THE first thing to see at Antwerp is the High Church of Our Lady, once the Cathedral, and still commonly so called, though it is not now a bishop’s see, but part of the diocese of Malines. It is a fine early and middle Gothic church, with a late Gothic or flamboyant tower; but, relatively to its fame it is externally disappointing. This is partly because mean houses have been allowed to gather round it, but partly also because its somewhat meretricious spire has been unduly praised by earlier generations. Modern taste, which admires the simpler and severer early ,form of Gothic, finds it fantastic and over-elaborate.
The Place Verte opposite the Cathedral (once the churchyard), is planted with trees, and has its centre occupied by a modern statue of Rubens. This is one of the few points from which you can view (more or less) the exterior of the Cathedral, the greater part of which is obstructed by shabby shops clustered round its base. The only really good views, however, are obtained from the second-floor windows of the houses on the east side of the Square, such as the Hôtel de l’Europe. Nevertheless, it will be well to walk round the building outside, in order to inspect as much of it as is visible.
The chief portal and the south transept are seen from the Place Verte. There is little sculpture on them, save a small late figure of the patroness, Our Lady, with the Child, on the centre pillar of the portal, and another high up between the angels of the gable-end.
Now, go round to the left, into the little triangular Place known as the Marché aux Gants, to view the main west front, best seen from the apex of the triangle opposite. It has a fine central portal and west window, ‘ flanked by two great towers, the southern incomplete. Its niches have statues of five only out of the Twelve Apostles. The northern tower, up to the first gallery, is middle Gothic of 1352-1449. The upper portion, with the octagonal lantern of very open work, flanked by projecting pinnacles, tied by small buttresses, is in later flamboyant Gothic, and was erected in 1502-1518, by Dominic de Waghamakere, the architect of the Gothic portion of the Town Hall at Ghent. This florid spire has been excessively praised above its merits, but will hardly satisfy a modern taste. It can be ascended for a fee of seventy-five centimes, but is dark and steep : the view, though fine, hardly repays the trouble.
The well in the Marché aux Gants, near the front of the Cathedral, has a beautiful wrought-iron canopy, to support its lid, said to have been made by Quentin Matsys when he was a blacksmith, or rather a metal-worker, before he took to painting. (But the legend is doubtful.) It consists of a trellis of vine, supporting wild men and women with clubs, and capped by a figure of Brabo, the eponymous hero of Brabant, flinging the hand of the giant Antigonus (see later, under the Hôtel-de-Ville).
Now, continue on round the north side of the Cathedral. A few glimpses of the north transept and aisles, as well as of the nave and choir, may be obtained as we proceed, much of it, unfortunately, now being marred by excessive restoration. The beautiful choir and apse, with their flying buttresses, are almost entirely concealed by neighbouring houses. If these were cleared away, a fine view would be obtained of a noble piece of architecture, now only visible by occasional glimpses from the upper floors of surrounding houses. This portion of the church is further disfigured by the abrupt terminations to the roofs of the transepts, and by the ridiculous pepper-caster top which replaces the central spire or flèche of the original conception. Continue on through the narrow streets till you have made a complete tour of the Cathedral and returned to the Place Verte and the door of the south transept. The best general view, however, is not obtainable from any of these points, but from the Grand’ Place, and especially the upper windows of the Hôtelde-Ville, to be visited later.
Now, enter the Cathedral, by the door in the south transept. (Open, free, from eight to twelve on Sundays and Thursdays : or, every day, twelve to four, on payment of a franc per person. But if you wish really to inspect the works of art it contains, pay your franc like a man, and see them at your leisure when there are no services in progress. Fine music at High Mass at ten on Sundays.)
The interior is impressive and solemn, with its high nave, transepts, and choir, of good simple Gothic, and its three rows of aisles, the perspective of which, with their many pillars, is extremely striking. The aisles, however, are unusually low in proportion to the height of the central cruciform building. First walk down the nave to the west end, to form a general conception of the fine and impressive interior, grand in its colossal simplicity, and commendably free from eighteenth century disfigurements.
Now, begin at the right or south aisle, which contains admirable modern Stations of the Cross by Vinck and Hendrickx, excellently painted in the archaic spirit. I do not describe these, as they need no explanation, but each is worthy of individual attention. Do not hurry.
The Chapel of the Sacrament, at the end of this aisle, has good polychrome decoration, and fine stained-glass windows (Last Supper, 1503: St. Amand converting Antwerp ; St. Norbert preaching against the heresy of Tanquelin at Antwerp, etc.) : also, a reliquary of St. Roch, and an interesting modern statue of that great plague-saint.
