The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The confessionals

When a relationship wants to be genuine, it will seek harmony and balance. A relationship is in danger when one of the partners finds it easy to demand too much attention for himself. Since we are humans – of whom “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mth. 26:41) – our relations are very vulnerable. The only way to repair a rift in a relationship is to ask for forgiveness… and get it.

Forgiveness is not an individual inner feeling, but an explicit effect that is given by the other. What is more beautiful than real reconciliation between partners?

Also in our relations with God the best thing to do is to ask for forgiveness for our mistakes, our sins. For this Catholic Christians know the sacrament of reconciliation: confession. A penitent confesses his sins to a priest, the confessor, who grants forgiveness in the name of Christ: “Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them” (John 20:23). Because the priest explicitly says that your mistakes have been forgiven, you know that there is a real effect; it is more than just a good feeling. What is more beautiful than a reconciliation between partners? “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20)

To support the private character of the conversation of confession, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) created a new piece of furniture: the confessional. Kneeling humbly the penitent uses this body language to express his remorse. The priest, who is sitting in the centre, listens sideways to one penitent after the other. By not looking the conscience-stricken person straight into the eyes free conversation is stimulated; tactful psychology a few centuries before Freud’s sofa talks…

The great number of confessionals in this church of a religious order met a particular need. There was such a great surge for confession – in Easter time sometimes up to 4,000 penitents a day – that to the 14 confessionals on the ground floor, 6 more were added on the galleries for the confession of men. It can be understood that people prefer confessing things that cannot bear the light of day anonymously to some father, rather than telling this to their familiar parish priest. The confessionals in the aisles, attributed to Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit (ca. 1720), are part of the wainscoting. Initially there were 10 of them. Now there are only 8, of which 6 are original (and of which only one is being used).

It goes without saying that the subject matters of the figurative representations concern confession, and so the battle between good and evil, and the successive stages of sin, remorse, forgiveness and penance. The angel herms at the exteriors are of no importance at all, contrary to the two angels (E) with attributes, in the centre (l: left and r: right). In the oval medallion (M) on top of the priest’s booth scenes from the New Testament deal with remorse, conversion or reconciliation. Traditional characters are Mary Magdalene, Peter, the Samaritan woman and the prodigal son.

Confessionals in the southern aisle

south 5 The longing “to inherit eternal life” (Lc. 10:25c), confirmed by the awareness of one’s own transitoriness, may stimulate you to do as much good as possible in your lifetime, like for instance the good Samaritan. Therefore, Saint Ignatius advises everybody to regularly contemplate his or her own moment of dying.
angels The spade of the gravedigger, bones and a skull out of which a worm is crawling!
medallion The good Samarian (Lc. 10:25-37), caring for a wounded man (v.33) recommends charity as the best way to inherit eternal life(v.25c)
south 4 Sins can be forgiven heartily.
angels The keys illustrate the ‘key power’ that Jesus gave to the Church to forgive sins (Mth. 16:19 in combination with John 20:23). The same angel shows a tally stick, while the angel at the other end cleans a slate with a sponge. How beneficent is God’s forgiveness: however much you may have on your slate, it can be sponged off so that you can start again with a clean slate! Which visitor would not stand still at the value of reconciliation and – why not? – heave a sigh of relief?
medallion The prodigal son (Lc. 15:11-23). The merciful father embraces his son, who has come back (v.20): this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found (v.24ab).
south 3 Jesus’ bitter passion and death (to carry away our sins) may stimulate our remorse over our own mistakes. This suffering was even more painful for Jesus because Peter denied hem, although afterwards he showed repentance.
angels A few tools of the passion, such as the lance and the hyssop stalk, Veronica’s veil and the crown of thorns remind us of Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice until death. In this way, he has definitively broken the power of evil and so he has brought about reconciliation between God and man.
medallion Peter’s repentance (Lc. 22:62): and he began to weep bitterly.
south 2 caryatid herms, added by Jan Baptist I Van Hool (beginning 19th century)
medallion The raising of the dead Lazarus (John 11:1-44) is an image of man reviving after a good confession.
south 1 the confessional against the western wall has disappeared.
medallion Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-19): confession as an impulse for a profound change in life.

Confessionals in the northern aisle

north 5 Repentance, stimulated by prayer
angel, right Prayer: On the seam of the cloak: “Fili, pecc[asti], non adjicias iterum; sed et de pristinis deprecare, ut tibi dimittantur. Eccl. 21” (My son, if you have sinned, do so no more, and for your past sins pray to be forgiven; Sir. 21:1). The small rosary supports this incitement for prayer. The answer is not long in coming: the angel reads quotes from two penitential psalms:

  • on the left page from psalm 6 (v. 2-3a): “[us] Poenit.[entialis]/ Domine, ne / in furore tu[o] / arguas me / neque in ira / tua corripias / me. / Miserere mei / Domine” (Lord, do not punish me, although You are full of anger; do not beat me, although You are irate. Lord, have mercy on me).
  • on the right page from: “psalm 50: Miserere mei / Deus, secundum / magnam miseri- /cordiam tuam / Et secundum / multitudinem / miserationum / tuarum dele [iniquitatem meam” (Ps. 50:3; God, in your goodness, have mercy on me, in Your infinite pity take [my trespasses] away.)

The foot bears the inscription “PVBIF” [Petrus Van Baurscheit invenit, fecit] (… has designed and executed this).

angel, left Penitence. The weeping angel is wrapped up in a (coarse) hair shirt and flogs himself with two scourges. On the seam of his mantle there is the incitement from Rom. 6:19: “sicut [enim] exhibuistis membra vestra servir[e immunditiae et iniquitati, ad iniquitatem,] ita nunc [?] ex[h]ibite membra vestra servire justitiae” (just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present them as slaves to righteousness for sanctification).
medallion Mary Magdalene, the ‘public sinner’ at the crucified Christ.
north 4 Moderation, trained in Lent, gives backbone in cases of greater temptations, such as adultery.
angel, left Moderation: keeps the reins in his hand, as well as a horse’s bit to control (one’s urges).
angel, right Lent and Purification: fish and a jar of water as sober food. Moreover, the fish, which takes in food through its gills, is a symbol of moderation itself; the water is symbol of moral purification.
medallion By his answer Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” Jesus saves the woman taken in adultery from any kind of sentence. What He does do, is encourage her not to sin any more (John, 8:3-11).
north 3
angels Remorse (left) mourning, with his arms crossed, (right) wipes off his tears.
medallion in the encounter with the Samarian woman (John 4:4-42) Jesus says that God must be worshipped in truth and that all sinfulness must be revealed.
north 2
angels caryatid busts of angels (Jan-Baptist I Van Hool, beginning 19th century; as in South 2).
medallion Zacchaeus, the extortioner who gets expelled, wants to be straightened out (Lc. 19:1-10). In this we see two important aspects of reconciliation: the will to make up the evil one has caused by giving compensation to the victims (v. 8) ànd the joy because of the contact regained and of having been pardoned by Jesus (v. 10).
north 1 The confessional against the west wall has disappeared.
medallion circular, from a different series (?): Jesus chases the merchants from the Temple (John 2:14-22).

If ever you visit Saint Peter’s Church in Turnhout and you have the impression of recognizing a few of these angels at the confessionals, you need not be surprised: they are exact copies indeed.