abbey gardens

VR tour of the Ename abbey gardens

On the recent Heritage Day in Flanders (Sept 10, 2017), we organised a unique guided tour on the archaeological site of Ename, using a virtual reality visualisation of the abbey gardens in 1663 and 1730.  Such a VR guided tour is one of the possible ways of providing GroupVR (see also our WTCB presentation earlier this year).

abbey Ename 1730

Virtual reconstruction of the Ename abbey gardens in 1730 (image: © Visual Dimension bvba)

This virtual reconstruction of the abbey gardens in 1663 and 1730 uses spherical panoramas in a large number of points, allowing to go from one virtual location to the other and in this way, walking around in the gardens, admiring its (reconstructed) beauty from different points of view.


Virtual reconstruction of the Ename abbey entrance in 1663 (image: © Visual Dimension bvba)

By walking around on the archaeological site in the same way, going from point to point in the physical space (indicated by traffic cones), a guide can explain how the abbey gardens looked like in a certain period, and the members of the guided group can see these virtual features through a cardboard VR viewer (in which they have put their smartphone) or on a tablet.

guided group VR

A guided tour on the archaeological site VR using visualisation of a virtual reconstructions in 1663 and 1730 (photo: Veerle Delange)

Although the cardboard viewer without strap gives the best results, it turned out that tablets are the easiest to use, as they require less configuration.  In any case, all participants to the six guided tours were very confident that they were much better experiencing the site and learning about its history.

Participants VR tour

Participants to the guided tour were using both VR cardboard viewers and tablets (photo: Veerle Delange)

This approach is another way to implement GroupVR and turn 3D and VR into a support for site guides, not a replacement, with the additional benefit of social interaction and better communication between the members of the group.

Ename 1730 fish pond

View on the garden pavilion and the fish pond in the Ename abbey garden in 1730 (image: © Visual Dimension bvba)

Enjoy the Ename abbey gardens in virtual reality

Ename abbey gardens 1665

The Ename abbey gardens around 1665 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

We recently made a virtual reconstruction of the Ename abbey gardens in 1665 and 1730, which is now available onlien and in multiple forms in the context of the free exhibition Old Love at the Ename Heritage Centre.

Ename Heritage Centre

The Ename Heritage Centre and archaeological site (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

The 3D virtual reconstruction can be superimposed on the real landscape by looking through “peep boxes” containing a transparant 3D print of the reconstruction.

peep boxes and VR

18th century peep boxes combined with 21th century VR on the 2nd floor of the Heritage Centre (photo: Veerle Delange)

Additionally, an interactive walktrough of the abbey gardens in 1665 and 1730 can be experienced with any VR headset and any tablet (and can be viewed also on any desktop).

Ename abbey gardens in 1665

Ename abbey gardens in 1665 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

Here is the 1665 tour on VR headset and tablet or desktop (for the headset version, push START on both sides before you put your smartphone in the cardboard viewer).

abbey gardens 1730

Overview of the French gardens in the Ename abbey in 1730 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

And here is the 1730 tour in the new French gardens of the abbey on VR headset and tablet or desktop.

garden pavilion 1730

Garden pavilion in the French gardens in 1730 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)


digitally restored crosier

The story of a Masterpiece – part 2

As we have explained in the previous blog post, the  Ename crosier is the ivory head of an abbot’s staff and has been excavated in 1995 at the archaeological site of Ename, Belgium.  This outstanding object has suffered damage in several ways, so it makes sense to find out in this second blog post how the crosier looked like in its original state. A third blog post will reconstruct how it turned into its current broken state. The fourth and final blog post about this Flemish Masterpiece will talk about its symbolism and unique character.

Evangiles de Liessies

Detail from the Evangiles de Liessies (1146) showing a 12th century abbot’s staff

First of all, the crosier is only partial and has been broken, so that the staff and the part that connected this top part with the staff itself is missing.  In the publication about the crosier by Elisabeth den Hartog, the hypothesis is put forward that this staff has been buried with a deceased abbot at the end of the 14th century and has been unearthed by grave robbers at the end of the 16th century, when the abbey was in ruin and the country in state of civil war, causing massive poverty.  As the crosier cannot be in a broken state when used as a burial gift, it is plausible that the grave robbers have broken the object, causing additional deformation and damage (both hands of the Saint Saviour figure, and the lily and left hand of the lady have been broken).  Unlike gold or silver, ivory cannot be reused easily, making the object worthless for the grave robbers, who discarded it. We will expand on this in the next blog post.


