Sint-Paulus, de Antwerpse dominicanenkerk, een openbaring.
Sint-Paulus, de Antwerpse dominicanenkerk, een openbaring.
In the great Gothic churches the southern side, pre-eminently the sunny side, is the most appropriate side to accommodate the devotions of Jesus’ radiant love. In the Middle Ages these were the devotions of the Holy Cross or those of the Sweet Name of Jesus. The 15th century was the time of the rise of the worship of the Holy Sacrament. This refers more concretely to the host bread which is consecrated during Holy Mass into the body of Jesus. This palpable token of Jesus’ presence is the most prominent of the seven sacraments and is founded on the Catholic doctrine of the transubstantiation. In the 19th century the devotion of the Holy Heart prevailed. This shift in devotion occurred among the Antwerp Dominicans in one and the same fraternity, namely that of the ‘Sweet Name and the Holy Sacrament’.
Ca. 1609 the Dominicans ordered this altarpiece and the two predella pieces Moses and Aaron from P.P. Rubens. As a result of the new choir rood loft with two side altars, the Baroque Sacrament’s Altar was built by Pieter Verbruggen in 1654-1656. Due to of aesthetic (and other?) motives the new altar – according to contract – was conceived as a counterpart of the opposite Mary-altar, which had been initiated four years earlier. To fit neatly into this portico altar Rubens’ panel was enlarged in 1680, especially at the top and bottom, as well as slightly in the width (up to 377 x 246 cm / 12.37 ft x 8.07 ft).
In 1616 the painting was entitled ‘The reality of the Holy Sacrament’, in other words: The real presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament. The term ‘dispute’, derived from Italian, by which this painting is known, must not be interpreted as a discussion because of a difference in opinion, but rather as a colloquium among like-minded Catholics looking for arguments to back up this point of doctrine concerning the Eucharist. That it does not concern a pious worship of the Sacrament, but an intellectual dialogue, characteristic of the scholastic tradition, is made clear by the gesticulations of authorized scholars and ecclesiastical office holders: “fingers are being raised, are pointing, emphasizing, refuting and summing up the arguments”. The mannerist, slightly elongated figures are typical of Rubens’ early period.
God the Father (∞), in heavenly soft shades of white, rosy and yellow, and the dove, symbol of the Holy Ghost, in the upper register emphasize Jesus’ real presence in the consecrated host.
Frisky little angels (E) hold open the Books of the Bible, showing phrases from the New Testament that give evidence to the actual presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but in order to allow the spectator to read the text from a large distance, only one syllable a line has been depicted.
On the far left: “Caro mea vere est cibus, et sanguis meus vere [est] pot[us]” (= John 6:56; He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.) In the centre this is paraphrased both left and right: “Hoc est corpus meum, quo pro vobis datur” (“This is My Body, which is given for you.). And on the far right: “Accipite et comedite: hoc est corpus meum” (Matthew 26:26-27: “Take, eat; this is My Body.”
Moreover Rubens accentuates this point of doctrine by the composition and the colours.
The rhombic composition must create a tension around the white host, which, set in a gothic cylinder monstrance, not only stands in the iconographical centre of interest, but was initially, before the enlargement of the panel in 1680, the formal centre as well.
The supernatural dimension in the tangible Holy Sacrament is stressed because the white host is marked off against the heavenly, blue middle section.
This blue colour is accompanied in the colour composition by both figures in the foreground: on the left in a golden cope, on the right in cardinal red. Thus the three primary colours are neatly divided in a triangular pattern.
At the time of the Counter Reformation the Catholic Church wanted to build and defend its views, also concerning the Eucharist, against the Protestants by calling upon authorized theologians from the unsuspected, early ages of Christianity. That is why the four great western Fathers of the Church come to the foreground. The two bishops on the left , in golden damask copes are Ambrose (Am), in the front, as the elder one who turns his head towards the second one, his pupil Augustine (Au) behind him.
As their full counterparts we find on the right a cardinal, possibly Jerome, in a cautious pose, and a monk in a black Benedictine habit, possibly Pope Gregory I The Great (G?), who at first was the founder of a monastery and abbot. But if he is accompanied by an old holy man who is half-naked (H?), that must be Jerome as a penitent in the desert, who always has a cardinal red mantle with him. In that case the cardinal on the right would be the scholar Saint-Bonaventure. Could the black-haired man behind Ambrose be identified as John the Baptist, who in the desert was not at all concerned about a delicate appearance and pointed out Christ as the “Lamb of God” (the pre-eminent term of address for Jesus, as present in the host of the Holy Communion)? Behind the half-naked man, the man with the long bald head, pulls his beard thoughtfully, and takes notes; he bears a strong resemblance to Saint-Paul (P).
