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Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation.

Our Lady’s Chapel
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary

True to the medieval tradition in which Mary received the place of honour at the right hand side of the crucified Jesus, Our Lady’s chapel is to be found at the right hand side of the cruciform ground plan of the church, i.e. iconographically right of Jesus, who is the foundation of this house of prayer. It is remarkable how the praying of the Rosary got a tremendous boost due to political developments in (Christian) Europe. On 7th October 1571 the Europeans, the ‘Christians’, managed to stop the threat of the Turks, the ‘Mohammedans’, at the naval battle of Lepanto. Pope Pius V, who was a Dominican himself, ascribed the victory to the powers of praying the rosary. This gave rise to the feast of ‘Our Lady of the Holy Rosary’, fixed on the first Sunday of October.

Our Lady’s Altar

From 1650 onwards Sebastiaan de Neve continued the design and the execution of this grandiose portico altar, which was started by his master (Huybrecht Van den Eynde?). But because he was caught using inferior material for the execution of the crowning, de Neve was dismissed. Not until eighty years later, in 1728, the crowning of Our Lady’s altar was finished by Jan-Pieter I van Baurscheit.

The (spiral) King Solomon’s pillars, the cornucopias, the giant volutes of the upper construction with on it praying angels on their knees are all contemporary motifs. The design however was innovatory: because the two pairs of (spiral) pillars have been put concavely, they draw more attention to the altar painting. New and more elegant is the monumental upper structure, of which the tight architectural line pattern has been replaced by two gigantic undulating volutes. On top of them there is a sharp twist, on which life size figures can be seen. On the marble spiral pillars we find Rubenesque motifs: the adding of tens of frolicking putti and angels on the climbing vines with vegetal and Marian symbols.

the left hand side almost a mirror view of the right hand side

   pillar A pillar B   pillar C pillar D
6 sleeping putto lazy putto resting putto
5 somersaulting angel
4 sleeping putto
3 wreath of roses wreath of roses
2 wreath of roses
with cross of roses
flute and shawm triangle and drum wreath of roses
with cross of roses
1 choral dance choral dance

The Baroque Furniture, such as the altar with its four King Solomon’s pillars, the communion rails, the stalls and the panelling in the Northern transept, is abundantly decorated with floral symbols of Mary, growing at stalks and shrubs, incorporated in festoons or as trophies in the hands of angels and putti. Some Old Testament comparisons with plants and flowers have been associated for ever with virtues of Mary by the litanies. The rose is the most pleasing flower by its beauty and penetrating smell (according to Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, 24:14). So it is not a coincidence that the series of prayers to Mary are compared with a wreath of roses. Through the penetrating smell of the rose, ‘Mary’, the putti gathering these flowers are nearly intoxicated. The white lily symbolises chastity. After all “among women” Mary is like a “lily among thorns” (Song of songs 2:2). Branches of rose bushes and grape-vines intertwine. On an altar a bunch of grapes certainly refers to the Eucharist, but in a context of devotion to Mary it also calls up “the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb: Jesus”.

The late Baroque sculpture of the upper construction shows once again the theme of Our Lady of the Rosary, with Saint Dominic receiving the prayer beads from Mary’s hand. Anticipating the moment when also Saint Catherine of Siena will be given a rosary, the infant Jesus wants to answer her longing gesture affectionately. The Christian coat of arms of Jerusalem, underneath Mary, refers to the Brotherhood of Jerusalem-goers, which arose within the Brotherhood of the Holy Rosary in about 1629. The whole is crowned with an enormous Mary monogram.

Sint-Paulus - de Rozenkransmadonna van Caravaggio (1606-07)

The Altarpiece of Our Lady of the Rosary

(Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1606-1607)

Michelangelo Merisi, better known by the name of his native village Caravaggio, painted Our Lady of the Rosary during his stay in Naples in 1606-1607.

The man (C)  in the carefully ironed ruff collar, kneeling down respectfully, is most likely the commissioner. By seeking eye contact with the spectator he attracts our attention, but at the same time he exerts a helpful, guiding role for the spectator’s Baroque empathy. It is obvious that this altar piece was made for some Dominican church in Naples or its surroundings, like the San Domenico Maggiore, even maybe for the local Colonna family’s burial chapel, devoted to Our Lady of the Rosary. In that case it is tempting to interpret the brightly illuminated grooved pillar in the background as a symbol of the commissioner’s surname.