The 12th century Ename crosier, made in ivory (photo: pam Ename)

Secondly, parts of the object are corroded, due to being buried – probably in a grave – for about 400 years.  This corrosion has erased some of the interesting fine details of the crosier, such as the head of the dragon or the text on the side of the lady.


Most of the Lady side of the Ename crosier shows corrosion of the ivory (photo: pam Ename)

Finally, the crosier must have been broken and repaired during its active use.  The two bronze bars that traverse the object horizontally have been added to keep the broken pieces together.  Unfortunately, the man who repaired the crosier had to cut away the top jaw of the dragon to make the lower bar fit.  The lower jaw must have been broken by the grave robbers. We will discuss this in the next blog post.


The dragon has both upper and low jaws missing (photo: pam Ename)

Some years ago, the crosier was 3D laser scanned in high resolution. Assessment of the 3D data shows a resolution of about 50 micrometer, 1/20 of a millimeter. Based on this 3D scan, we have decided to perform a digital restoration of the crosier, to be used in Eham 1291 (the new version of the Ename 1290 educational game) but also to be 3D printed for the educational department.

3D scan

The highly detailed 3D scan of both sides of the crosier (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

Digital restoration is a form of virtual reconstruction and tries to show how an object looked like in its original state and how it was probably used.  In digital restoration, we try to unravel the many clues that are hidden in the object itself, but also look at similar objects, at the time period it was made and used and at the alterations that were made.  We collected about 200 similar medieval crosiers and about 500 images from medieval manuscripts to base our reconstruction on. Here is the result, in 3D, and how we did it.  Use the annotation bar at the bottom to get a guided tour through the applied restorations

Most of the digital restoration of the broken parts (cracks, broken wrists, lily staff, corrosion) and the repair (removal of the bronze bars) is quite straight forward.  The lily staff for example, which is the medieval symbol of virginity, can be seen depicted in medieval manuscripts.  The hard parts are the restoration of the text on the lady side, the dragon and the missing part of the crosier that connects it with the staff.


The bride of Christ with the lily staff as symbol of virginity (Yale MS 404, f50r, ca. 1300)


The bride of Christ holding the lily staff as symbol of virginity (image:Visual Dimension bvba)

The interpretation that the lady is the “bride of Christ” and not our Lady is taken from the above mentioned text by Elisabeth den Hartog.


Macro image with large depth of field through image stacking showing the text on the lady side (photos: pam Ename, image processing: Visual Dimension bvba)

The text on the Lord side is intact and nearly complete, it reads


which means “Through the spirit of Jesus, the snake of the evil is being trampled” (text between round brackets is typically omitted in medieval writing).

The digital restoration of the text on the Lady side does require an optimal interpretation of the object (based upon the 3D scan) and its symbolism (based upon the detailed art history study).  In the publication by Elisabeth den Hartog, the inscription is interpreted as


based upon photographs of the objects (text between square brackets is an interpretation).  The 3D scan (see above) and a detailed study of the real object, including focus stacking macro photographs of the text area, however revealed that MALA needs to be read as COLLA, so the text can be interpreted as


which can be translated as “The bride of Christ, trampling the neck of the dragon”

digitally restored crosier

Both sides of the digitally restored crosier, showing the reconstructed text (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

For the restoration of  the dragon, we found multiple evidence in the 3D model that the dragon is biting the crosier, so that the neck of the dragon is well connected to the vertical part, providing the object some sturdiness and making the cutting of the ivory feasible (i.e. reducing the risk of breaking while cutting).

dragon bites

Design of the missing parts of the dragon, providing sturdiness and feasibility (imge: Visual Dimension bvba)

There is plenty of medieval iconography that shows dragons and biting dragons, giving hints towards the digital restoration.  To have a sufficient contact surface of the lower jaw with the vertical shaft, we have given the dragon a beard, as can be seen in many medieval depictions of dragons.

