In St. Paul's church the baroque interior is whimsically reconciled with a gothic building: playful baroque and firm gothic live harmoniously next to each other. No single piece appears individually in the foreground, everything is integrated in a balanced entity. The Antwerp sculpors and painters did create an ensemble in St. Paul's church that is unique.
The high altar is a monumental baroque portico altar. Peter I Verbruggen and his son Peter II realized it in 1670. The white and black marble reminds us of the colours of the Dominicans: white is the colour of poverty; black is the colour of the mourning because of sin. The whole altar is by the way a witness to the increasing faith of the time of the Counter Reformation. There are two allegorical figures sitting above the Entablature, on the volutes, "Fides" (Faith) and "Veritas" (Truth). "In Fide et Veritate" was the slogan of the Dominicans. The woman to the left is holding a cross and a cup as signs of faith. The woman to the right is holding a sun, a palm leaf and a book, as symbols of truth. This high altar was ordered by Ambrosius Capello, seventh bishop of Antwerp and old prior of the Dominican monastery. He is shown at the bottom of the left column, underneath the figure of the holy Ambrosius.
A magnificent group of sculptures stands in the main nave against the first pillar to the right. It is an early piece (1644) in stone of the famous Antwerp sculptor Artus I Quellin (1609-1668). Mary is holding the infant Jesus in front of her and helps him to bless the passers-by. At the same time she assists him in carrying the heavy globe in his left hand. To the left and right Joseph and Anne are positioned. From above two little angels are approaching with a laurel wreath. The whole structure was designed in a sober rubenesque style, characteristic of the early period of Artus I Quellin before he went to Amsterdam to design the interior and exterior decoration of the City Hall on the Dam street.
The tomb of Ophovius dates from 1637 and was made from marble and stone of Avesne. The infant Jesus is standing on the knees of his mother and offers a rosary to the kneeling bishop. The sculpture of Ophovius, bishop of Den Bosch and prior of the Antwerp Dominicans, is attributed to Hans van Mildert. On top of the grave monument sits a weeping putto with an hourglass, a skull and a torch turned upside down. Time runs down way to fast for everybody...
Sculptural art really is abundant here: altars and altar rails, choir stalls and organ, epitaphs and doors, and especially the confessionals with no less than 40 life-sized figures and richly sculptured decorations. Exceptional professional work by amongst others Kerricx, Verbrugghen, Quellin, with distinctive Flemish accents of liveliness and narration, especially at the confessionals where the inner struggle of a human being between good and bad is illustrated with bewildering creativity. If we talk about the scampering dogs, roaring lions, fighting cocks, horny monkeys or a true "scapegoat", their power as an allegory of evil in every respect has to be moderated and tamed. The richness of the fantasy of all these edifying symbols is impossible to assess: a dancing skeleton reminds us about the momentariness of life, a butterfly, about resurrection to an unconceivable new life. Kids games like rounders, blowing bubbles, and a cat-and-mouse game (!) have to suggest heavenly virtue, without spoiling the party... A timeless message. And - as if this is not sufficient - there is a real sculpture garden as a live open-air theatre.
There is more. The painting "the seven works of charity" testifies to the social conditions of our ancestors. The set of naval paintings: "the naval battle of Lepanto" (J. Petters, 1671) illustrates another piece of European history. St. Paul's as well can talk about art dealership and (especially) changes in art history. Multiple works were bought by foreign visitors/occupiers or were taken without payment: the price of success! Now the visitor can delight himself with a whole series of publications that were realized by the St. Paul's friends.
Nowhere else in Antwerp do you find so many masks. Up to the cloister they smile at you, each with its own grimace: a psychological tactic to cheer up the daily routine a bit.
The monumental baroque church can flaunt brilliant art, the most precious materials, yet the interior airs a whimsical brightness that testifies of joyful faith and trust in god. It is a world of light and movement: wherever you look between the choir stalls and the confessionals, everywhere angels are alert and wave, and swing at you. Playful and fleet-footed, gentle and full of pity they look at you, inviting you to join them in their game.
The imposing organ, which belongs to the Top Ten historical organs in Europe, brings you even more delight. Peter I Verbruggen carved the monumental organ case between 1654 and 1658 after a sketch of Erasmus II Quellinus. The original instrument was by Nicolaes van Haegen. In 1730-32 the famous Jean-Baptiste Forceville enlarged the organ. After the neglect of the French Revolution is was altered once more by Jean-Joseph Delhaye. Together with orchestra and choir it touches the feelings of worshippers in solemn orchestral masses on feast days. Not to be missed!