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

Praise to Our Lady:
the Our Lady’s Chapel

The Statue of the Virgin Mary

For over a thousand years churchgoers have been entrusting their joys and sorrows to God, through the intercession of Mary, the patron of this church and the city of Antwerp. In 1399 the first yearly Our Lady’s Procession was held. This was fixed on the Sunday after Our Lady’s Assumption (15 August) and was one of the festive highlights of the year for the Antwerpians. Albrecht Dürer, among others, testified to it. So as to avoid that playful aspects would become predominant, in 1761 the parade was split up into a profane pageant and a religious procession. The latter went through the streets until the 1960’s and has since then be replaced by a procession inside the cathedral.

The new Guild of Our Lady’s Praise looked forward to the moment Our Lady’s Chapel was finished in the northern aisle in 1478. In the beginning it only consisted of the uttermost eastern bay, where the boss (ca. 1481) represents The Annunciation, which is the election of Mary. During the 1566 Iconoclast Fury the statue of the Virgin Mary was badly damaged, but in 1581 it escaped total destruction during the Calvinist Rule because it had been bricked up behind a wall in a guild member’s house. The 16th century statue of Our Lady also survived the French Revolutionary Rule because it had been hidden in a private cellar. On 15 August 1899, at the occasion of the fifth centenary of Our Lady’s Procession, cardinal archbishop Petrus Goossens came in the name of Pope Leo XIII to solemnly crown the statue. Karel Ooms painted the representation of this joyful event in the medallion of a processional banner that now decorates the chapel. From the 300 rings and the hundreds of precious stones that were donated by Antwerp believers, goldsmith Jos Junes made an invaluable crown. Only at the occasion of the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, on 15 August, the crown is put onto the statue. Mary’s clothes vary throughout the year, in relation with the prescribed liturgical colours.

The altar

The Baroque altar that was consecrated on 14 August 1678, at the occasion of the second centenary of the Guild, was conceived as a throne for the statue of Virgin Mary. Underneath four white marble reliefs by Artus II Quellin represent important scenes from Mary’s life: The Annunciation, The visit to Elizabeth, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and The Assumption. They show how also Baroque sculpture was indebted to Rubens for formation of pictures. Fortunately their bozetti have been preserved in the Belgian Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. To have an idea of how the altar would be developed above the cornice and to add a more festive aspect to the consecration of the altar and the additional devotional picture with the representation of the altar, a painted canvas with the project of Peter I Verbrugghen was hung above the cornice in the same year. In the altar crowning God the Father hands the crown to Mary. Angels that surround him each hold a Marian symbol from Our Lady’s litany: on top three celestial bodies – on the left Beautiful as the moon (Song of Songs 6:10a), in the centre Resplendent as the sun (Song of Songs 6:10b) and on the right a star, which may refer to The Morning Star shining among clouds (Sirach 50:6) as well as to Star of the sea. Underneath, closer to the ground, there are two buildings: on the left a house – Golden house or Wisdom has built her house (Prov. 9:1) – and on the right a tower: Tower of ivory (Song of songs 7:5) or David’s tower (Song of songs 4:4).

In 1825 Jacob II van der Neer reconstructed the original Baroque altar, for which – thanks to their being confiscated for the École Centrale – he could reuse the original columns and predella reliefs.

In 1878, on the occasion of their fourth centenary, the Guild of Our Lady’s Praise wanted to colour the chapel full length with a series of five neo Gothic stained-glass windows. They were designed by Pieter Van de Ouderaa, after the instructions of city archivist Pieter Genard, and executed by the Stalins – Janssens workshop (1878-1885). They sketch the Marian devotion inside this church, partly by representing some important historical events; from east to west:

[1] First in the row (1878) and also literally closest to the altar, is Our Lady, patron saint of Antwerp, a donation of king Leopold II and queen Marie Henriette, which is hence called ‘the Royal Window’. Each of the then nine Belgian provinces are represented by their patron saints. Considering Mary’s significance as the most important saint, she is in the centre – incidentally next to her husband Joseph, who is the patron saint of Belgium. Notice how Antwerp also shares its patron’s central position amidst the other provinces.

