Portrait of a family

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The Arenberg family has preserved its noble title for five centuries, firing our imagination along the way with fearsome names like ‘Terror of the Sea’ and ‘Wild Boar of the Ardennes'. But who were these prominent figures really? This is an opportunity to meet members of the Arenberg dynasty through a number of superb portraits which also shed light on their subject’s illustrious background.

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Jean de Ligne © KU Leuven, Art Collection - photo Bruno Vandermeulen

The history of the Arenberg dynasty began with a small ancestral castle near the village of Arenberg on a hill in the Eifel in Germany. In 1547, the seigniory of Arenberg passed to Jean de Ligne after his marriage to Margaret de la Marck-Arenberg(1527-1599).

The marriage contract stated that Jean de Ligne would inherit the Arenberg name and coat of arms from Margaret de la Marck-Arenberg. Their children would also bear the Arenberg name.

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Family Portrait © KU Leuven, Art Collection - photo Bruno Vandermeulen

On the right you see a crucial piece in the history of the dynasty, the family portrait of Charles of Arenberg and Anna de Croÿ. Charles of Arenberg (1550 - 1616) was the son of Jean de Ligne and Margaret de la Marck. It was his marriage to Anna de Croÿ (1564 - 1635) that brought the Arenbergs to Leuven. Anna's brother, Charles de Croÿ (1560-1612) was without issue and so the Arenbergs inherited the entirety of the Croÿ dynasty’s estate at Heverlee. This was the beginning of five centuries of Arenbergs in Leuven.

Princely Count Charles of Arenberg had himself immortalized here in this full-length portrait as a proud father together with his wife and their five eldest children. They eventually had twelve offspring. Round his neck the princely count is wearing the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

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Equestrian Portrait of Albert of Arenberg © KU Leuven, Art Collection - photo Bruno Vandermeulen

In this imposing equestrian portrait you meet Albrecht de Ligne, Prince of Arenberg and Barbançon (1600-1674). He was the nephew
of Charles of Arenberg and Anna de Croÿ and the grandson of Jean de Ligne and Margaret de la Marck. The painter Anthony van Dyck immortalized him as a commander in a suit of armour. He has his horse perform a pesade-type dressage movement, thereby underlining Albrecht’s authority and leadership.

Albrecht de Ligne was one of the most important generals in the service of Spain during the Thirty Years’ War. He had numerous titles to his name. For example, he served in the high military rank of Captain General of the Artillery and he held the position of Governor of Namur. He was made a Knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece, whose chain he is wearing here.

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Charles Eugene of Arenberg © KU Leuven, Art Collection - photo Bruno Vandermeulen

In 1644 the title of Duke of Arenberg was bestowed on Philippe François, grandson of Charles of Arenberg and Anna de Croÿ. Philippe François was succeeded by his half-brother Charles Eugene of Arenberg (1633-1681), making him the 2nd Duke of Arenberg. A soldier in the service of the Southern Netherlands, initially Charles Eugene had been destined for an ecclesiastical career. However, when the children of his half-brother died, he returned to the secular status and joined the army.

As befits a true Arenberger, he was only too happy to have himself portrayed as a warrior. His marriage to Marie Henriette de Cusance (1624-1701) extended the duchy territory. She died at Heverlee in 1701.

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Leopold Philippe of Arenberg © KU Leuven, Art Collection - photo Bruno Vandermeulen

Next to it, you see a portrait of Charles Eugene’s grandson Leopold Philippe of Arenberg (1690-1754). He had to grow up quickly after his father Philippe Charles of Arenberg (1663-1691) died in the Great Turkish War. By the age of ten, Leopold Philippe was already a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Like his forefathers, he was a veritable sabre-rattler, but he was also a cultivated man.

He received the poet Jean-Baptiste Rousseau when he was in exile and also had a strong bond with Voltaire and his companion Émilie du Châtelet. So it was regrettable for Leopold Philippe that these two enlightened philosophers were at loggerheads with each other after the Austrian War of Succession.

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Jan Antoon de Vaere, Louis Engelbert of Arenberg, Rome © London, Victoria & Albert Museum

Louis Engelbert of Arenberg went down in history as 'the blind duke'. In 1775, his life took an unexpected turn. During a shooting party in the park at Enghien, his friend the British envoy Lord William Gordon took aim at a partridge on a hedge. Behind the hedge was the duke. He was shot in his face and lost his sight.

Despite being blind, Louis Engelbert didn’t throw in the towel, but continued to ride, hunt, travel and go to the theatre with undiminished passion. As a patron, he stimulated scientific and technical developments, but he also commissioned many an artwork, including this bust of himself while on his travels to Rome.

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Gyula Benczúr, Hedwige de Ligne © KU Leuven, Art Collection - photo Bruno Vandermeulen

Duchess Hedwige de Ligne (1877-1938) was the wife of Engelbert Maria of Arenberg (1872-1949). They were the last occupants of Arenberg Castle. Duke Engelbert Maria of Arenberg also patronized the sciences. Thanks to him, today we have the STUK arts centre, formerly the KU Leuven’s chemistry laboratory.

His wife was not lacking in self-confidence, as her portrait suggests. She was very fashion-conscious and lived a sophisticated lifestyle. High society sought her company.

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Franz Ehrenhöfer, Princess Lydia of Arenberg © Jean-Louis Torsin - KIK-IRPA

Their daughter was Lydia of Arenberg (1905-1977). As a member of the high nobility, she was eligible to marry Prince Filiberto of Savoy (1895-1990) of the Italian royal family. Lydia spent much of her happy youth at Heverlee, where she was well liked by the people.

Like her father, she was very interested in the family history. After her death, artist Harry Elström made a sculptural effigy in honour of the princess. The commemorative stone was unveiled on October 4th 1980 during the centenary celebration of the Church of St Lambertus, with a concert performed by the Arenberg Choir in the castle at Heverlee.