.
What about nowadays? The non-profit organisation Epitaaf made it their mission to preserve the atelier and all that’s left of Salu’s works. They don’t usually open their doors to the public – but they make an exception for Banad and the so-called Belgian Open Monument Day. It’s quite admirable what they manage to achieve while only leaning on volunteers. They name themselves taphophiles. Which actually means that they’re all interested in the funeral arts and practices. Again, that sounds a little macabre but as Epicurus once said: “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”
Which probably means that we should just look at those marvellous tombs as impressive works of art. Apparently, Victor Horta himself found the design of a tomb way more complicated than that of an entire house. My advise to you? Go and visit the cemetery of Laeken and if you can, also the Atelier Ernest Salu. It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve visited in Brussels so far, but also one of the most interesting ones.
Atelier Ernest Salu
Parvis Notre-Dame 16