As the loiterer continues his afternoon stroll to the large and central Place de Commune, crosses into the chain of transverse boulevards, and returns riverward to that choicest spot of all, the tree-shaded, memoryhaunted Place Verte, he is bound to reflect upon the vast changes that Antwerp, above all other Continental cities, has experienced in the last quarter-century. He will marvel, too, that Robert Bell should have lamented in his charming “Wayside Pictures” the paucity of gay life here and particularly the lack of theatrical entertainment. It may have been so when Bell wrote, fifty years ago, but it is decidedly otherwise to-day. So far as theatres go, they simply abound; nor could city streets be gayer than these, thronged with a merry, happy people and bright with the uniforms of artillerymen and fortress engineers, grenadiers of the line and the dashing chasseurs-a-cheval. Every hotel and cafe has its orchestra; and in the early evening practically every square of the city has its concert by a band from a regiment or guild. There is no suburb, they say, but has its own band or orchestra, or both. Indeed, Antwerp is nearly as music-mad as art-mad.
The shady aisles of poplars in the cozy Place Verte, the perfumes and peaceful sounds, the music of the cathedral bells, the homelike hotels and cafes and the drowsy, nodding Old-World house-fronts combine to produce a sense of comfort and satisfaction peculiar to this favored little square. There is, besides, a special and impressive feeling of something like the personal presence of the great Rubens; partly, perhaps, from the fact that the city’s chief statue of him, a lifelike bronze of heroic size, stands at the centre of the Place. Twice the normal stature of man it is, and its pedestal is five times as high as one’s head, and the great palette, book, and scrolls are all of more generous proportions than such things actually ever are; – but there seems nothing at all disproportionate in that, considering what he was and what the average man is. The memory of one who could paint a masterpiece in a day, who stood head and shoulders above every living artist of his time, and whose work has inspired and delighted mankind for three hundred years, becomes, like all great objects, positively prodigious from actual proximity. Such is the inevitable attitude towards Rubens when one touches the things he touched, walks the streets of the city where he was born, lived, and lies buried, where he wrought his greatest artistic triumphs, and where his finest work is still preserved and reverenced. The most admired cathedral in the whole of the Netherlands rises out of the fluttering tree-tops of the square, and the greatest treasures it contains are the product of this man’s genius. Every one feels the Rubens influence in the Place Verte; Eugene Fromentin, fresh from his pictorial triumphs of Algerian life, observed in “Les Maftres d’Autrefois”: “Our imagination becomes excited more than usual when, in the centre of Place Verte, we see the statue of Rubens and further on, the old basilica where are preserved the triptychs which, humanly speaking, have consecrated it.” Such are the privileged emotions of the wise and fortunate visitors who pitch their passing tent in this fair and favored nook.
Reflections over Rubens naturally arouse thoughts of the many sons of Flanders who won preeminence in the domain of art. No other city, inexplicable as it is, has, in modern times, seen so large a proportion of its citizens achieve the loftiest heights of fame in this glorious activity; nor has any other honored art so unaffectedly in memorializing their triumphs. In Antwerp there are scores of streets and squares, and even quays, named after its artists. There are also fine statues to Rubens, Van Dyck, David Teniers, Jordaens, Quinten Matsys, and Hendrik Leys, and other memorials to the brothers Van Eyck, to Memling, Wappers, Frans Hals, Van der Heyden, De Keyser, and Verboekhoven. In private and public collections the people have jealously kept possession of the masterpieces of their fellow countrymen. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts, on the Place du Musee, is as much a treasure-house of Flemish art as the Rijks Museum at Amsterdam is of Dutch art. Again Place Verte plumes itself, for just around the corner was born the great Teniers, wizard depicter of tavern life and kermesses, and on one side is that tourists’ delight, the graceful, feathery well-top that Quinten Matsys wrought out of a single piece of iron, before the days when love inspired him to win the most coveted laurels of the painter.
However, art aside, Place Verte has distinctions of its own. Something of interest is always occurring here. Suburban bands hold weekly competitions in its artistic pavilion and the most skillful musicians hold concerts here each evening. The sidewalks then are crowded with chairs and tables, and at the close the people rise and join in the national hymn “La Brabanconne,” with its out-of-date lament to the men of Brabant that “the orange may no longer wave upon the tree of Liberty.” Of an afternoon a regiment may swing through in full regalia, the red, yellow, and black flag snapping in the van, and the band crashing out the ancient war-song “Bergen-op-Zoom.” If today were July 21 there would be tremendous enthusiasm and cheering celebrating the Fetes Nationales in honor of the Revolution of 1830; as well there should, for Belgium is the smallest and one of the most desirable little kingdoms of all Europe, and the national motto, “L’Union fait la Force,” has to be closely adhered to if the Lion of Brabant would stand up under the baiting of his powerful and covetous neighbors.