In that case his writing activity refers to the oldest explanation of the Last Supper and to the oldest formulation of the Eucharist, namely in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-39). The Pope, wearing a golden tiara, is Urban IV (U), who through the agency of the Liège beguine, Saint Juliana of Cornillon (♀) behind him, established the feast of the Holy Sacrament in 1264: ‘Corpus Christi’. He is engaged in a conversation with the great Domincian theologian Thomas Aquinas (T), whom we recognize by the golden beaded garland at breast height. Among the other clergymen in varying habit, there is still another Dominican. The beardless young man in a toga, (dressed in red) is John the Evangelist. Both his neighbours are probably evangelists as well.
In 1794 the French Revolutionaries carried Rubens’ painting along to Paris as spoils of war. in 1815 the altar piece returned to Antwerp, in 1816 to its original spot.
Although they are overshadowed by Rubens’ painting, the heavy white marble spiral pillars by Peter I Verbruggen deserve our attention. Angel children, who are in the majority, and putti interchange at random. As is traditional for an altar (of the Holy Sacrament) they harvest corn and grapes in preparation for the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine, which are represented in the form of a chalice and a large host. On the left, here to be regarded as chronologically first, on the second level, two putti hit out on each other, which is a composition inspired by Frans du Quesnoy (Rome, ca. 1635). On the same level on the right, to be interpreted as a chronological sequel, two putti reconcile with a kiss, which is repeated above in a warm embrace. A more adequate framing for the real affectionate presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is hard to think of. Does the Gospel not say: “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mth. 5:23,24)? And does Saint Paul not say (1 Cor. 11:27) that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily” – like a fox wanting to eat from the grapes – “will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.”? The Sacrament of pure love cannot bear that you are at loggerheads with someone any longer. Singing and music with bagpipe (B5) and shawn represent the joy of meeting Jesus in the Holy Sacrament.
On the left a dog threatens a squirrel, while on the right the same animal can nibble a fruit without being disturbed. What is the deeper meaning of this?
|Level||Pillar A||Pillar B||Pillar C||Pillar D|
|6||bird (phoenix?)||angel sings from a book and keeps time||?||harvest|
|5||angel plays the bagpipe||angel with a chalice and a host||rest during harvest|
|4||angel wants to prevent a fox from eating from grapes||putto plays the shawn||harvest||putti embrace in reconciliation|
|3||angel scares with a mask, putto fall backward from fright||cross with a crown of thorns||squirrels nibbles a fruit|
|2||fighting angels||angel protects a squirrel against a dog||putti kiss in reconciliation|
|1||rooster (with a large tail)||harvest|
On the bases of the pillars are the busts of two Dominicans. On the left, i.e. iconographically right – at the place of honour – the devotion to the Holy Sacrament is represented by the bust of Thomas Aquinas, the author of the Eucharistic Hymns. On his cope is his personal attribute, the sun as a symbol of truth. On the right there is the mystic Henry Suso (ca. 1295 Uebelingen or Konstanz, † Ulm 1366; though only beatified in 1831). He was a zealous advocate of the devotion of the Sweet Name of Jesus, as an atonement for the disrespectful usage of Jesus’ name. According to his vita he had inscribed the name of Jesus as a monogram on his chest. Here we see the “IHS” monogram on Suso’s Dominican cape.
In the crowning of the altar the infant Jesus triumphs over evil.
Cornelius Struyf seems to have been an early member of the brotherhood of the ‘Sweet name of Jesus’ and was buried in this church. The life-size sculpture in white Carrara marble (ca. 1740-1743), which contrasts with the black marble frame, must be seen as a late Baroque counterpart of Rosa of Lima (Artus II Quellinus, ca. 1660-1670).
After he had been scourged, Jesus was mocked as ‘King of the Jews’ (Mc. 15:16-20), and for this occasion he was given ‘royal attributes’. The cane (with reed mace) with which he was hit on the head, has been given to him by the soldiers as a sceptre in his tied wrists. On his head a crown of thorns has been put, but the purple mantle is not to be seen. He only wears a loincloth. Jesus barely leans against the short baluster, to which according to tradition he was pinioned during the flogging. The suffering of the ‘humiliated Jesus’, as is mentioned in the caption, especially speaks from the resigned expression of the face; His impotence all the more from the cuffed wrists. The quiet rendering of the draped waistcloth also contributes to a subtle sensitivity. However true to life the representation of the body may be, there is a lack of twitched muscle tension suggesting pain.
In 1908 in its turn this statue was given a counterpart, to the right of the Holy Sacrament Altar. The neo Baroque pillar statue by Jan Gerrits testifies of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, which is so typical of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. On the marble console Reverend Father Georges Van Alcken has been honoured with a portrait in bas-relief, because he had been assistant priest of the parish for sixty years.
In 1803, after the concordat between Pius VII and Napoleon, the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament and the Brotherhood of the Fortnightly Last Rites were transferred from the former parish church Saint Walpurga’s to the new parish church Saint Paul’s. Due to lack of a better place they hung their altarpiece of The Supper at Emmaus, attributed to Erasmus Quellinus (1703) high up against the wall of their new chapel.