For an unknown reason it was not accepted and already in 1607 it ended up in the possession of the art dealer Louis Finson, who returned to the Low Countries in 1612. After his death in 1617 the painting probably landed in the Antwerp Dominican church via the Dutch art trade and through the agency of a number of painters, among whom Peter Paul Rubens, Hendrik Van Balen and Jan Brueghel the Elder (nicknamed ‘Velvet’ Brueghel). They purchased it “out of affection for the chapel” as well as “in order to have a rare piece in Antwerp”. However unmistakably Rubens’ admiration of Caravaggio may have played a role in the motivation of the purchase, it does not allow us to allege with certainty that Rubens took the initiative for this acquisition.

From the Church Interior of 1636 we learn that the immense canvas (11.94 ft high x 8.16 ft wide) was at first in the midst of the then recently completed series of the rosary. Also since it was displayed as an eye-catcher from the 1650’s onwards on the therefore specially constructed portico altar, it has kept this function of a kind of heavenly mandate for the devotion of the rosary.

The further history illustrates once again the ‘the price of its success’. For his wish list for his imperial collection in Vienna, the emperor’s eye in 1785 fell on this Caravaggio, which he probably had admired already years before in the “église des Jacobins à Anvers” (in the Jacobins’ church in Antwerp). Since its departure to Vienna in 1786, where the work of art is now displayed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, it has been replaced on the altar by the copy by Bernard De Quertenmont. Even if the emperor’s interest counts as a strong sign of appreciation, the copy left behind offers but scant comfort. The allegation that the Antwerpians succeeded in bamboozling the Austrians by giving them the exact copy, must be referred to the realm of romantic, biased fantasy. But tall stories can, of course, be very persistent…


According to a Dominican legend the Virgin Mary would have given the rosary to Saint Dominic during an apparition in 1210, in order to conquer heresy. But in reality the rosary prayers only spread from 1470 onwards. Anyway, with this iconographic type one wanted to offer as it were some ‘heavenly’ authority to stimulate the devotion of the Virgin Mary.

The carefully studied composition contains two schemes, which partially overlap each other. On the one hand the rigid triangular structure results in a very static and hierarchic feeling among Mary, the Dominican clergy and the people, while the large rhombic construction by means of the combined play of hands and looks creates a dynamic interaction among the three categories involved. At the top this rhombic shape is severed by the white erect figure of the Child.

Sint-Paulus Rozenkransmadonna Caravaggio schema
  1. At the highest level, more towards the background, the Mother of God, Mary (M) enthroned high above, constitutes the ‘summit’ of both the composition schemes. On the one hand the initiative to distribute the rosaries starts with her, on the other hand the upward looks of both Dominic and the average worshipper is directed at the same goal: the Virgin Mary. She wants to guide our attention to “the fruit of her womb, Jesus” (+), whom she holds on her lap while standing straight. The rich, red draperies at the pillar, which close off the entire tableau so festively and which would later become so typical of Baroque portrait art, rather function informally as a canopy to grant the main figure more majesty.
  2. At the left in the middle section Saint-Dominic (D) the founder of the order, who has collected all the rosaries, only has eyes for Mary. Meanwhile he is surrounded by the people who eagerly long for the rosary. The saint’s mediating is emphasized, as no one among the people applies directly to Mary and the Child, but only to him. On the right in the middle section we find three other Dominicans, the most outstanding one of whom is Saint Peter of Verona, also known as Peter Martyr (P), whom we recognize by the painfully realistic, warm drops of blood that are dripping from his cleft skull onto his dark habit.
  3. In the foreground kneeling worshippers, poor and rich alike, reach out eagerly for the rosaries.  On the left, with his young mother  ()  sits a rather well-to-do young boy in beautiful sandals (1). The adolescent with the naked shoulder (2), a bearded man of mature age (3) and possibly also a silvery-white haired elderly man, all of them bare-footed, are exemplary of the poor. Caravaggio has little esteem for the super-idealized figures of the Renaissance. But he likes to portray ordinary people with sharp realism: with naked, dirty feet, evidence of poverty. In the portrayal of the Madonna he remains consequent in this as well. By the unusual – common, popular – outlook of Mary and the Child the painter wants to bridge the hierarchic gap between the Messiah with his Mother and the people.

The worshipper who kneels down on the communion rail is in the best position to look up to this representation. As he is sitting in the same posture as the begging worshippers in the foreground of the painting, he can identify with them more easily.

