THE SWAN BROTHERS of Den Bosch at Noord-Brabants Museum

This year, the ‘Zwanenbroeders van de Illustre Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap‘ celebrates its 700th anniversary. Dutch King Willem-Alexander is a member of this brotherhood. So he recently opened the exhibition about these ‘swan-brothers’ at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch).

This exclusive brotherhood, devoted to Maria (our Dear Lady means Lieve Vrouwe and refers to Maria) was founded during the Middle Ages. At first, only monks, were invited to join. From 1371, non-religious members, male and female, could become members as well. The brotherhood focused on devotion, friendship, charity.


From 1384, swans were served at meals of the sworn members. People who donated swans, mainly aristocrats, were called Swan Brothers or ‘Zwanenbroeders‘. This name later referred to all members.

Once a week, members celebrated a special mass at the Cathedral of ‘s Hertogenbosch. Their richly decorated chapel can still be seen there.

The exhibition displays many items on long tables. This refers to the brotherhood’s joint meals. The first exhibition room contains old manuscripts with religious music. Such music could be heard during weekly masses in the cathedral. Some of the manuscripts show musical chores created by famous medieval composers.

Later on, the brotherhood made money by printing ‘aflaten‘. Several examples of indulgences are displayed. It is this ‘trade’ in indulgences, which irked Luther and other Protestants.

After protestant troops conquered catholic ‘s Hertogenbosch, the brotherhood was allowed to continue to exist. Likely, because William of Orange had been a member. By then, the brotherhood’s size, importance and influence had diminished.

Catholic and Protestant members

By 1642, the brotherhood was forced to accept protestant members. A compromise, linked to William the Taciturn having been a member. His personal tankard is among a group of similar ones – though his is exhibited slightly higher than the rest.

Since 1642, the brotherhood numbers 18 catholic and 18 protestant members. Its aims also slightly changed. Charity is still important, but tolerance between religions and the protection of cultural heritage have been added.

Members have always been invited to join. No need to try and apply! Members also usually have prominent social positions.

The title sworn ‘Zwanenbroeder‘ is now reserved for male and female members of the Dutch Royal Family. Visitors can check this on the membership list hanging on a wall in one of the exhibition rooms.

Other brotherhoods

The exhibition also shows objects from similar brotherhoods; not just Dutch, but also German and Belgian ones.

One of the most important items displayed, is a special crown. On special occasions, this ‘Jubelkroon‘, belonging to the Antwerp Guild ‘Onze Lieve Vrouwe Lof,‘ crowns a Maria statue. The Noordbrabants Museum points out, this precious object is hardly ever allowed to leave Antwerp Cathedral.

From the last exhibition room, visitors can wander to other exhibitions, including a permanent one on Vincent van Gogh. The ‘Zwanenbroeders‘ exhibition runs till the 3rd of June 2018.    Kate Den  28th February 2018


Photos of an indulgence with ten bishops’ seals courtesy NoordBrabants Museum, Den Bosch