Harley Ms. 628, f. 101v (British Library)

Illuminated capital in Harley Ms. 628, f. 101v (British Library)

Bearded dragon MET

Bearded dragon on a German 13th century crosier (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

Comparison with the large set of crosier images showed that the missing part of the crosier follows the curved line, putting the decoration of the crosier at an angle to the vertical line of the staff.


Initial (left) and final (right) design of the missing part of the crosier (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

From iconography and preserved staffs, we know that the complete staff was about 180 cm high, ending in a metal point.

Two abbots with their staff

Two abbots with their staff (Moralia in Job – 1110 – Bibliothèque municipal de Dijon)

We have no information if the staff itself was in wood or in ivory, both alternatives are possible, so we presume the staff to be in wood.  We have gold-plated some parts as this was a common practice in the Middle Ages for ivory crosiers.  XRF measurements could tell us if gold was applied on the object, but such measurements are not available yet.

Reconstructed staff

Reconstructed staff with iron pin at the end (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

The final result was 3D printed in polyamide on scale 1/1 so that it could be mounted on a wooden stick, for the educational department.  The digital restoration was performed through digital sculpting by Ewout De Vos for Visual Dimension bvba.

3D print next to the real object

Ewout De Vos holding the digitally restored crosier next to the real object (photo: Visual Dimension bvba)


This work has been partially funded by the Flemish Ministry of Culture.

3D scan

The story of a Masterpiece – part 1

The virtual walk through Ename in the year 1290 is centered around the story of the crosier of Ename, which has been found in 1995 during the archaeological excavation of the abbey church.  Through research, we found that a unique story is hidden in this object, which has been declared Flemish Masterpiece.


The 12th century Ename crosier, made of ivory (photo: pam Ename)

This double-sided crosier is the top of the staff of an abbot, symbolising his power and leadership over the monks of his abbey.  It is made of elephant ivory and measures only 6,5 cm. The front side shows Our Lord as Saint Saviour (the Ename abbey is dedicated to Saint Saviour), the back side shows a lady holding a staff, ending as a lily.

Ename crosier

The other side of the Ename crosier (photo: pam Ename)

In 1158, the Ename monks elect Arnulf, the prior of the abbey of Affligem, as new abbot to replace abbot Willem, who went on crusade but didn’t return.  In 1164, abbot Arnulf returns to Affligem to lead the abbey there and is replaced by another monk from Affligem named Giselbert.  The abbey at that moment consisted of the original abbey buildings, erected around 1065 and a new abbey church, erected between 1139 and 1149, inspired by the new abbey church of Affligem (erected between 1128 and 1138).


The Ename abbey in 1150 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

abbey church Affligem

The abbey church Affligem, built beween 1128 and 1138

Abbot Giselbert was an erudite man who wrote a continuation of the History of the World by Sigebert of Gembloux (Auctarium Affligemense), documenting the important international events in the period 1149-1164 when he was monk in Affligem, but also mentioning the Ename abbey.  The book is currently in the University of Leiden (ref. LIP2) and contains notes that is has been property of the abbey library of Ename.


Folio 1 verso of the Auctarium Affligemense from the abbey library of Ename, currently in the University Library of Leiden

book Leiden

The interactive Auctarium Affligemse in the Ename 1290 game (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

In Affligem, Giselbert could also have encountered Bernard, the charismatic abbot of the new Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux, who resided several times in the abbey in the period 1131-1151.  In 1153, when Bernard dies, there were already 339 Cistercian abbeys. Bernard himself started 160 new abbeys, and many Benedictine abbeys converted to the Cistercian rule. However, the abbeys of Affligem and Ename did not convert but remained Benedictine.  Instead, Giselbert was involved in 1170 in creating a network of 30 Benedictine abbeys, in analogy of the Cistercian cluster of abbeys, but this network failed to materialise.

