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

Our Lady’s Assumption
(Cornelis Schut)

Cornelis Schut could not think of a better location for the theme of Our Lady’s Assumption than the highest spot inside the cathedral. The result is that his ceiling painting incites the spectator’s empathy even more than Rubens’s altarpiece of the same subject. When looking up you witness willy-nilly ‘Mary’s Assumption’, at the risk of a sore neck. This round painting (1648) has a diameter of nearly 6 m (20 ft.) and has been positioned high up at 43.7 m (143 ft.). What is more, the trompe l’oeil pushes Mary’s elevation into infinite Heaven.

The lower sections with floating angels are the onset of an upward driving movement. They joyfully make music, as the original text in the crossing lantern used to say in large letters: ASSUMPTA EST MARIA IN CAELI, GAUDENT ANGELI (Mary was taken up in Heaven. Angels, rejoice). This sentence was taken from the offertory of the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption. In the centre there is Our Lady, clearly in blue, straight in the heart of this seething crowd of angels. In her dress the stopper for the opening through which it has to be possible to hoist the painting up with ropes has been incorporated nearly invisibly. Finally Mary can expect a warm welcome in Heaven by her son, God the Father and – barely visible – the Holy Spirit, in the shape of a dove, in between them. Mary, who has already found her final destination with God in Heaven, receives special attention here because this feast of Our Lady’s Assumption is the feast of the patron of the main church, the town and the diocese. To everybody who visits this place, she points out the final destination of life on Earth: ascending to eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

We need not be surprised that of all the paintings this one was not purloined by the French conquerors, taking into account the logistic challenge it involved. The high crossing cupola was once the scene of superior liturgical spectacles with matching sounds. Thus at Whitsun in the Baroque period first thunder was imitated and then a stretched tissue was rolled open from which, as in a genuine effect of surprise, a huge cascade of red paper frames tumbled down as if the ‘tongues of fire’, which once inspired the disciples, also descended onto the worshipers in the church. For the glorious feast of the crowning of Our Lady’s statue on 15 August 1899, with music by Kapellmeister Emile Wambach, a better location could not be found: While blasts of trumpets resounded from the high cupola and a choir of angelical sweet children’s voices wove Regina Caeli so divinely through the aisles, cardinal Goossens in a solemn gesture put the consecrated crown with its trickling pearls onto the head of the Mother of God. It was grandiose, like a heavenly event, and a devoted glow of excitement spread below the old vaultings when the majestic orchestra struck up and Our Lady’s statue solemnly rose up a few feet from its plinth.