The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The galleries

At the back of the church, both at the Northern and the Southern side, there is a side door that looks like a compartment of the wainscoting. They give access to one of both stair towers by which the upper floor and the attic can be reached. Both staircases also have doors that open straight on to the church square, because they were mainly destined for the members of the Marian congregations and the pupils of the Sunday classes. As a matter of fact, it was for them that the two galleries were conceived as didactic chapels. It is not a coincidence that both altars have been devoted to the patron saints of youth: Aloysius Gonzaga (in the Northern gallery) and Stanislas Kostka (in the Southern gallery). Because of the great number of penitents 6 supplementary confessionals were placed on these galleries.

After the 1718 fire the didactic function remained, which shows from the oval medallions (120 cm / 47 inches high) of the oak wainscoting (ca. 1720). In the cycle on the South wall a few scenes from Jesus’ public life have been represented and on the North wall scenes from the passion. On the Western wall Christian charity, more particularly the works of mercy, have been depicted. Often these reliefs are attributed to Jan Pieter I van Baurscheit and Michiel Van der Voort, but according to contemporary sources they were cut by anonymous Jesuit artists from the professed house.

The Works of Mercy

On the gallery, underneath the upper rood loft the Works of Mercy (Mth. 25:31-46) have been depicted by means of Biblical stories. Near the two school chapels that were intended to stimulate the youngsters to a humanitarian attitude to life.

1.

To feed the hungry: the Shunamite woman gives food to Elisha
The stories of the prophet Elisha and those of his master Elijah are sometimes quite similar. Therefore, in some scenes it is often impossible to decide who of these two is concerned. Here we see a woman offering food to the man of God. Afterwards the prophet resurrected her son. The scene is situated in a rich interior and this is what makes us conclude this is not about the poor widow of Sarepta, whom Elijah asked for a loaf of bread, but about the “wealthy Shunamite woman”, who herself “urged him [Elisha] to dine with her. Afterward, whenever he passed by, he used to stop there to dine” (2 Kings 4:8). As a reward Elisha foretold that her desire to have children would be fulfilled despite her husband’s old age (vv. 13-17). When the little boy died, Elisha brought him back to life (vv. 18-37). Here the little boy is running playfully after his mother.
2. To give drink to the thirsty: Rebecca gives drink to Abraham’s servant
Abraham sends his oldest servant on a journey to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant sets off with ten camels to Abraham’s country of origin. At a well a nice young girl with a jug on her shoulder comes to draw water from the well and gives drink to both the man and the camels. From this friendly sign, he can see that this Rebecca is the eligible wife for Isaac, sent by God (Gen. 24:1-27).
3. To clothe the naked: the parable of the Prodigal Son
The good, old father dresses his scruffy son, who has just come back, with a beautiful robe (Lc. 15:11-32).
4. To harbour the harbourless: Abraham hosts three strangers
Abraham welcomes God Himself in the shape of three men (later the image of Holy Trinity). He has their feet washed, bread baked and a calf slaughtered, and he stays next to them until they are satisfied (Gen. 18:1-15).

Abraham has taken off his hat in greeting and invites them to come inside. The pilgrims are dressed in pelerines and have long traveller’s staffs in their hands. Because they also have large wings they can be identified as angels mediating God’s presence.

5. To visit the sick: the prophet Isaiah with king Hezekiah
Although first he had announced to the mortally ill king Hezekiah of Judah that he would die soon, the prophet Isaiah promised that he would live another fifteen years (Is. 38:1-8.21-22). It is hard to think of a more beautiful present.

In a rich interior, the ill king is lying in bed. Next to him on a table there is a crown, a sceptre, a dish and a pitcher. Isaiah and two other men pay him a visit. As a sign of God’s promise the shadow on the sundial goes back ten degrees. Everybody looks up frightened.

6. To free the prisoners: Daniel in the lion’s den
King Darius proclaimed a law to venerate no other god than the king. When pious Daniel ignored this ban, he was condemned to be thrown into the lion’s den, to king Darius’ great sorrow. Daniel spent the night amidst the lions, which remained extremely calm.

In the morning king Darius looks anxiously into the (brick) pit and is happy to find Daniel still alive. Two executioner’s servants haul Daniel up (Dan. 6:17-25). An amusing detail: the lions keep so quiet that at Daniel’s liberation they allow him to lean on their heads with his feet.

7. To bury the dead: the burial of John the Baptist

In the middle of a big prison courtyard with high walls, round barred windows and a gate with open portcullis, the beheaded body of Saint John the Baptist is carried by three sad men. Three passers-by are ready with spades and shovels. Beneath the corpse a small lamb holding a banner with a cross is watching: an allusion to Jesus, whom John indicated as the ‘Lamb of God’. On the left, we can see a small dog. (Mth. 14:3-12; Mc 6:17-29; Lc. 3:19-20).

In the 18th century the spaces between the windows of both galleries were decorated with no less than 16 paintings by Brother Daniel Seghers S.J. In the centre of each of these colourful flowers still lifes there is a small image in colour or grisaille by Cornelis Schut. Three of them were taken to Vienna, the other ones were sold.  In 1839, they were replaced by the 14 stations of the cross, painted by E. Dujardin and H.E. Janssens. In the niches above there are busts in pseudo-antique style, most of which represent the apostles.

Saint Hubert’s altar of the hunters
(northern gallery)

In 1798, during the French Rule, the guilds were abolished. This was also the case for Saint Hubert’s guild of the hunters, who had had their own altar in Our Lady’s Church (later Cathedral) since the 16th century. The last dean of this guild became chairman of Saint Charles’ church committee and bequeathed the guild’s possessions to this church. Still it lasted until 1954 before the guild revived. In 1961 the painting of Saint Hubert was placed on the altar of the Northern gallery. The annual guild’s mass, during which game is sacrificed for the benefit of needy parishioners, takes place on the first Tuesday after 2nd October (Saint Hubert’s feast day is 3rd October). At this occasion, the magnificent reliquary horn (16th century) is presented to the believers for veneration. Touching or kissing the reliquary is a tangible sign to express one’s confidence in God’s assistance. Afterwards there is a blessing of dogs in the church square.