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

The man who carries the cross
(Jan Fabre)

Thanks to a patron who has given it as a long-term loan, the cathedral again houses a contemporary work of art, since November 2015. The man who carries the cross is a life size statue in polished bronze by the famous multidisciplinary Antwerp artist Jan Fabre. He leaves a mark on contemporary art by using an iconographic language that is either permeated with surrealism in an animist universe, or subdued, nearly dreamlike such as in The man who measures the clouds, high on the roof of De Singel Arts Campus (Antwerp). Also here, in the silence of a cathedral, the face of the artist, who is staring at the cross in full concentration and succeeds in keeping it in balance just yet, reflects as it were a mystical moment. The visitor feels that in this standstill something intense is  happening anyway, and is invited to side with the man. As a visitor in this ecclesiastic space you are faced with the religious, transcendent aspects of life. In his or her life each human being is faced with questions that surpass him or her and the question this statue asks is: can you find a balance for these in your life?

Instead of only offering answers, the Church wants to offer space for the vital questions of man. Maybe after all it was not a co-incidence that the pious Thomas More had his search for Utopia (1516) started, not in the then Antwerp stock exchange, but precisely in this church. Even though for modern man it is less obvious to look for this far ideal in faith, still the Church wants to continue stimulating the longing for this pursuit in every human being. On this subject parish priest Bart Paepen, who took the initiative for having the statue put here, says: ‘Observe this statue attentively: a man is carrying an enormous wooden cross on his right hand. He is no prophet or apostle, no martyr or saint. He is someone who in this cathedral does, what we want to invite every visitor to do, regardless of his background or conviction. Hold this cross for a while, sign of God’s love for every human being, sign of the commitment that He asks of his followers. Take the cross and balance it. Possibly you will not succeed in keeping it upright. Maybe it is too heavy or too difficult. Maybe you will have to try it again later. Maybe you find nothing to it and then you can drop it. Who knows, you manage and it feels good. Then it might well be that you have found direction and sense in life.’

Since recently the (further) path of faith can also be read from the liturgical furniture in this cathedral. It starts from the pulpit, the symbol of listening to the word of God. Those who accept the Word, can answer it by adopting faith at the baptismal font on the opposite side. This is what grown-ups do in Easter vigil. Then the altar invites you to meet the living Christ in the Eucharist. In this way, this walk, which has started with a question about the cross, gets an answer in the triumphal cross that is floating between the altar and the cupola. On this the man who has carried the cross till the end, shows the way to Divine encounter (suggested by Mary’s assumption high up in the cupola).

Anyway, by putting this statue by Fabre here, for the first time for ages there is  a contemporary work of art in this interior. Just as the first builders of this church had foreseen, today’s visitors find a work of art in which they can recognize themselves, which makes them feel welcome and invites them to reflect, so that the cathedral can continue to play its age-old role with verve.