The fabulous history of Walloon-judicial architecture


Heritage and justice. The places of power in Wallonia are infinitely rich. A summary of what could be a beautiful discovery of summer for everyone.

By Fredéric Marchesani

Justice, as it is now organised under Belgian law, is the heritage and the result of centuries-old development. The places of power that judicial institutions hold are sometimes the heirs of a rich and long history. In Wallonia, several courthouses are protected by a classification measure, while others, entirely new, can represent the legacy of tomorrow.

The Liege Assize Court is the only hall in a Walloon courthouse subject to a classification measure. In neo-Gothic style, it was designed in 1881 by architect Lambert Noppius for restoration work on the east wing of the palace. It was once located in two anterooms built during the reign of Jean-Theodor of Bavaria and some of the princely dwellings under the Old Regime.

The extraordinary hall of the Liege Assize-Hof, which is classified as a monument. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

The farm is of a completely different style and testifies to the neo-media current that swept over our country at the end of the 19th century. The room consists of a large nave covered by a barrel vault. A panelling of panels carved in so-called “pleated towels” motifs and crowned with a frieze gives the whole verticality. The woodwork of the doors have geometric patterns, rosettes and clusters. The door handles take on a shape inspired by the heavy clatterofofes of Gothic doors.

On both sides of the aisle, two wrought-iron pins precede the rows of seats. A monumental fireplace, also clearly medieval inspiration, occupies the back of the room. There are a number of elements reminiscent of castles: tongue-hupted fall, murderous, coats of arms and arches with trilobed decorations. The fireplace is made of terracotta tiles with a coat of legs on the Liege veranda. The whole thing thus radiates a strict and solemn atmosphere, which is accentuated by the wine-binding colour of the walls and the darkness that reigns in this place.

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Princely palaces become the seat of justice

The pilori of Braine-le-Chateau with, in the background, the former house of the bailiff. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

In addition to the old Baili houses (judicial officers in feudal lords), old farms and other trees and crosses of justice, Wallonia has received dozens of piloris. Also a symbol of stately jurisdiction, the pillory is an outward sign of high justice. It was used to expose the condemned to the cheers of the crowd and was therefore often erected in the main square of the city or village. Under the Old Regime, it was a notorious punishment, more severe than recriminations and changes.

Originally made of wood in the Middle Ages, it was later built in stone and sometimes took on imposing dimensions. This is the case of the recently restored Braine-le-Chéteau-Pranger, which is one of the most extraordinary examples that has yet been preserved. As indicated by an inscription at the foot of the lantern, this monument was erected by “Maximilian of Hornes de Gasbecke, Knight of the Golden Fleece of Emperor Charles, 1521”.

Located on the Grand Place, near the other buildings that are connected to the stately power that are the house of the bailiff and the castle, it is one of the few witnesses from that time dated to us. Its base, hexagonal, is crowned by a 3 m high column with a marquee with the inscription Dedicatory, then a lantern of 2.7 m. At 8.4 m. This imposing monument is the highest pillory preserved in Belgium. Many more can be admired in Attre, Enghien, Frameries, Graty, La Louviére, Petit-Rechain, Villers-lez-Heest…

The former pillory of La Louviére, symbol of the justice of the Old Regime. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

In Liege and Namur, the venerable courthouses existed long before the independence of Belgium. Wallonia’s largest judicial centre, the Courthouse of Liege, is located in the former Palace of The Prince-Bishops, a marvel built in Gothic style during the reign of Erard de la Marck in the 1520s and 1530s. Since then, it has kept two extraordinary courtyards lined with columns with surprising and unpublished decoration.

There are reliefs that conjure up both the theme of madness, which is popular in the Renaissance, and that of great discoveries. The facade of Place Saint-Lambert, devastated by fire in 1734, was rebuilt in the classical style during the reign of Georges-Louis de Berghes. After the revolution of 1789 and the annexation of the Principality of Liege to the French Republic in 1795, the palace became the seat of justice. At the end of the 19th century it was enlarged in neo-Gothic style towards the market place.

The courtyard of the former palace of the prince-bishops of Liege at dusk. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

The courthouse in Namur is located in the former residence of the local counts. The house was built in 1631 to house the county governors who managed the area on behalf of the King of Spain. In the 19th century, the building was restored by the architect Boveroulle in the neo-Renaissance style to adapt it to its new functions as a courthouse. Built of brick and blue stone, it has four wings that frame a rectangular courtyard. The main facade on the street is the only one of origin. It is characterized by a forebody in the form of a tower veranda, in the middle of which a portal is framed by Tuscan columns.

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The imposing forearm of the Namur Courthouse. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

Old and new palaces

The courts of Mons with, on the left, the courtroom of assizes and, bottom right, the Valencian tower. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

In the 19th century, aspiring Belgium organized its judicial system and many buildings had to be built, with Brussels remaining the most impressive example. The judicial cantons welcome the peace and police courts. The judicial districts become the seat of the Commercial Court, the Labour Court (now the Enterprise Court) and the Court of First Instance. Each provincial capital will be the seat of an assize court, while in the south of the country only Liege and Mons will host an appeals court.

Several small and medium-sized Walloon towns see peace justice on their territory. Some beautiful historical buildings are inherited from this period. This is the case in Binche, which preserves a neo-Gothic building built in 1902 by architect Paul Saintenoy, or the beautiful neoclassical building built in Boussu in 1825. Another neoclassical example is the justice of peace in Philippeville, built in 1878. In addition to these new buildings, peace judges are sometimes installed in old buildings. In Florennes the facility is housed in the former castle of the local lords, in Andenne the old town hall is reassigned. This beautiful classic construction was built in 1772 and is decorated with a gable and a hexagonal bell.

The lost step room of the Mons dishes. © Guy Focant / SPW-AWaP

Other, larger cities even have several courthouses. This is the case in Liege, which in recent years has used modern outbuildings in front of the Palace of the Prince-Bishops, or in Namur, where a new palace project is being considered. Arlon and Mons also have their old and new palaces. The former courthouse in Arlon has now become an exhibition hall. It was built between 1864 and 1866 by the architect Albert-Jean-Baptiste Jamot in neo-Gothic style. The ogivalwindows border with peaks and friezes of the arcade. The protruding high frontispiz is flanked by the coat of arms of the province of Luxembourg. In the historic suburbs, the new palace consists of two glass buildings inaugurated in 1993 and 2003 respectively.

In Mons, both palaces are home to judicial services. At the entrance to Nimy Street, just a stone’s throw from the Grand Place, the old palace was inaugurated in 1848. Neoclassical, built of Soignies stone, it is characterized by an imposing gable that rests on Tuscan columns. Inside, the atrium is supported by elegant cariatids. The new dishes in Mons, inaugurated in 2007, were designed by a trio of architects: Jean Barthélemy, Benoét Jonet and Michel Poulain.

They are the perfect example of the alliance between contemporary architecture and respect for heritage because they include the Valencian tower, the only surviving one above the floor of the second medieval enclosure of Mons. The circular space of the courtyard of Assizes is reminiscent of the architecture of this defensive tower. The new building is also part of the site of the old barracks, whose guardhouse was built in the 19th century at the entrance of the site to commemorate the place. Its neo-Gothic architecture and the pink brush of its facades fit perfectly into the judicial complex.

At the turn of a city promenade, be sure to take a look at Walloon judicial architecture. VThe courthouses of Verviers, Marche-en-Famenne, Neufchéteau, Dinant, Nivelles or Tournai are not without interest.

Building A of the Arlon Courthouse, inaugurated 1993. © BELGA PHOTO / EMILIE RENSON