As the spiritual mediators between the Holy Virgin and the people, both the Dominican saints, Dominic and Peter Martyr, are of course placed in the central section. One of them looks at us and points at the Child while Dominic directs his (and our!) eyes to Mary. Ultimately the devotion of the rosary aims at coming closer to Mary and via the Mother nearer to her Divine Child, the Saviour of mankind. The strong perspective, with an astounding three-dimensional effect, thus contributes to such an empathic experience of the painting’s representation.

Sint-Paulus - Mariadevotiebeeld

The devotional statue of Mary
and the pillar throne

(Willem I Kerricx, 1688)

The polychrome wooden statue of the Virgin Mary was made in Malines in the second half of the 16th century. It can no longer be retrieved whether this statue was venerated already before the Iconoclast Fury or only after the Dominicans had returned in 1585. Enveloped in a magnificent cloak the statue of the Virgin Mary is carried in a procession every year on the first Sunday of October, the one closest to 7th October, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. On this occasion also the river Scheldt is blessed, because as the traditional saying goes:

“Antwerp has the river Scheldt to thank for everything
And the river Scheldt has God to thank for Antwerp”.

After the 1679 fire the statue was given a worthy framing. Willem I Kerricx made a white marble pillar throne in late Baroque style, against the northern main pillar and signed and dated it (1688).

Angels of different sizes respectfully flock around the Virgin’s statue. The console carrying the statue has the traditional form of a globe, on which only the tracings of meridians and circles of latitude can be seen. After all, thanks to Mary Jesus is the saviour of all human beings, wherever on Earth they may be. Mother and Child have been given a kind of halo in the form of a large wreath of eighty-six gilded roses.

To stimulate confidence in the Rosary Prayer the two bas reliefs that flank the devotional statue bear witness of a miraculous event, which father Peter Vloers, prefect of the Brotherhood of the Rosary, mentions in the devotional booklet Wonderbaere Mirakelen vanden H. Roosen-Crans [Marvellous Miracles of the Holy Rosary] (1658). The umpteenth version of the popular medieval Theophilus or devil’s legend has been adapted to an Antwerp lady and the Antwerp Dominicans as her mediators. An old lady would do anything to be young and attractive again and (in the left medallion) is prepared to sell her soul to the devil for this. In exchange for this favour of extra earthly lust she will have to keep the devil company in hell for ever after her death.

The first scene, on the left, has been set in a wealthy middle class interior. The elegant, Christian woman is seated at a desk, behind which there is a fashionable gentleman, who can be recognized as the devil by the horns that stick out through his Louis XIV allonge wig. The lady hands over the bond she has just signed to the grinning and self-satisfied gent.

A second devilish character, in the shape of a lion with a writhing snakelike tail, in the doorway triumphantly menaces the woman with its rising claw, while with its tongue it eagerly licks its lips when looking at its prey. Such a sinister event cannot bear broad daylight: hence two nocturnal animals, symbolizing everything that shuns the light of day: an owl and a bat. The caption says

“Sy gheeft haer handt-schrift hier           [Here she gives her manuscript]
aen ‘t helsche monster-dier”.                  [to the hellish monstrous animal]

In the right medallion, thanks to praying the rosary, the woman is given back her devilish contract in a church that is meant to represent Saint Paul’s, where this scene took place ‘historically’ in 1578. Out of remorse the woman has just made her confession, not knowing she has just confided in the devil. The true identity of the Dominican confessor can be seen from his horns, pointed devil’s ears and the devil’s tail. Weeping and drying her tears with a handkerchief, the lady tells her unfortunate story to a real Dominican, prior Henricus Van de Putte. He advises her to pray the rosary.  The woman converts and becomes a member of the Brotherhood of the Rosary. When the prior wants to enforce her devotion by celebrating mass at Our Lady’s altar, the miraculous salvation takes place during the Consecration of the host. From Heaven a putto comes flying in who has succeeded in taking the contract concerned from the jaws of the flying devilish monster. The caption says:

“Den Roosen-Crans dwongh duyvels kracht         [The Rosary forced devilish power]
Dat hy haer handt-schrift wederbracht.”                             [to return her manuscript]

