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Two mysteries of Sterrebeek

Two mysteries of Sterrebeek, Belgium

In my previous post I introduced you to the Kasteel van Sterrebeek and its annual open day on the last Sunday of June. I also mentioned that the unassuming village of Sterrebeek is associated with two strange events.

The mystery of a famous artwork

In the village church of Sterrebeek – St. Pancratius – hangs a special and priceless painting. It’s the “Mort de la Vierge” or “Death of the Blessed Virgin”, an early work by the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Poussin is considered the greatest French painter of the 17th century and the French counterpart of the great Pieter Paul Rubens. He painted Mort de la Vierge in 1623, and it was hung in the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris. The painting depicts the death of Mary surrounded by the grieving apostles.

Mort de la Vierge” or “Death of the Blessed Virgin”, an early work by the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).
Mort de la Vierge by Poussin, 1623

It’s a mystery as to how exactly this painting ended up in a small church in Sterrebeek. Especially as other work by Poussin hangs in such eminent places as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, the Metropolitan in New York, and the National Gallery in London.

In 1793, after the French Revolution, the painting was removed from the Notre-Dame Cathedral, as was the case with virtually all paintings in French churches. It ended up in the Louvre and led an unnoticed existence there. From there it passed to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, after which the trail runs cold. No document of a transfer is to be found in any archive.

But in 1999 a painting hanging over the altar in the church of St. Pancratius in Sterrebeek caught the eye of an art expert. He identified it as an original Poussin. It was restored, and starred in a Poussin retrospective at the Louvre in 2015. Since then it occasionally travels to exhibitions throughout Europe. But then it returns to its humble home in Sterrebeek’s village church!

The mystery of how such a priceless painting ended up in Sterrebeek remains to this day.

Thanks to Sterrebeek resident Herman Vandecauter for bringing this story to my attention.

Kasteel ter Meeren and the mysterious death of a Russian billionaire

Kasteel van Sterrebeek is not the only castle in Sterrebeek. Adjoining it is Kasteel ter Meeren, which has a rich history dating back several centuries – and is associated with a mysterious death.

Kasteel ter Meeren, Sterrebeek is at the heart of a great mystery!
Kasteel ter Meeren, Sterrebeek

The domain takes its name from the van der Mere family of ducal officials mentioned since the 12th century. There is a record from 1381 that the owner was a certain Hendrik van der Mere. In the course of the late 16th and early 17th century the keep lost its military character and was expanded with an L-shaped residential wing with a chapel. A farm was attached to this residential part, although this disappeared when the Mechelsesteenweg was constructed in 1842. In 1865 the Antwerp architect-archaeologist Joseph Schadde instigated the castle’s significant restoration and expansion in neo-Flemish Renaissance style. The romantic park dates from the same period, along with a carriage house, a gardener’s house with a walled fruit and vegetable garden, a garden pavilion, a cast-iron arch bridge over a pond, and an ice cellar.

Unfortunately, throughout the last half of the 20th century, ownership of the Kasteel van Meeren changed fairly regularly, and the whole domain was neglected. The coach house partially collapsed, and looters and vandals took what they could carry away with them from inside, and damaged what they couldn’t.

In 2007 TV company Studio 100 used it as a location for their movie “Hotel on Stilts” about the famous TV dog Samson and his owner Gert. Here is a trailer, while this “behind the scenes” shows the Kasteel ter Meeren being put to good use.

Local action group Sterrebeek 2000 brought the site to the attention of the Flemish government and other authorities in order to develop a sustainable solution for its restoration. In 2012 a subsidy was made available to convert the castle into a hotel with meeting and seminar facilities. Nothing came of these plans.

So what’s the mystery attached to the Kasteel ter Meeren?

On June 10, 2017, Russian billionaire Vladimir Scherbakov was found hanged at his home in the suburbs of Waterloo, Belgium. The 58-year-old was discovered by a neighbor who had entered through the unlocked back door. No one else was in the house. There was no suicide note next to the body. According to Belgian law, permission for an autopsy and forensic examination is granted by the spouse; at that time, it was Scherbakov’s civil partner, Brigita Morina, but she refused to give permission, and the death was interpreted as suicide.

However, Scherbakov’s daughter Olga Scherbakova made a startling claim, alleging that her father was murdered. She started a legal battle in London’s High Court over a £100 million share of her late father’s fortune.

Olga Scherbakova describes her father’s death as “very suspicious,” citing the circumstances in which he was found hanged in 2017, wearing only underwear and with none of his usual household staff present.

What’s this got to do with Sterrebeek, you may be asking?

Well, it seems that Mr Scherbakov fled to Belgium from England in 2016 to avoid the threat of extradition to Russia as a result of an investigation against him by the Russian state. The billionaire Scherbakov was ‘persona non grata’ in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The man feared for his life. He was suspected by the Kremlin of illegally smuggling hundreds of millions out of his country. He invested that money in companies he founded in England, Belgium and the British Virgin Islands.

Moreover, it was discovered that Mr Scherbakov’s main commercial activity in Belgium appears to have been property development, including … wait for it … THE ACQUISITION OF THE KASTEEL TER MEEREN IN STERREBEEK, which he intended to renovate.

Incidentally, the British Court ruled that Brigita Morina was the legal heiress based on a will and other documentary evidence. The court ruled against the daughter Olga Scherbakov and awarded the inheritance to Brigita Morina.

How did Vladimir Scherbakov die? Was it suicide or murder? It’s an unsolved mystery. And what will happen to Kasteel ter Meeren now it’s in the hands of Brigita Morina is another mystery.

8 thoughts on “Two mysteries of Sterrebeek”

  1. Very interesting those mysteries!
    The last years you could see that there was some serious renovation going on at the castle.
    But without any clue, who was owning it or for what purpose.
    It’s pity that nothing was done to the gatehouse till now.

  2. Interesting about the painting…would be great to read a story based on a theory of how it came to be there. As for the Russian billionaire, the Russian State seems to be very fortunate in the way their enemies expire so conveniently….

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