The church building
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The Exterior

The impressive facade is clearly inspired by the 40 years older Jesuit mother church in Rome: The "Gesu" or Jesus' church, built by Giacomo della Porta. In fact, this then hyper-modern Antwerp church was a new version of the older model. In a Baroque building it is especially the façade that counts. It has to appeal to passers-by. Here, the effect is stronger and more grandiose than in numerous Baroque facades in Rome, since all means available were used.



Enormous dimensions
Whoever looks at the back of the façade especially from the Grote Goddaert and Minderbroedersrui will soon discover the illusion created by this facade: it is 8m higher than the edge of the roof. This illusion has been created to attract the public eye, thus superceding the normal constructive function of the roof.


Balance between vertical and horizontal movement
The dimensions are admirably the same in height and width (33,2m) so that the facade forms a perfect square. Firstly, the vertical movement is obtained through the construction of the facade. Both parallel stairs to the towers that end in an arbour crowning absorb the vertical movement of the covings making them taller. A more subtle way of creating an illusion of vertical height is the so-called classic arrangement of columns and pilasters: on the first level heavy Doric style, on the second level the more elegant Ionic columns with covings and on the third level the even more decorative Corinthian style. The horizontal line is achieved by symmetry between the levels.


The warm feeling obtained from the facade is mostly due to the cream-coloured sandstone of the supporting stones and most of the sculptural ornaments. In contrast to the monochrome Baroque facades in Rome, contrast is obtained through the blue stone, used for the constructive, more line-minded elements like columns and pilasters, tympanum and the cornice, plinth and steps.


The strongly profiled architectural tone of form of the Baroque contributes towards the decoration: columns and pilasters, balusters as well as cartouches. Special decorative elements are scallops, festoons, horns of plenty, fruit baskets and masks. The figures of saints and angels also add to the relief. The whole is joyfully crowned by gilded objects like fire pots and candelabra on the covings which flank the cross on top of the central nave, plus there is the big pineapple on the arbour of the staircase towers.  


The Baroque facade does not draw attention to itself. It gives a message of a higher level. Inside the church it is about Jesus. The Saviour, the Redeemer, and the Beatific - is symbolised by the big gilded cross on top. The fact that Jesus was willing to go to extremes, death on the cross, out of love should, according to some sketches by Rubens, be emphasized by two big angels left and right, holding the instruments of Christ's passion in its hands. The angel to the right with the three nails of his crucifixion, the left one with a lance, which pierced his heart to make sure of death, and a third angel should have supported the cross on the top of the facade. These unfortunately were never sculptured and remained a sketch.


Mary and Jesus
Hans van Mildert sculptured a very realistic Mary with Jesus as a child on her right knee. From there he blesses the world, beginning with the passers-by on the church square. Their dignity is emphasized by the canopy with fluttering draperies, on both sides held by an angel.

The Evangelists
Jesus' gospel is universal and passed down from generation to generation by all available means. The first contributors were the Evangelists'. They stand in a niche in the side bays. They were recognizable by their symbols underneath the bases: at top right Luke with the oxen, at bottom right Marcus with a lion, at left bottom Matthew with an angel, and at top left John with an eagle looking towards heaven as sign, giving it a even more spiritual inspiration.


The Apostles
The Apostles are represented underneath the Evangelists. Peter, the leader of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus, on the one side, Paul the great preacher on the other side at the portal of the church.



The Jesuit order has its shield at the centre of the façade, attracting even more attention by the contrast of the golden letters on black background. According to the original Greek reading they mean the first three letters of the name Jesus (IΗΣΟΣ), according to the Western Europe Latin version they represent the initials of the commitment to Jesus the savior of all mankind: Jesus Hominum Salvator. No one less than P. P. Rubens was asked to make the sketch. He drew attention to the coat of arms by surrounding it with triumphant playful gliding angels.


Ignatius of Loyola

For the bust of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, we must cast our eyes upwards again. In fact, the Jesuits wanted to dedicate this church to him as the first one worldwide. In the moment of the church consecration in 1621 Ignatius had not yet been canonized, so the Jesuits sought refuge in an official saint. The church was originally dedicated to the Blessed virgin who has a very important role in the spirituality of Ignatius. That is the reason why Mary is seated in the façade frontispiece while the bust of the - for the time being beatified - Ignatius, is underneath it. Nevertheless he was greatly honoured: two monumental angels crown him with a laurel wreath as was done in Roman time. Just one year later he was canonized and at which time the church was named as St. Ignatius' church, the first one worldwide.


The Interior


The church was built, decorated and furnished over a period of only six years: started in 1615 and already consecrated in 1621.

It was very modern for its time. There are even plans to be seen of a more modern central building, very similar to the Basilica of Scherpenheuvel. Ultimately a long nave was chosen, so that it was possible to address a large public. The three-aisled church with a length of 60m is divided into 9 bays. Both side aisles are exactly half the size of the main nave. It is comparable to a basilica since this kind of style was specific to early Christian churches.


Functional: a didactic room
Since the Jesuits prioritise pastoral work daily prayers are said individually. Therefore there is no need for a long chancel, which makes it possible to place the high altar much closer to the congregation. The idea of the side aisles covering two floors was new: the galleries were used as meeting chapel, for the young members of the Marian Congregation and a catechism room for the instruction of the poor children of the city. The Jesuit students Aloysius van Gonzaga (†1591) and Stanislas Kostka (†1568), who died young, became the saints for both chapels. Both tower staircases at the side of the façade have a door leading straight from the church square to a cuboids stair.

In order to dispose of a more spacious and beautiful church a timber vaulting was used, lighter in weight, permitting two arcades to be cut out of the walls of the main nave, the curved arches supported by decorative marble pillars, with its two orders, lower Doric, upper Ionic capitals. This construction technique will be much regretted by the Jesuits a century later. When lightning struck in 1718 the burning roof collapsed on the wooden vault. The reconstruction of the basilica of pillars was entrusted to Jan Pieter van Baurscheit de Oude. Three years later the church reopened its (new) doors. However, the old glory is no longer there. Cheap blocks of grey natural stone have replaced the marble monolithic pillars, which were quicker built and were left unpainted. During Restoration done in 1980-83 attempted to reproduce the original pre-1718 interior, by painting the columns white, but it is still a marble imitation.


Decorative: a liturgical Banqueting Hall
The interior has a lot of a Baroque Banqueting Hall. In Baroque, joy is evoked by exuberant decoration. Neither expense nor efforts were spared. You cannot exactly call the present day church sober, but before the fire of 1718 it was even richer. We know what the interior was like from numerous pictures dating from before the fire. It was not for nothing the Jesuit church was called the marble temple till 1718. The beautiful marble in all designs and colours decorating the apsidal walls, the high altar and the stone floor with its playful black-and-white pattern, often mistaken for a labyrinth, were all spared from the fire due to the stone vault of the semi-circular apsis.


The side aisles were completed with a flat ceiling on both levels now decorated with stucco, but originally the ceiling held 39 paintings by P. P. Rubens. The vaulted ceiling with gilded caissons above the apsidal walls is the original one. The whole ceiling of the central nave was identical like that before 1718. J. P. Van Baurscheit de Oude replaced it with belted arches, a cheaper and faster solution of. A new wooden panelling covers the walls of the side aisles.

(c) 2019 MKA | vzw Monumentale Kerken Antwerpen
Groenplaats 21
2000 Antwerpen

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