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

The parich church

From the very beginning the uttermost southern aisle was meant to be the parish church, which explains why it is as wide as the central nave. In this part of the church used to be the parish altar, the pulpit and the baptismal font. To it also belonged a private sacristy and the ‘Table of the Holy Spirit’. Until 1640 the churchwardens had their meeting room close to the chapel. This room is now the sacristy of the Venerable Chapel. It could be that in the 16th century the first confessionals were here, but afterwards most of them were in the ambulatory. In the 17th century one of the annexes was made into as a ‘wedding choir’: a private chapel in the form of a citizen’s room with more intimacy for the matrimonial ceremony, which then was usually done in front of a small group of people. Moreover, the panelling provided for more warmth than could be found in the large church.

The parish altar

For their services the parish had a private parish altar (consecrated in 1469). Close to it were the churchwardens’ stalls. In 1621, a few years after the division into the Our Lady’s Parish North and South in 1614, this altar was abolished and this space became part of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Probably the services continued there.

The crossing altar

Because the chapter had been abolished in 1801 and the choir screen had been demolished, there was free play to assign the newly to be built altar to the parish community. Before, tens of masses were celebrated at as many altars, but now the new high altar by Jan Blom (1824) had to serve for a few Masses on Sundays and days of feast, which were attended by large crowds filling the entire central nave.

When in 1993 the restoration of the choir had been finished the community idea – an important emphasis of the Second Vatican Council – could be given shape more definitively in a marble table altar. For this the precious silver antependium with Our Lady’s birth, by Jan Verschuylen (1865), was borrowed from the so-called Shoemakers’ Chapel, in Schoenmarkt, devoted to Our Lady of Refuge. When bathing in the light of the setting sun falling through the stained glass mesh work in the west front, the antependium seems to turn into gold.

The baptistery

The baptistery used to be in the west end of the uttermost southern aisle. Because of the habit to baptize as soon after birth as possible, also during the night, the baptistery was easily accessible near the entrance of the church, here the side entrance under the southern tower. This position was a result of the Catholic theology of those days, which stated that one had to be baptised first before being part of the church community and entering the church building. In the present bookshop the reliefs of two keystones (between 1430 and 1469) remind us of this original function: The baptism of Christ and an Angel holding Jesus’s robe.

Because the almoners liked to have their chapel near their other rooms by the southern aisle, the baptistery was moved to the end of the opposite uttermost northern aisle, near the entrance under the northern tower. Among those who were baptised there in 1599 was Antony van Dyck. When in 1614 the parish was split up into Our Lady’s North and South, the existing baptistery was simply divided into two, with two separate doors, but preserving the one baptismal font, which could be used by each from one’s own side.

Now the baptismal font is in the centre of the church, opposite the pulpit. According to the theology of the Second Vatican Council, which focuses more on the Church as a community, you become part of the church community by being baptised, in answer to the word of Jesus that was spoken to you.