By the gradual transition from the architectural background in sunken relief, to the personages in half-relief in front Kerricx has created a true three-dimensional space. The quality of the sculpting is highly due to the refined forms. By their elegant poses and gestures the figures obtain a natural character. Rarely has an artist been able to conjure such sophisticated details out of marble, rarely has a marble relief been so plastically narrative. Is the altar boy, who looks merely like a toddler, not cute? On the steps leading to the altar he is ringing the bells. He is exquisitely clothed and curls of hair come out from underneath the large slipping wig. Incredibly realistic is the way the lacework of the clothes has been rendered, the miniature Eucharistic tools and the rosary with small prayer beads in the woman’s hands. Even an inconspicuous detail as the wreath of true to nature roses on the cross on the chasuble contributes to the story. Between the two medallions the story is summarized:

“Soo wie wilt syn bevrydt van lyf- en ziels gevaeren,
die sal dit Mari-Beldt met groote eer bewaeren,
een vrouw die lyf-en ziel-den duyvel had’ verkocht,
haer hand’-schrift voor dit beldt wierd wederom gebrocht.”

[who wants to be freed of body and soul’s dangers]
[he will honour this Mary statue,]
[a woman who had sold body and soul to the devil]
[was given back her bond in front of this statue]

The terra cotta modelli of these two medallions are kept in Saint James’ Church.

The pews

The footrest round the pillar has been decorated with five little painted panels (anonymous, 18th century), which encourage to call upon Mary’s relief by praying the rosary. From left to right:

  1. In three emergencies Mary comes to help: for a man who is drowning, at an attempted murder and when a house is on fire.
  2. In the hour of his death a sinner is menaced by devilish temptations, symbolized by hellish animals: two dangerous dogs, a snake and a bat. A Dominican hands him the traditional funeral candle and advises the rosary, which makes the dying person convert. In this way the scene represents the second part of the Hail Mary: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.”
  3. Our Lady offers the rosary to Dominic. The silhouettes of the towers above the city match those of Our Lady’s Cathedral and of Saint James’ Church.
  4. Our Lady encourages the beseeching souls in purgatory.
  5. Our Lady protects a child from being possessed by the devil. The exorcised demon flies away. In front is vain and power mad Lady Luxuria, who, well dressed and adorned with a sceptre, a crown and a string of pearls, is trying to seduce the child. The quiver of Cupid, her accomplice, is lying in the bottom right corner.

Further decoration of the devotion to Mother Mary

The reliefs of the Rosary stalls
(possibly Peter I Verbruggen, ca. 1657-1659)

The wardens can attend the religious services in more comfortable stalls. Each spot aims at edification: in the panelling reliefs evoke five miracles that were credited to praying the rosary. Starting from the altar:

  1. Dominic advises Blanche of Castile (1188-1252), queen of France, to pray so as not to remain childless. This accounts for the childbed as a promise in the background. She will bring Louis IX (‘Saint Louis’) into the world.
  2. While he is drowning, the irreligious cannoneer Francis Lopez receives spiritual aid from Our Lady of Manilla.
  3. By praying the rosary the inhabitants of Limoges succeed in warding off the plague.
  4. After first having renounced his faith, the Florentine Dominican Antony of Rivoli, or Antony Neyrot, professes his Catholic faith again when he is a prisoner in Tunis. In the course of the stoning that follows his apostasy and sinful life is being forgiven.
  5. In 1550 in Barcelona a woman was unjustly accused of adultery by her husband, who attempted to murder This was prevented by praying the rosary.

The five scenes go back to illustrations in the book of verses by father Vloers, published in 1658 and probably designed by Erasmus II Quellinus.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows
(Jan Pieter I van Baurscheit, 1702)

With this statue they wanted to pay tribute to prior Abraham van Greyn († 1693), who was also prefect of the Brotherhood of the Holy Rosary. The white marble work of art was dated and signed by Jan Pieter I van Baurscheit in 1702.

One can question the choice of this iconographical type. On 15th September, i.e. the day after Holy Cross Day ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ is celebrated according to the calendar of the Church. ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ is better known by het Latin name ‘Mater Dolorosa’ or ‘Mater Afflicta’, as her praises are sung in the popular Good Friday song, Stabat Mater. This gave rise to a separate  devotion and thus also to a particular artistic subject matter. This is why with this iconographical type one must imagine the Crucified Jesus on her left. Her eyes remain focused on Him as it were, but in the meanwhile she frenetically keeps her hands folded at her side and beseechingly towards Heaven.

