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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 Confessionals
To support the private character of confession, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) created new church furniture: the confessional. Adjusted to the body language the person confessing kneels before the priest to express his repentance. The priest, sitting in the centre, listens alternately to one confession after the other. By avoiding eye contact, anonymity is maintained, and free speech is stimulated. This is a form of psychology pre-empting the psychologist couch of Freud...

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
Even more spectacular than the confessionals is the appearance of Madonna in the exquisitely rich Our Lady's Chapel. The completion of the chapel was possible thanks to the patronage of the three sisters Houtappel from the village of Ranst, who lived as "spiritual daughters" according to the spiritual rules of the Jesuits. This sumptuous chapel is the only place in Antwerp where you are seduced by playful Baroque art. Here Baroque is smiling at you with the natural capricious lines of marble: charming painted marble panels, lifelike flowers, corncobs and grapes, a ceiling in stucco with symbolic honorary titles of Mary, the mask-like styled consoles and reliefs. Who would not leave with in a joyfully mood? Luckily the fire of 1718 spared this jewel.


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
Out of the workshop of Colijns de Nole six life-size white marble sculptures were commissioned. Four were chosen as patron saints by the commissioners, the sisters Houtappel and their niece Anna ‘s Grevens: the saints Anne, Christine, Catherine of Alexandria and Susanna. Donor of the chapel was Godfridus Houtappel, lord of Ranst and Zevenbergen. His gravestone is situated in front of the altar and underneath it is the crypt of the family. The coat-of-arms of the Houtappel and the related ‘s Grevens family are included in the wall decoration.

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

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