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

God glorified by the arts,
stained glass window southern transept
Jean-Baptiste Bethune, 1872

After the Baroque window of king Philip III of Spain had been severely damaged by storm, it was ‘made white’ in 1802, i.e. replaced by transparent glass. Sixty years later this void permitted ‘The Royal Society to Promote the Fine Arts in Antwerp’ to commission the famous neo-Gothic stained-glass artist Jean-Baptiste Bethune to make a grand stained glass window. The second centennial of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (1863) and the fourth centennial of Saint Luke’s Guild (1854) were the double occasion for this. Not only the arts that are practised at the Academy have been pictured to honour God, also the disciplines of the chambers of rhetoric, poetry and eloquence, church music – which is so important for liturgy – philosophy and theology, while economics, which makes all this possible and which in Antwerp is mainly maritime trade, is given first position.

In each of the eight (vertical) columns one of these disciplines is pictured, each time by means of four representations in as many (horizontal) rows. From bottom to top: the escutcheon of those who practise this discipline in Antwerp, an old testament figure who practised the discipline, a little man with the Latin name of the discipline concerned on a banderol and on top the patron saint of this discipline, preferably someone who practised it him- or herself.

From left to right:

[1] The shipping company · navicularia Noah is carrying a scale model of his ark, accompanied by a flying dove with a palm. Saint Nicholas’s attribute are the three round gold nuggets that he offered to poor girls as a dowry so as to keep them out of prostitution. Or profit for the benefit of charity, and so of God.

[2] The gold & silversmiths’ art · metalorum fabrica The coat of arms of the Antwerp gold & silversmiths shows three ciboriums. Because he was so skilful in working wood, precious stones and metals Besalel was asked by Moses to make the Ark of the Covenant and the seven branched candleholder of the Temple of Jerusalem (Exod. 31:1-11). The goldsmith Saint Eligius is holding a small hammer and a reliquary.

[3] Architecture · architectura As he had the Temple built, King Solomon is carrying a scale model of it. Saint Barbara, with her princess’s crown, and carrying a palm to indicate she is a martyr, has become the patron of builders of towers and fortifications, because she was locked up in a tower.

[4] Painting · pictura has been represented by the coat of arms of ‘The Royal Society to Promote the Fine Arts in Antwerp’, whose Latin name occurs as the commissioner of this stained-glass window. It is held by a winged ox, the symbol of Luke the evangelist. According to the vision of Ezekiel (9:3-4) an Israelite, a ‘man clothed in linen at whose loins was the writing case’ put up a sign so that people could be saved. The church fathers identified this sign as a ‘T’ (tau), a prefiguration of Jesus’s cross. Its red colour refers to the lamb’s blood that the Jews applied (non figuratively!) at the doorposts of their houses just before their exodus from Egypt (Exod. 12:7.13). The blessed Jacobus Griesinger from Ulm (1407-1491) used to be a stained-glass artist before he entered the Dominican Order to be a friar. He is drawing a Calvary, inspired by the crucified Jesus: sign of salvation of entire humanity.

[5] Eloquence · eloquentia  is one of the disciplines of the chambers of rhetoric, of which the oldest one became part of Saint Luke’s guild in 1480. The coat of arms is this of the city of Antwerp, whose administration consisted of jurists. The lips of the prophet Isaiah are purified with an ember by a seraph (Is. 6:6). Saint Ivo, lawyer and canonist, who is wearing a gown and cap, takes a scroll with a seal from his briefcase, which has a lock.

[6] Poetry and philosophy · poesis et philosoph(ia) with the coat of arms of the chamber of rhetoric ‘De Goudbloem’ (The Marigold). The prophet Ezekiel, who received the order from God to speak to people and to note these words in his book, is holding a book in his hands on which there are four winged wheels, because he saw God descend on four winged creatures on four entwined cart wheels (Ez. 1:15-21). According to tradition the king’s daughter Saint Catherine of Alexandria would have converted to Christianity the philosophers who had to dissuade her from Christianity. Because the first attempt to kill her on a wheel failed, she was beheaded with a sword. Hence her attributes.

[7] Theology · theologia Above the escutcheon of the Antwerp Saint Michael’s Abbey, founded by Saint Norbert, is Moses with the stone tablets of the law, i.e. the Ten Commandments, with on the left the numbers I to III for the Godly commandments, and on the right the numbers IV to X for the commandments that regulate relationships among humans. The tower monstrance that Norbert is holding alludes to his actions against the heresy of Tanchelm in Antwerp.

[8] Music · musica Above the coat of arms of the city musicians Kind David accompanies the singing of psalms with a harp. Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of church music, is carrying the modello of a positive organ.

In the tracery: Holy Trinity. God the Father enthroned, dressed in imperial purple, blesses mankind. Christ is dressed in red (of love that is prepared to sacrifice one’s own blood) and wrapped in a green cloak (sign of hope and new life). The green wooden cross in the shape of a T stands for faith and Jesus’s sacrifice of love. In his hands the book of life is open on the pages with ‘A and O’. The white dove is the allegory of the Holy Spirit. Two angels praise God by swaying censers to Him. White and blue, the colours of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, have been her typical colours since the apparitions in Lourdes in 1854. Saint Luke, the patron saint of the arts and especially of painting, is given the honour of sitting iconographically right of Jesus. He ‘described’ Mary and Child with a brush – according to the legend he painted them from nature – but the infant Jesus does not occur on the stained glass window. On the banderol, in the mouth of the ox, his attribute, is a paraphrase of the first verse of Saint Luke’s gospel (1:1): ‘Quid nam multi conatus’ (what many have attempted). Of course this refers to the (apocryphal) story of him painting the portrait of Mary and Child. The apostle Saint Thomas, who was killed by Hindu fanatics when he was building a church on his mission in Southern India, has therefore become the patron saint of architects. Here his attribute is the scale model of an Eastern church.

At the bottom of the tracery are the emblems of the most important chambers of rhetoric. On the left we can see De Goudbloem (The Marigold), in the middle twice De Violieren (The Violets) and on the right De Olijftak (The Olive Branch). Left and right in the tracery are banderols with rhymed invocations of patron saints.

In 1836 a railroad connected Antwerp with Malines and Brussels. In the same year, so as to get a more regulated measuring of time for the expanding railroad traffic, the government of young Belgium gave the order to Adolphe Quetelet, the head of the then Brussels Observatory (now in Ukkel) to measure time in the cities more accurately, on the base of the normal local solar time. For this purpose some forty giant meridian lines were installed. In 1838 one of these appeared in the transept of this main church, in the shape of a brass line. The light openings in the neo-Gothic stained glass window have been preserved, top and bottom left. In winter the patch of light falls perfectly on the brass strip in the northern transept since at noon on 21 December the sun is at its lowest. In the summer this happens in the southern transept, because on 21 June it is at its highest. From 1993 the patch of light was not clearly visible anymore in the crossing because there a new marble altar stage had been built, on top of the brass strip. This is why a third opening has been made so that the sun enters the cathedral in a different angle and so that the patch of light can fall further on the brass strip in the northern transept.