The passing of a Sister of the Beguinage, in sombre black garb and an extraordinary creation of immaculate white linen on her head, recalls the many things one has read of this interesting and noble order which is peculiarly Belgium’s own. Their neat little settlements are a source of endless admiration to strangers, and quite as fascinating is their beautiful vesper service which bears the pretty name of the “salut des Beguines.” Readers of Laurence Sterne, who should be legion, promptly recall the curious story of “The Fair Beguine” that Trim told Uncle Toby in” Tristram Shandy,” and the valiant Captain’s comment: “They visit and take care of the sick by profession – I had rather, for my own part, they did it out of good nature.”
It is one of the proud distinctions of Place Verte to be at the very portals of Antwerp’s glorious cathedral, the largest, richest, and most beautiful in the Netherlands. From his cafe chair the visitor watches its great shadow steal over him as the afternoon wanes, while at any moment by merely raising his eyes he map revel in the graceful outlines of its sweep of ambulatory chapels and let the aspiring tips of delicate pinnacles and arches entice his vision to the loftiest point of its one finished and matchless tower. Never was Napoleon so pat in “fitting the scene with the apposite phrase” as when he compared this tower to Mechlin lace. It is delightful to look up above the trees of the Place at the enormous bulk of this tremendous structure, stained and darkened by the vapors of river and canals, study its rich carvings and stained-glass windows centuries old, and note how the blue sky, in patterns of delicate foliation and fragile arch, shines like mosaics through the clustered apertures of the filmy openwork of the lofty tower. A hundred bells drip mellow music from that exquisite belfry every few minutes all day long. You listen, perhaps, to detect the impression they gave Thackeray of a new version of the shadow-dance from “Dinorah,” conscious that they are going to haunt you as they did him for days after you have left Antwerp far behind. It is peculiarly appropriate that the Lohengrin Wedding March should be a favorite on the bells of the very cathedral where Lohengrin, according to the story, was married. Indeed, so many and so varied are the clear bell-voices of this great carillon that their music seems, as the neighboring bells of Bruges did to Longfellow, –
“Like the psalms from some old cloister, When the nuns sing in the choir; And the great bell tolled among them, Like the chanting of a friar.”
Within this treasure-chest of a cathedral are jewels worthy of such a casket. One goes out of the glare of the afternoon sun into the coolness and scented gloom of its vaulted, many-aisled, and multi-chapeled vastness, and there in the hush of worshipers kneeling in prayer he finds splendid altars that gleam in a profusion of ornaments of silver, gold, and precious stones, glorious rose-windows, carven confessionals and choir stalls, life-like figures in wax clad in silks and crowned in gold, hundreds of masterful paintings, a high altar of extraordinary splendor blazing in costly decorations under a golden canopy supported by silver figures, and, at the centre of the seven aisles, Verbruggen’s far-famed carved wooden pulpit, realistic in lifelike foliage and birds, and with plump little cherubim floating aloft with the apparently fluttering canopy. As if this were not enough to distinguish any one church, here hang three of the most glorious creations of the hand of man, the masterpieces of Rubens himself. The Assumption alone could have sufficed; what is it, then, to have the tremendous glory of the presence of those greater achievements, The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross! One feels he could easily do as did the hero of Gautier’s “Golden Fleece” and carry away forever after a hopeless passion for the beautiful, grief-stricken Magdalen.
The power and appeal of sheer beauty has perhaps never been exampled as in the case of this cathedral. Through all the sackings and pillages of Antwerp the savagery and destructiveness of her foes have stopped here. The most ruthless soldiery could not bring themselves to lay violent hands upon it. One exception stands out in this remarkable experience, and that one was quite sufficient. The fanatical “Iconoclasts,” frenzied against the Church of Rome, fell to a depth of abasement below the worst villains of Spain. Those atrocious, misguided “Iconoclasts”! What a frightful page in Antwerp’s history is the one that recounts the three days of horrors of these frantic and terrible zealots, three hundred and fifty years ago! Schiller, Motley, and Prescott have told the story as few stories have ever been told. In the calm of this afternoon it is impossible to conceive the uproar and confusion with which these lofty arches then resounded. Fancy a horde of men and boys, lighted by wax tapers in the hands of screaming women of the streets, demolishing the altars and rending and destroying every exquisite decoration and even tearing open the graves and scattering the bones of the dead. Says Motley: “Every statue was hurled from its niche, every picture torn from the wall, every wonderfully painted window shivered to atoms, every ancient monument shattered, every sculptured decoration, however inaccessible in appearance, hurled to the ground. Indefatigably, ‘audaciously, -endowed, as it seemed, with preternatural strength and nimbleness, -these furious Iconoclasts clambered up the dizzy heights, shrieking and chattering like malignant apes, as they tore off in triumph the slowly matured fruit of centuries.”