Saint Bernardus

Bernard of Clairvaux (British Library, Thompson Yates collection MS32 f. 9v)

As abbot in Ename, Giselbert had the old, small abbey buildings replaced by new, spacious buildings from 1170 onwards (zie Berings p. 140). The first phase of this renovation contained the chapter room, the dormitorium, the kitchen, the refectory, the guest quarters and the abbot house, and got finalised around 1175. The records say that the monks were using tents to replace the buildings that were being rebuilt. Abbot Giselbert left Ename at the end of 1176 or in 1177, at the age of 66 or 67, for another unknown abbey.

Unfortunately, the brand new abbey gets inundated severely in 1180 and needs to be rebuilt partially.  In that effort, or shortly after, the abbey is significantly enlarged.  The abbey gets an additional west wing and a new kitchen plus storage room, while the former kitchen is turned into scriptorium plus library.


The Ename abbey in 1300 (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

Let’s have a closer look at the period 1170-1175, when the abbey is being rebuilt.  Philip of Alsace was count of Flanders at that moment (1168-1191) but already in 1157 he succeeded his father Thierry, who was involved in the crusades. Count Philip, like his father Thierry, supported strongly the new Cistercian Order, and had the Flemish Chapel built at the abbey of Clairvaux. When he died in 1192, he was buried in its crypt, next to the monks that lived together with Bernard of Clairvaux, who was declared saint in 1174.  The count of Flanders was the vogt or lay abbot of the Ename abbey throughout its history.

abbey of Clairvaux

The abbey of Clairvaux around 1200, with the Flemish chapel

Elisabeth Den Hartog, who made an outstanding study about the Ename crosier, dates this ivory masterpiece around 1175 based upon style and form.  The object is full of symbolism, linked to Cistercian themes, although the Ename abbey is and remains Benedictine at that time. So this brings us to the hypothesis that the object is a present of the count of Flanders for abbot Giselbert at the inauguration of the new abbey, in 1175 or 1176, shortly before he leaves the abbey, probably to retire.


Depiction of Saint Salvator at the Saint Servatius church in Maastricht

There are crosiers which are similar, in material and symbolism, to the Ename crosier, for example the 13th century ivory crosier from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (shown below), showing Our Lord on one side and Our Lady on the other.  This also would fit very well with the fact that the Ename abbey was dedicated to Our Lady when founded in 1063, and to Our Lord, when building a new abbey around the Saint Saviour church in 1070. Note also the dragon, trampled by both Our Lord and Our Lady, similar to the Ename crosier.


13th century ivory crosier similar to the Ename crosier (MET NY)

However, Elisabeth Den Hartog identifies the woman not as Our Lady but as the Bride of Christ, which is a typical Cistercian theme.  Our Lady always wears a crown in the 12th century, while the lady on the Ename crosier wears a diadem.  In the 12th century, Our Lady is nearly always depicted as the mother of Jesus, while the lady on the Ename crosier shows no reference to the child Jesus.  Saint Bernard has written 86 sermons on the Song of Songs, in which the concept of the Bride of Christ, as symbol of the monk, is reiterated many times.

The Bride of Christ

Head of the Bride of Christ, wearing a diadem, the forehead is worn down (photo: pam Ename)

The Ename crosier is quite worn down and even repaired (the two horizontal brass bars keep the broken pieces together), so it must have been passed on from one abbot to the next until the object was too old and totally out of fashion.  Elisabeth Den Hartog states that the staff probably has been buried with one of the abbots in the Ename abbey church at the end of the 14th century.


The location of the grave of abbot Gerard Ghuise, buried in 1393 in the abbey church (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

When the abbey graves where plundered at the end of the 16th century – the abbey was deserted and completely destroyed at that time –  the crosier must have been unearthed but discarded on the spot, as ivory was not reusable such as gold or silver.  In 1995, the crosier was unearthed in the north chapel of the abbey church during excavations, as can be seen in this video of the TimeLine application at 01:20, close to the graves of abbot Jan Yserman (1390) and abbot Gerard Ghuise (1393).



This work has been partially funded by the Flemish Ministry of Culture.