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

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel,
alias the Venerable Chapel

Originally only the uttermost eastern bay was used as Blessed Sacrament Chapel. There is little doubt that the bishop on the boss is related to the Eucharist. If only we knew what object he is holding in his left hand! On the neighbouring boss there is certainly a Eucharistic saint: Saint Gregory, celebrating mass as a priest. Underneath this keystone the soapboilers’ brotherhood, which was named after him, had their services, until 1497, when they moved to the ambulatory.

The former altarpiece
The Last Supper
(Otto van Veen)

In 1592, at the time of Catholic Restoration, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel received a new altarpiece. Through the agency of bishop Livinus Torrentius the commission was confided to the humanist painter Otto van  Veen, alias ‘Venius’, who a few years later would become Rubens’s most important master. in 1750-1755, so as to adapt the canvas to a more fashionable portico altar it was considerably enlarged to a height of 3.50 m (11.5 ft.), which does not really help the composition.

Because the painting had no longer been in the church since the start of the French  Revolutionary Rule, it was replaced by The Supper at Emmaus by Willem Jacob Herreyns, on the temporary altar in 1808, after the concordat. When van Veen’s work did return after all, it was not possible to put it elsewhere in the chapel because of its great size. This induced the brotherhood to sell it to the church board in 1828. They gave it a new spot, in the neighbouring southern transept, where it is still now.

Since it represents the institution of the Eucharist, the Last Supper is the pre-eminent subject for an altarpiece in a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is being venerated. Christ amidst the apostles, His eyes directed towards heaven, has just taken the bread in his hand and blesses it. The apostles who are nearest to Him follow the blessing. Peter, who can be recognized by his traditional physiognomy – a round bald head and a short fringe of beard – in clothes in the symbolic heavenly colours yellow and blue, is in the place of honour at Jesus’s right hand side, while the beloved pupil, who tradition identifies as John, is the young man in red, at Jesus’s left hand side, the second place of honour.

True to tradition Jesus’s prophesy that He will be betrayed by one of the apostles, is also represented. Van Veen follows the gospel of Saint Luke, who is the only one to put this prediction after the institution of the Eucharist and also mentions the conversation among the apostles that follows: And they began to debate among themselves who among them would do such a deed (Lk. 22:23). Traditionally the two moments in the story are subsequent in one and the same painting. After the apostles do have paid attention to the blessing, most of them show unrest about the question who among them might be the traitor. Judas is holding the purse with the pieces of silver in his left hand and turns away from the discussion: he avoids every confronting eye-contact by having his glass filled. In this way Judas breaks up the circle of apostles around Jesus. Judas’s disloyalty is emphasized by his surly look and reddish hair.

The chandeliers indicate the nightly moment of this meal. The two stone tablets with the ten commandments in the background, are the sign of the Old, legalistic Covenant between God and His chosen (Jewish) people.

Because they are so subtly lit, it is even more stressed that this meal is the New Covenant between God and man, which is repeated in every celebration of the Eucharist.

The little dog underneath the bench on the right is typical of Flemish painting, with its attention for playful everyday life details, but it cannot be excluded that this motif could have been the bearer of a deeper meaning.

The altarpiece: The Supper at Emmaus (1808)

After the French Revolutionary Rule this painting on canvas (3.5 m x 2.4 m [11.5 ft. x 8 ft.]) by Willem Jacob Herreyns (1808) was the first onset of the reconstruction of a monumental altar. This time the brotherhood chose this other Eucharistic meal from the New Testament. As is told by Luke the evangelist (24:30) Jesus was at table with the two disciples from Emmaus, when He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. Two servants bring along wine and a fruit dish. The intense bond between Christ and God the Father is demonstrated by His look towards heaven.  Just above Him an opening in the wall serves as ‘a window towards heaven’, showing a sunlit cloud in a blue sky – incidentally the only colourful element in the austere Classicist setting. In 1823 the painting became part of the widely worked out altar in black and white marble by Jacob II van der Neer. Since then Jesus has been explicitly in relation with God the Father, the central statue in the altar crowning, which goes back to the previous 1750 altar by Jan Pieter II van Baurscheit.

God is sitting on the globe of Universe, with around it a golden zodiac. Light emanates from Him in all directions. A heavy curtain around Him functions as a baldachin, while He is surrounded by a court of angels. In this way they want to show that God comprises everything, that he is the Lord of time and space, the source of all vital energy.

On top of the extreme pillars two divine virtues are sitting: on the left Faith, with Jesus’s cross and a chalice with a consecrated host on top. On the right is Hope, with an anchor: the hope of sailors to make safe anchorage. The third virtue, Love, is shown by the painting on the altar, where Jesus breaks the bread as a sign of His ultimate sacrifice of Love – His innocent death on the cross – which is revived every time again in each celebration of the Eucharist. The Biblical order and hierarchy as stated in 1 Cor. 13:13 –  faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love – is being respected here. When reading from left to right the virtue of Faith is first, followed by the two others, but the ‘greatest’ of the three, Love, is given the central place of honour.