[2] Our Lady at the stake (1878) was donated by a prominent family that wished to remain anonymous. All sections of society come to venerate Mary. The legendary Our Lady at the stake can be recognized by the tree trunk (‘stake’) that bears the (imaginary) medieval statue of Mary. The scene is colourfully fringed with escutcheons of civil authorities, ecclesiastical institutions and of guilds, brotherhoods and crafts. This is why it is called ‘The Historic Window of the City of Antwerp’.[2] Our Lady at the stake (1878) was donated by a prominent family that wished to remain anonymous. All sections of society come to venerate Mary. The legendary Our Lady at the stake can be recognized by the tree trunk (‘stake’) that bears the (imaginary) medieval statue of Mary. The scene is colourfully fringed with escutcheons of civil authorities, ecclesiastical institutions and of guilds, brotherhoods and crafts. This is why it is called ‘The Historic Window of the City of Antwerp’.

[3] The Founding of the Guild of Our Lady’s Praise in 1478 (1881) was donated by a member of the Venerable Chapel, Petrus Heesmans, and his wife Eugenia Ceulemans, who, according to the caption, had a great devotion for Our Lady of Lourdes, which also shows in the representations in the tracery. In a late Gothic church interior, in which one can recognize Saint-Joseph’s Chapel in the cathedral, the founders of the guild are blessed by a priest. In the ornamental border are the coats of arms of noble families that used to be connected with the guild.

[4] Alexander Farnese presents the city keys to Our Lady (1884).  On 27 August 1585, after he had reconquered Antwerp, Governor general Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma, went to the cathedral to assist at the sung Te Deum, as in those days was the custom when a new sovereign or governor took office. He also honoured explicitly Mary ‘for the victory that she was to be thanked for’: an important symbolic gesture, which showed that from then on Antwerp would adhere to Catholicism again. Pious tradition has wanted to give even more impact to this move by representing it as the presentation of the city keys. The prelate wearing a mitre, who represents the approval of the Church, can only be the abbot of Saint Michael’s Abbey, since the Antwerp bishop’s seat was vacant at that moment.

[5] The consecration of the Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes by Mgr. Deschamps in 1873 (1885). This was a donation of Mrs Wageman, a widow who with this complied with the last will of her deceased husband. The devotion for Our Lady of Lourdes boomed quickly in the second half of the 19th century. In many churches her statue was put up, and sometimes, as was the case here in the cathedral, only temporarily for the specific feast on 11 February. Behind Mgr. Victor-August Deschamps, archbishop of Malines, is parish priest and dean Petrus Sacré. Churchwardens Jan Ullens and Jacobus Fuchs were elected to be portrayed, probably because they both had served the church board for more than 20 years and so were those with the longest record. In the fringe decoration the series of escutcheons of crafts and guilds of the ‘Historic Window’ is continued. Fully on top is the coat of arms of Mgr. Deschamps, which was adapted to his elevation to cardinalate in 1875.

[6] The proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in 1854 (Edouard Didron, 1873). Initially this donation of the married couple Albertus Havenith and Rosalia Le Brasseur was put next to the altar, but partly because it differs in style from the other stained-glass windows and partly because of the royal donation of the first stained-glass window in 1878, it had to move to a more modest spot at the far end of the aisle. Surrounded by angels, Mary, Immaculately Conceived, is at Christ’s right hand side. Some fifty characters – Biblical figures and saints – share her joy in heaven. Among them is also Pope Pius IX, who proclaimed the dogma, but he directs himself to the patron saints of the two donors.

Partly due to the idealized style the painted series The Seven Sorrows of Mary (by Jozef Janssens in 1903-1910) was much reproduced and so ended up in many a civil interior.