The high altar: more than a panel
The massive high altar is the first thing to attract attention when entering a Baroque Jesuit church. It has developed into a portico altar with a huge screen visible to everybody, even those in the last row. The altarpiece is 5,35m high. To fulfil its role as an eye-catcher the painting above the high altar can be replaced. This change can be effected by a unique mechanism installed by the Antwerp Jesuits. Behind the altar immense slots have been placed to accomodate four paintings. A painting is placed into position by means of a hoist, according to the theme needed in the liturgical calendar.
According to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius the spiritual awareness aroused by a biblical scene encourages further reflection. Especially as visual art, it is possible for the worshipper to share the emotions of Christ or the saints represented. For this reason it helds a key position in the comprehension of a Baroque church, especially with the Jesuits.
Painted by the hand of Rubens (1617-18) were two of the original four paintings, St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. At the abolishment of the Jesuit order in 1773 both paintings were bought for the Imperial Gallery in Vienna, now the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The other two paintings can still be admired alternately: The Crowning of Mary (Cornelis Schut) remained in the church; The Raising of the Cross (Gerard Zegers) was purchased back in 1839. Today, Our Lady of Carmel is also part of the three altar paintings. This painting by G. Wappers, commissioned by the arch brotherhood in 1840 together the sculpture of the same name came from the former Carmelite convent on the Meir. And who has a good suggestion for a fourth - contemporary - painting?
The large number of confessionals in this Jesuit church serves a purpose. The confession is very popular - at Easter up to 4'000 confessions a day - next to the 16 confessionals on the lower floor 6 more were added on the galleries for the men. Christians prefer to confess their sins anonymously, preferably to some unknown priest rather than to their familiar one. The confessionals in the side aisles, attributed to J. P. Van Baurscheit (ca. 1720), are part of the panelling. Originally there were ten, now rest eight, whereof six are original.
It is obvious that the themes of the figurative compositions had something to do with confession, the struggle between good and evil, and the consecutive stages of sin, sorrow, forgiveness and penitence. The angels on the side are iconographically of no importance, but the two angels with symbols in the centre. Some examples: the awareness of our own mortality has to help us appreciate the value of good or bad. St. Ignatius advises everyone to meditate on the end of one's life and so be very aware of the struggle between good and evil. Therefore an angel meditating over a skull with worms. Next an angel with tally stick, while the one on the other side wipes the slate clean with a sponge. How merciful is God's forgiveness: whatever your sins wipe the slate clean and you can make a fresh start. Which visitor will not stop for a moment and consider reflecting on the meaning of reconciliation and maybe breathing a sigh of relief.
The Our Lady's Chapel: an unusual spectacle
The variety of marble is so rich that for a long time it was stated that it came from antique Roman palaces. Recognize two panels at the back of the chapel, showing such a richness of colours that they can compete with the best non-figurative paintings. Pay attention to the technique to get two symmetric compositions. A bloc of veined marble was sawn in two so that the veins of the marble were divided in two blocs along the parting line. When both halves were put opposite each other the one half is the mirror image of the other.
The Baroque arsenal of decorative elements shows itself exuberantly. Masks are found on the white marble pilasters of the triumphal arch and on nearly all capitals of the confessionals. Alongside there are many stylised faces, garlands and festoons, horns of plenty, stylised sunflowers, scallops and cartouches.
The predella wall: the life of mother and child
You can follow Mary's life from ten very remarkable scenes, painted by Hendrik I Van Balen (1560-1632) on the side marble walls and as predella for the altar. The Baroque playfulness is emphasized by the veins of the ochre brown marble, which are integrated in the landscape as rocks while the white marble was used to highlight the big temple architecture.
The altarpiece: The Assumption of Mary (Rubens)
On a huge altarpiece, flanked by two twisted Tuscan pillars, the highlight of Mary's life is to be seen: her assumption painted by the master, Rubens. Around 1611 the church administration of Our Lady's Cathedral decided to order a new altarpiece for the high altar. Both Otto van Veen and rubens presented a sketch of the "Crowning of Mary", but neither was selected by the chapter. Instead, a second sketch by Rubens of the assumption of Mary was chosen. On painting this panel the lower half reflects Ruben's design - in mirror image - the Crowning of Mary. This is now kept in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The completed painting (finished in 1613) never arrived at the Cathedral. It was finally placed in the Our Lady's chapel, which was only built after 1620. In 1776 Empress Mary Theresa bought the painting and it now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In 1925 parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo had a copy made of the original so that a global impression of the original ensemble is given here.
The altar rail
The marble altar rail replaces a wooden one. This Eucharist furniture is a present from Anna Houtappel (1657), the last survivor of the family. Central is the crowned name of Mary. Her flower symbols, the rose of the chosen one and the lily of her purity, are entwined with the plant-like symbols of Jesus in the Eucharist: corncobs (in place of small cornstalks) for the bread of the host, the body of Christ, grapes for the wine, the blood of Christ.
Ceiling reliefs with honorary titles of Mary
The principal theme of the chapel's ceiling is the name of Mary surrounded by a number of her symbols that are mentioned in the litany of Our Lady, the so-called Litany of Loreto. It has been established that P. P. Rubens designed the stucco. A sketch of his hand can be found in the Albertina in Vienna. But the sculptor Andries Colijns de Nole was also once named.
The sculptures of Saints