The tabernacle

The tabernacle is the cupboard in which the bread is kept that in the Eucharist has been consecrated into a tangible form of Jesus’s presence and that is called ‘the Body of Christ’. Usually this is a wall cabinet of which only the front with its door is visible, but in the late Baroque a tabernacle sometimes took the form of a freestanding object with a specific meaning. This is also the case for this brass specimen, which Judocus Ignatius Picavet made in 1712, after a design by Hendrik Frans Verbrugghen. After all the gilded trunk with two shoulder poles is a true copy of the ark that the Jews carried on their forty years’ wandering through the desert as a sign of God’s covenant with His people – as described in the book Exodus – and which was finally placed in the temple of Jerusalem. The two kneeling angels, who are turned toward each other, direct themselves towards the one, invisible God. When celebrating this first covenant of God, Jesus Christ instituted a more intense ‘New Covenant’ of Love. Christians celebrate this tangibly with the signs of bread and wine in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is why the consecrated bread is considered to be ‘the Blessed Sacrament’ or ‘the Venerable’, i.e. respectable (sacrament).

When in the name of the French Revolutionary Rule Mr. Roche came to bolt the tabernacle in 1797 so as to close the church for Catholic services, he was killed in an assault. Because in this way the chapel was deconsecrated, it and also the entire church had to be reconsecrated.

The stained-glass windows in the southern aisle

The Last Supper

(shortly after 1566, to replace the former stained-glass window from 1503)

No stained-glass scene in the cathedral has been worked at by so many different people as this one. Considering the resemblance of the main scene with a drawing by Lambert van Noort (San Francisco, the Fine Arts Museums) and his connection with the Antwerp stained-glass artist Digman Meynaert, it is possible to indicate the latter as the maker of this stained-glass window shortly after the 1566 Iconoclast Fury. Is it a reconstruction or a re-interpretation of the original stained-glass window, which Nicolaas Rombouts installed in 1503, probably commissioned by Engelbert II of Nassau? On the other hand, the early Renaissance architectural background and the blazonry in the tracery were added by Jean-Baptist Capronnier during the drastic restoration in 1870. Amidst his apostles Christ institutes the Eucharist. Because people had long not been accustomed anymore to the antique way of lying at table, John has been forced here to literally sitting at Jesus’s chest, however pressed between Him and the table. The presumptive first commissioner, Engelbert II of Nassau, viscount of Antwerp and stadtholder († 1504), had himself portrayed, on his knees, front right. The scene is framed by the sixteen quarters of his coat of arms. In the original tracery were his personal blazon and his device ‘se sera moy nassov’. Now they are surrounded by the coats of arms of the counties and domains that he owned, with the most important one, the viscountcy of Antwerp, on top.

Saint Norbert restores the cult of the Blessed Sacrament in Antwerp

(Edouard Didron, 1872)

Although ca. 1124 there was absolutely nothing like a Blessed Sacrament Procession yet, since the Counter Reformation Norbert has been pictured with it, as a defender of the Eucharist against the alleged heresy of Tanchelm. Because Saint Michael’s Abbey, in whose neighbourhood Norbert’s action was situated, had already been destroyed a few decades before 1872, a more recognizable Antwerp background was opted for, namely the then main porch of the cathedral and the late fifteenth century well, attributed to Quentin Matsys: an anachronistic décor.

Saint Amandus preaches in Antwerp

(Edouard Didron, 1872)

The pioneering missionary work of this Frank in Flanders, Brabant and Maastricht took place in the 7th century, but also here there is no lack of anachronisms. In the background there is already Saint Michael’s Abbey, which was founded only in 1124. The citizens’ clothes are 15th century, and an (early Medieval) missionary, even though he was a bishop, would never have walked around in his liturgical vestment, let alone a Gothic one.

The coat of arms of the families Ullens and Verbiest

(Hendrik de Coninck, 1708)

In 1867 it was repaired by Jean-Baptiste Capronnier, but in a somewhat more austere version. Although it was devoted to Henricus Ullens, the caption mentions even more the merit of his uncle, Peter Verbiest. Thanks to the latter’s initiative the Blessed Sacrament could be taken to the ill at home, in the Fortnight’s Anointment of the Sick Procession. This was a triumphant parade, accompanied by six lantern bearers and four trumpet blowers into the bargain.

Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist

(ca. 1520–1525)

Originally this window used to be In the Northern transept, opposite the altar of both Saints John (of the brotherhood of the same name, which was later taken over by the craft of the cabinet makers). After it had been restored by Jean-Baptist Capronnier it ended up here in 1863. Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist are flanked by the two donors, a Cornelius and a Agnes, who can be recognized by their patron saints. The way their respective blazons were filled in however is the result of misinterpretations.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul

(Jean-Baptiste Capronnier, 1867)

This was made as a memorial for the brotherhood of the Romanists. In the 16th and 17th centuries this united the pilgrims and especially the artists who went to Rome. The two patron saints of Rome are flanked by Saint Henry and Saint Elizabeth, the patron saints of the donor, Mrs. Ullens-Ullens. The composition and decoration were attuned to the stained-glass window of the two Saints John nearby, which had been installed next to it a few years before.

The Way of the Cross

As was the case in every parish church in the 19th century a way of the cross was put here as well. This happened in 1864-1868, to the west of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Under the supervision of Henri Leys the panels were painted in a historic realistic style by Louis Hendrix (stations 1-4, 12-14) and Frans Vinck (stations 5-11). The narrative character of the passion is supported here by a continuous background, so that each scene becomes a part of an uninterrupted serial story. This way of the cross was so successful that innumerable copies were made of it to be used at home and abroad, in  large or small sizes, varying from ‘very ingenious’ to ‘simplified’, or simple reproductions. Hendrix († 1888) is the only painter who, still in the 19th century, thanks to friends, was given a (neo Gothic) memorial stone in this church, built into a buttress of the southern tower.