Not the cathedral alone, but every Catholic temple of Antwerp, and four hundred others in Flanders, were sacked in this sudden revolt against the Papacy. It is said that King Philip, when he heard of it, fell into a paroxysm of frenzy and tore his beard for rage, swearing by the soul of his father that it should cost them dear. How dear it shortly did cost them, both the guilty and the innocent, we are shown in the picture Schiller has drawn of Calvinists’ bodies dangling from the beams of their roofless churches, of “the places of execution filled with corpses, the prisons with condemned victims, the highroads with fugitives.” Such was one of the extraordinary experiences through which this beautiful cathedral passed – one of the maddest, most senseless, and most frightfully punished outbreaks in all history.
In the company of the doves that nest among the pinnacles and arches away up in the cathedral tower, one looks out at this hour on a very considerable portion of the little kingdom — forty miles, they tell you, with a good glass, in any direction. It is a prospect well worth the weary climb. Just below, the tiled and gabled roofs rise and fall all about like a troubled sea. The crooked streets of the old section and the straight ones of the new, and the places and parks in verdant spaces here and there have the appearance of some vast topographical map. The gray Scheldt lies like a string of Ghent flax to Antwerp’s bent bow. A wrinkled arc of massive and intricate fortifications wards the rich city from its foes, and just beyond lie numerous tiny villages all with the exact primness of mathematical problems. An unusual country view is spread out on every hand. Canals, numerous as fences and dotted with boats and slowly-moving barges, sear the green fields like pale-blue scars; and white, dusty roads criss-cross with their solemn flanking of tall poplar trees. As if this region were the natural habitat of some strange and monstrous form of animal life, one beholds everywhere a semblance of motion and activity in the gaunt, waving, canvas arms of hundreds of plethoric windmills. Diminutive, trim farms, like little gardens, give the appearance of a general carpeting by Turkish rugs of vivid and diversified design; each has its whitewashed cottage roofed in thatch or tile and set in orchards hedged with box and hawthorn. Fields of corn, wheat, rye, and oats expand in well-kept richness, and in all this profusely cultivated region men, women, boys, and girls toil from the faintest dawn to sunset, and often all night by moonlight, content and even happy in the winning of enough to supply clothing and shelter and the unvarying fare of soup, coffee, and black rye bread. Seaward and northward lie sand dunes, dikes, and polders stretching away to the old morasses where the valiant Morini faced and stopped even Caesar. Literary people will see in all this country the land of “Quentin Durward,” as that greatest story of Flanders comes to mind, and they will perhaps reflect upon the characteristics of the good burghers of those days, whom Sir Walter thought “fat and irritable,” and will see young Durward defying the ferocious ” Wild Boar of Ardennes” in the perilous service of the fair Lady Isabelle, herself a Flemish countess.
To the northwest one sees the gleaming reaches of the Scheldt emptying themselves into the distant sea and, nearer at hand, solemn little Terneuzen where the ships turn into the canal for Ghent – Ghent, the “Manchester of Belgium,” where’old Roland swings in his belfry and calls “o’er lagoon and dike of sand, `I am Roland! I am Roland! There is victory in the land.”‘
On the east rise the spires of Westmalle, where in their Trappist convent austere disciples of St. Bruno, garbed in sackcloth and with shaven heads, pass their voiceless lives and keep watch beside the open graves in the orchard. To the south is venerable Mechlin on the many-bridged river Dyle, once famous for such laces as we may still see in the pictures of its immortal son, Frans Hals. Brussels lifts its towers forty miles due south, and stretches its broad roads to Waterloo. And it is there the black forest of Ardennes expands, where St. Hubert, patron of hunters, intercedes for the health of good dogs, and which certain Shakespearean editors have fixed upon as the Forest of Arden of “As You Like It.” Over there lies Namur where the gallant Uncle Toby of “Tristram Shandy” received the painful wound deplored of the Widow Wadman, “before the Gate of St. Nicholas,” as the precise description always ran, “in one of the traverses of the trench, opposite to the salient angle of the demibastion of St. Roch.”
One lingers long and delightedly over this charming panorama of fascinating and storied associations, until presently the great clock beneath us booms the hour of three, and our time is up. We turn regretfully from this toyland country and the gracious, old-fashioned town.