Maybe they brought the late 18th century tabernacle along too. It contains a revolving drum on which also the scene of the supper at Emmaus is to be seen, at the moment the disciples recognize Jesus at breaking the bread. It more looks like a scene in a polychrome wooden doll’s house. As permanent acolytes two angels flank the Sacrament with swaying censers.
Within the brotherhood of the Sweet Name of Jesus arose a separate division of ‘the Bachelors’. In 1635 they commissioned early Baroque pews and panelling at Jean de Jupploye. After his death the work was continued by i.a. Erasmus Quellinus, but it was only finished in 1651 (by Peter I Verbruggen and Artus I Quellinus). It was partly moved to the opposite Northern transept in 1833 and at this occasion the seats were removed. The cartouches and friezes have been decorated full of fantasy, which invites being explored thoroughly at the spot.
Because on the altarpiece only the devotion for the Holy Sacrament was represented, they wanted to stimulate the devotion for the Sweet Name of Jesus with a separate group of statues against the neighbouring first pillar of the Southern transept. Artus I Quellinus realized this commission in 1644. It is striking how elegantly and delicately the hands and faces have been sculpted and how most plastically the abundant draping of clothes has been worked out. In the centre there is the blessing child Jesus. Mary helps him carry the globe, which is still too big for him. To fortify the commitment of the two persons who flank the infant Jesus, Quellinus has put these adults lower. To Jesus’ right there is a middle-aged man, his foster father Joseph. To His left there is Anna, His grandmother. A few angels crown the Saviour properly with a laurel wreath, as a sign of victory over evil.
The Dominican Hyacinth saved the Holy Sacrament and a statue of Our Lady, not without risk. Quite exceptionally for Counter Reformation times he is not holding a monstrance but a ciborium. Our Lady as an attribute is used by Sebastiaan de Neve (1649) to present the saint to the infant Jesus.
So as to ensure the host was received with more respect the Council of Trent introduced a new piece of furniture: the communion rails.
While he was still busy with the crowning of Our Lady’s altar, in 1655-1657 Sebastiaan de Neve also worked at the marble communion rails, which covered the entire width of the transepts. In this way the four altars in the transepts were fenced off in one go. When the choir screen was pulled down in 1833 the central compartments were put more aside.
The leitmotiv of the pierced marble reliefs consists of a sturdy fanning trail sowing fruits, among which child angels are frolicking. The motifs were adapted to the altar in front of which the panel in question was originally (or still is) positioned. In front of the altar of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary the trail has been decorated with a bunch of roses; with the altar of the Holy Cross the instruments of the passion fitted; with the altar of the Holy Sacrament the usual vegetal symbols of the sacrament of the Eucharist can be found: child angels picking bunches of grapes, and cornstalks, which at least once are clearly associated with the final product, the hosts.
In the central nave, in front of the then altar of the founder of the order Dominic, which is now in a space next to the Southern transept, the founder has been evoked by his fixed attribute: the legendary (here quite funny) dog with the torch and the globe. It is remarkable how variedly the angels are praying; are these some of the nine praying positions attributed to Saint Dominic? At both extremes there is Intercession, or Supplication.
A peculiar variant is the angel supporting the arm of one of his colleagues and this way alluding to Moses, because “As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek (the enemy) had the better of the fight. Moses‘ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. “ (Ex. 17:11-12). This is symbolic of the mediating prayer for the Church Militant, in other words for Christians in their struggle against their weaknesses and for their virtuousness.
The humbly kneeling angels ‘stand’ for Adoration. The angel carrying a lily in the right panel personifies Chastity one of the three religious vows.
The canvas (probably 1654) has been ascribed to Gaspar De Crayer, but Huybrecht Dirix is also being mentioned. Jesus’ three beloved ones – his mother Mary, the beloved disciple John and Mary Magdalen – lament over his dead body. The symbolism of their clothing here shows the trio of the primary colours: red, blue and yellow. One of the angels in tears, on the right, points at the sharp bloody point of the lance Jesus’ heart was pierced with. Another one, in front of him, is holding the crown of thorns. The trilingual cross inscription is completely in the foreground on the left.
Two divine virtues flank the wooden trunk (19th century) painted ‘gold’. The first one, on the left, is (Christian) Faith, with Jesus’ cross and a chalice with above it the consecrated host, the Eucharist. Next is Hope, with an anchor, because in every storm sailors hope they will be able to come to anchor again safe and sound. Their presence and their order are due to a quotation from Saint Paul: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13). As it is the “greatest” of the three Love has been given the place of honour in the centre. It is represented by the chalice and the hosts that decorate the little door, to remind us of the fact that the (real) hosts are being kept here, in other words the Holy Sacrament, the sign of Jesus’ loving willingness to sacrifice himself, which is relived again and again in the broken bread in mass. ‘Divine’ virtues: what would man be without them?
Also on a gilded wooden 18th century exhibition throne the Holy Sacrament is shown surrounded by the three Divine Virtues. Love, in the middle in front, this time shows a burning heart.