Mary is tortured by unbearable sorrow to the innermost of her mother’s heart. In spite of her misery she restrains herself upright with dignity. The gesture of her frenetically folded hands is the only affected movement that crosses the contours of her body, but it is already weakened by the cloak that hangs down from her arm. On the other hand this cloak creates elegant folds and shadows around Mary.

Each of the two angels on the plinth holds an instrument of the passion in his hand and makes clear that nobody can remain unmoved at such deep sorrow. Although as  each other’s pendants they are nearly  the  same  regarding  pose with bended head  (and one leg playfully to the front),  they each express their compassionate feelings in a personal way. The left one, with the crown of thorns, dries his tears with a handkerchief, the right one, with a scourge of ropes, keeps one hand in front of an eye.

Sint-Paulus - heilige Rosa van Lima

The statue of Saint Rose of Lima
(Artus II Quellinus, ca. 1660-1670)

No saint is more appropriate to be pictured as an example for the devotion to the Rosary than Isabella Flores y de Oliva (Lima, 1586 – 1617). In 1671 she was the first American, though born from Spanish parents, to be canonized. This was probably the occasion for this white marble work of art by Artus II Quellinus (which can be dated stylistically ca. 1660-1670)

To help her family, which due to investment risks had got themselves into financial troubles, she worked in the field during the day, and as a seamstress very late at night. After she had refused to get married, she wanted to  be a Dominican nun, but she was not admitted to convent life because of her weak health.

Because an Indian girl described her as ‘as beautiful as a rose’ she was nicknamed ‘little rose’ and she became a member of the third Dominican order. At her entry she called herself ‘Rose of the Holy Virgin Mary’.

As a member of the third Dominican order she wears the Dominican habit. Out of penance she wears a metal band round her head, which she hides under a wreath of roses. Could this also be an illustration of her yearlong looking forward to the day of her death, as the day of her eternal marriage? She died young on 24th August 1617.

Tradition goes that Mother Mary appeared to Rose and granted her the favour of carrying the Divine Child in her arms and thus sharing her motherly feelings, which Quellinus represented with respectful modesty.

She is the patron of the harbour of Calloa near Lima and this explains why one of the two gracious angels at her feet is holding an anchor as an attribute.

The tissue of her habit and veil has been sublimely carved in the fine folds. Together with her young face and the affectionate relation with the infant Jesus this lends a somewhat softer character to the late Baroque style.

Painting „The Adoration of the Shepherds“
(Pieter Paul Rubens ca. 1609)

This work was painted in about 1609 and is supposed to be the first one Rubens painted after having returned from Italy. Apparently pretty soon bonds were established between the Preachers and Rubens. A painting of such massive dimensions (13 ft. high by 10 ft. wide) must have been intended for a large altar. Which one is unknown.


Rubens took over the composition of the painting of the same name that he had made only a year before for the Oratorian church in Fermo, but due to his steady evolution towards Baroque this work already shows freer and stronger technique. As he was still heavily influenced by Caravaggio Rubens mainly used brown hues and an outspoken chiaroscuro. This way of illumination has been used here to illustrate the spiritual meaning of the infant Jesus as ‘the Light of the world’, or as His birth has been described in the more elaborate Nicene creed: “Light of Light”. Because Mary wants to show her New-born Child to the shepherds rushing in and folds back the cloth, the light can emanate from the Divine Child. For the shepherd who is standing on the extreme left, the light seems to be too strong, which is why he protects his eyes. In this way he illustrates ‘the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light’ (Mt. 4:16). Also symbolic are the ears of corn in the manger: they refer to ‘the bread that came down from Heaven’ (John 6:41).

However static and stereotyped the scene may seem at first sight, Rubens has managed to create more movement in it. Although all four shepherds and shepherdesses share the same admiration, each of them has been individualised by a gesture of his or her own and thanks to an astonishing foreshortening an angel tumbles down from heaven in an unseen spectacular acrobatic feat.

After it had been confiscated by the French in 1794, the painting could fortunately return after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. The gigantic canvas still bears traces of the heroic rescue operation during the disastrous fire in 1968, when it had to be cut out of its frame.

The oil sketch or modello (of the Fermo version), which is kept in the Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg, is dated there at 1608.

Next to this painting there is Dominic’s self-chastisement at Segovia (Gaspar de Crayer, about 1655). This painting used to be on Saint Dominic’s altar, north of the choir screen. Dominic’s back shows traces of blood of the scourge and around his waist he is wearing a chain with a heavy stone at a very sensitive spot. Mary appears to him to soften his pains.