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The Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp, a revelation.

Poor Relief

The table of the Holy Spirit

At the end of the parish zone in the southern part of the church the poor were helped at a table from which, after mass, food and clothes were distributed. This was known as the ‘Table of the Holy Spirit’. After all, is pure charity not a special gift of God’s inspirational power? This is why above the door to the storeroom nearby we can still see the dove, allegory of the Holy Spirit. Later poor relief increased and was greatly moved to a house in Heilige Geeststraat (Holy Spirit Street), which was named after this activity.

The almoners’ chapel

By founding a ‘Chamber of domestic poor’ in 1458, the city wanted to control this parish poor relief. The four governors in charge had to collect and distribute the alms or the poor relief fund. Not surprisingly these ‘almoners’ were chosen among the most affluent citizens, for whom the title was a lifelong honour. In fact this institution was the predecessor of the present OCMW (Public Centre for Social Welfare). And like nowadays we know benefit concerts for a good cause, they in their times organised for instance stage plays in Saint Luke’s guildhall on 7 Grote Markt (Great Market Square). With the entrance fees the poor relief’s coffers could be filled.

However few the number of governors, the almoners wanted an independent chapel of their own in the main church for their honourable institution. Because moreover a private house in the Great Market Square was not necessary for such a small exclusive group, a meeting room was sufficient: the ‘Poor Chamber’. For their chapel they chose the far end of the southern aisle, next to the southern tower, where now the bookshop is. Instead of the present glass partition there used to be a stone wall. Only through this chapel they could enter their meeting room and the adjacent strongroom. The decoration in their gathering room included the bust portrait of Nicolaas Rockox († 1640), which as a funeral monument was meant as an example to remind the governors of the testamentary generosity of this (childless) almoner. It is now in the Maagdenhuis Museum, the seat of the OCMW, and it was painted by Thomas Willeboirt Bosschaert, after the large portrait by Antony van Dyck (1621), which is now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

It might not be a coincidence either that of all the chapels in the cathedral the almoners’ one – behind the southern tower – was the most closed one, probably because they did not want to attract too much attention, at least not of the beggars in the church. The only relic of this chapel is the stained glass window by Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1635), depicting the four almoners who were in charge that year. However pious and obliging they may have been, this did not prevent these gentlemen of means from showing their vanity. Instead of concentrating more devoutly on the religious scene that used to be above them, they prefer looking self-confidently at the visitors so that they can be admired. On the stained-glass window above them, which has disappeared, there were four saints who exemplarily practiced a few works of mercy, under the watchful eye of Holy Trinity. Two of them, Stephen and Laurence, were deacons, i.e. men who in the early Christian community were appointed to take care of the poor (Acts 6:1-6). In this way they were the explicit predecessors of the almoners! As a background the front of the Maagdenhuis was chosen. This was not a coincidence. After all, besides this girls’ orphanage other institutions were also governed by the Poor Chamber, such as the foundlings’ house and the so-called ‘Knechtjeshuis’ (a boys’ orphanage). Exactly in 1635 these four almoners gave the impulse to extend the Maagdenhuis, so that it got its present stately appearance, an imposing new-construction project that caught attention. On the premises itself this effort could not remain unnoticed either. A text on a continuous frieze around the entire inner square mentions the same four almoners as those in this chapel. How big the need for recognition remains, even in social welfare. The representation of this nice realisation must have filled these almoners with pride, who, as Holy Spirit Masters constituted the executive committee for another three years, and who, as ‘old almoners’ remained lifelong members of the great council (the ‘Great Holy Spirit’).

In the 18th century the carton, which had the same size as the stained-glass window, was still kept in the Holy Spirit Chamber nearby, but after the latter had been transferred to the OCMW, the carton got lost. The oil sketch is still being preserved in the Philadelphia Museum of Arts.

The magnificent altarpiece by Bernard van Orley (ca. 1517), which decorated the almoners chapel for nearly 300 years, is property of the Antwerp OCMW but has been entrusted as a long-term loan to the KMSKA (Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts). It has been through catastrophes such as the 1533 fire and the Iconoclast Furies. During mass it had to inspire the almoners in the exercise of their duties. When opened the Works of Mercy can be seen as criterions at the Last Judgment. Of the four exemplary saints on the outer wings, who relieve the needs of the destitute, three were also on the lost stained-glass window: Saint Elisabeth and the two deacons, who can be recognized by their dalmatics. These proto-almoners, who gave their lives as martyrs, can be identified by the attribute of their martyrdom. Stephen, with a stone on his head and stones in his dalmatic, distributes clothes, and Laurence, with the gridiron, hands out money. Further a female saint, Saint Elisabeth, the generous queen, distributes money, while the Biblical figure, Tobias, who can be recognized by his loyal dog, is holding the Bible book that bears the name of his father Tobit. After all, this is the outstanding example of an Old Testament book in which the works of mercy are praised (at least for Catholics, since Protestants do not acknowledge this book as canonical).

Some inscriptions are calls to donate ‘Voor de schamele huysarmen van alle quartieren deser stadt’ [For the humble domestic poor of all the quarters of this city] (on the last pillar of the southernmost aisle). Similar inscriptions can be found on the first pillar of the Venerable Chapel and on the first pillar of the two narrow northern aisles.