The south transept has a good modern stained-glass window, and affords fine views of the central Dome and Aisles.
On the right wall are the Marriage at Cana in Galilee, appropriately painted for the Altar of the Wine-merchants, by M. de Vos (excellent for comparison with others of the same subject), and a Last Supper by Otto van Veen, the master of Rubens, formerly the Altar-piece of the Chapel of the Sacrament.
The left wall of the south transept is occupied by Rubens’s great triptych of St. Christopher, commonly called (from its central portion) ** The Descent from the Cross. This is a splendid work, conceived (as to idea) in the mystical spirit of old Flemish art, though carried out, of course, in the utterly different and incongruous style of Rubens. In order to understand it we must remember that triptychs were usually kept closed on the altar, and that the picture which first met the eye was that which occupies the outer shutters. It struck the key-note. Now, the outer shutters of this work (seldom seen, unless you ask the Sacristan;to close it) are occupied by a figure of St. Ch Christopher, with the hermit who directed him to Christ, accompanied by his lantern and owl, as n the earlier St. Christopher triptych by Memling in the Academy at Bruges. This painting was ordered from Rubens by the Guild of Arquebusiers, whose patron is St. Christopher. On the outside, therefore, Rubens painted the saint himself, whose name (of course) means the Christ-Bearer. But on the inner portion he painted three other symbolical or allusive scenes of the Bearing of Christ : on the left, The Visitation; the unborn Christ borne by His mother : on the right, The Presentation in the Temple; the living Christ borne by Simeon : in the centre, The Descent froth the Cross ; the dead Christ borne by Joseph of Arimathea and the Disciples.
The left wing shows us Our Lady, in a big Flemish hat, approaching St. Elizabeth. Behind, Joseph and Zacharias, the two husbands, shake hands. (This composition has been copied in the stained-glass window of the Cathedral at Antwerp.) In order to impress the mystical meaning of the picture, the fact of Our Lady’s pregnancy has been strongly insisted upon.
The central panel shows us the Descent from the Cross. Nicodemus holds the body by one shoulder, while St. John, below, receives it in his arms, and the Magdalen at the feet expresses her tenderness. Joseph of Arimathea descends the ladder. The actual corpse forms the salient point in the picture. It is usual to say that the contrast of the dead body and white sheet is borrowed from the famous treatment of the same subject by Daniele da Volterra in Santa Trinità de’ Monti at Rome; and indeed, the composition in this work has probably been suggested by the Italian example; but a similar white sheet, with the dead body seen against it, is found in all early Flemish art, and especially in works of the School of Roger van der Weyden. (It is known as the Holy Sudarium.) In this splendid and gorgeous conception, Rubens has given the greatest importance to the body of the Saviour; but he is so intensely occupied with the mechanical difficulties of its support, the strain and stress of the dead weight, that he forgets feeling; in spite of the agonized attitude of the Mater Dolbrosa, the picture is sadly lacking in pathos. He realizes the scene as to its material facts; he fails to realize its spiritual significance. (For an opposite opinion, see M. Max Rooses, who speaks of ” the profound expression of a tender and respectful love.”) To my mind, the man who holds the Sudarium in his teeth is a fault of taste of the most flagrant character. We think of the whole work rather as a wonderful piece of art than as the fitting delineation of a sacred subject. But as art it is triumphant. The faces of the St. John and the Magdalen are also charming.
The right wing, with the Presentation, and the, aged Simeon receiving Christ in his arms, is of less interest.
Next, enter the ambulatory, behind the Choir.
First chapel. Good modern stained-glass window of the Pietà.
Second chapel. Tomb of John Moretus, the son-in-law of Plantin, the famous printer (see after, under Musée Plantin-Moretus) erected by Martina Plantin, his widow, and with pictures by Rubens. Above, in an oval, portrait of John Moretus (by a pupil, retouched by Rubens). Below, triptych; centre, The Resurrection, emblematic of hope for his glorious future. Left wing, his patron, St. John the Baptist; right wing, his widow’s patroness, St. Martina. This triptych, too, loses by not being first seen closed : on the outside are two angels, about to open a door; as the wings unfold, you behold the luminous figure of the risen Christ, grasping the red Resurrection banner. This figure is celebrated. The dismay of the Roman soldiers is conceived in the thorough Rubens spirit. Observe the arrangement of this triptych on the tomb : it will help you to understand others in the Museum.
Opposite this, Tomb of a Premonstratensian Friar, with St. Norbert, founder of the Order, in adoration, by Pepyn.
This chapel is also one of the best points of view for Rubens’s famous ** Assumption, above the High Altar. We here see one of these great altar-pieces (of which we shall meet many examples in the Museum) placed in the situation for which it was originally designed. This Assumption ranks as one of Rubens’s masterpieces. Above, Our Lady is caught up into the air by a circle of little cherubs, dimly recalling the earlier Italian mandorla. Below, stand the Apostles, looking into the empty tomb, with the youthful figure of St. Thomas stretching out his hands in ah. attitude derived from the Italian subject of the Sacra Cintola. In the centre of the foreground, the Holy Women, about to pick roses from the empty tomb. (See a similar Work in the Brussels Museum. This composition can only be understood by the light of earlier Italian examples.)
Oh the pier between this and the next chapel, Crucifixion, with Scenes from the Passion.
Third chapel: Master of the School of Cologne, fourteenth century. A Glory of the Angels. In the centre, St. Michael the Archangel slaying a dragon, whose double tongue divides into many heads of kings. Right and left, the insignificant donor and donatrix. On either side, choirs of angels in hierarchies. Above, Christ enthroned in a mandorla (almond-shaped halo) worshipped by angels. Beneath, in the predella, St. Stephen with his stone; St. Ursula with bow and arrow; St. Peter with his keys; a Pietà; St. John the Evangelist; St. Agnes with her ruby ring; and St. Anthony the Abbot with his staff and bell. A good picture of the school from which Van Eyck was a reaction. Opposite it, Tomb of Bishop Ambrosio Capello, by Arthus Quellin, the only one remaining tomb of a bishop in the Cathedral.
Fourth chapel. Good sixteenth century figure of Our Lady and Child. Tomb of Plantin, with Last Judgment, by De Backer.
Fifth chapel. Beautiful modern archaic altar-piece of St. Barbara.
Sixth chapel. Nothing of special interest, though in all these chapels the stained-glass windows and polychromatic decorations are worthy of notice.
Opposite it, on the back of the High Altar, painted imitations of reliefs, by Van Bree an extraordinary illusion ; Annunciation, Marriage of the Virgin, Visitation. In front of these, Tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, wife of Charles the Bold, and mother of Mary of Burgundy. Altar-back, Death of the Virgin, seventeenth century.
Seventh chapel. Good modern archaic altar-piece, with a miracle of St. John Buchman. The saints are named on it.
Eighth chapel. Tolerable modern archaic altar-piece of Our Lady and Child, with donors and saints.
On the pier, between this and the next chapel, School of Roger van der Weyden, Selection of Joseph as the husband of the Virgin, and Marriage of the Virgin; a good picture.
Ninth chapel, of St. Joseph, patron saint of Belgium, and therefore honoured with this larger shrine. On the Altar, modern carved and gilt altar-piece, St. Joseph bearing the Infant Christ. Around it, Scenes from his Life. On the left (beginning below), Marriage of the Virgin and Joseph, Nativity, Presentation in the Temple; on the right (beginning above), Flight into Egypt, Finding of Christ in the Temple, the Holy Carpenter’s Shop Centre, Death of St. Joseph. On the wings, right, Philip IV. dedicating Belgium to St. Joseph; left, Pius IX., accompanied by St. Peter, appointing Joseph patron saint of Belgium.
Now enter the north transept.
On the right wall. Rubens’s famous Elevation of the Cross. In form a triptych, but with the same subject continued through its three members. Centre, The Elevation : left, St. John, the Mater Dolorosa, and the Holy Women : right, Longinus and the soldiers, with the two thieves. This is one of Rubens’s most bustling pictures, where the mere muscular effort almost wholly chokes the sense of pathos. The dog in the foreground is an exceptionally unhappy later addition by the master. The tone of colour is brown and cold; the work is mainly painted for light and shade. It was formerly the altar-piece in the Church of St. Walburga, who appears with other saints on the outer shutters.
This Transept also contains stained glass of the seventeenth century.
On the left wall is a triptych by Francken: Centre, Christ among the Doctors, said to be portraits of the Reformers. Left wing, St. Ambrose baptizing Augustine, with the donor, kneeling. Right wing, Elijah causing the widow’s cruse of oil to be replenished.
The chapel in the north transept has nothing of interest.
Now, enter the Choirs with good modern carved stalls, and a different but less impressive view of Rubens’s Assumption.
The north aisle has little of interest, save its stained-glass windows, and a Head of Christ, painted on marble, ascribed to Leonardo, but really of Flemish origin. This is affixed to the first pillar of the Lady Chapel. Further on in the aisle, confessionals with tolerable wood-carvings.
The nave has the usual overloaded seventeenth century pulpit, with Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.
I have only briefly enumerated the principal contents; but you will find much more that is interesting for yourself if you spend an hour or two longer in examining the Cathedral.