The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The high altar

Meer dan een tafel

What strikes one first when entering a Baroque church is its colossal high altar. In the Baroque, the altar slab is only a small part of an immense colossus. The mini comic strip of the Gothic triptych retable has evolved into a portico altar with one gigantic screen to be seen by all the persons present, also those – so to say – in the back seats (in the 17th and 18th centuries there were no chairs nor benches in the nave). The gigantic altarpiece here is 5.35 m (17½ ft.) high (to be compared with two storeys of a house) and 4 m (13 ft.) wide. Didactics start with good teaching materials.

The high altar should remain an eye-catcher. To realise this, it has been made possible to replace the painting. Already then, the Jesuits realised that you hardly pay attention to an image when you always must look at the same one. Now we are used to changing quickly, even where the most beautiful picture of your life is concerned. Hence the reversible transparent cube with photos at six sides; or think of advertising boards along football pitches: how quickly they are changed! To obtain this variety the Antwerp Jesuits invented a unique system as early as the beginning of the 17th century. Behind the altar a large back up case has been constructed, in which four deep grooves offer place for as many paintings on canvas. There is a permanent system with a pulley that allows the canvases to be staged as their themes correspond with the Proper of the liturgical year. In this way mass is thematically supported!

How can we explain this special attention Jesuits pay to the usage of images? In the method of meditation that Ignatius describes in his Spiritual Exercises, the sensory empathy into a Biblical passage is the starting point of further reflection. Especially through a visual representation you can feel more closely associated with the situation Christ or the saint is going through. In the Ignatian contemplation an image leads to emotions, emotions lead to thinking, in which the ‘discernment of spirits’ is of crucial importance. Hopefully this will lead you to making the right choices in your life. And it is by making the right choices that you contribute to “the greater glory of God” and that so you will come closer to Him.

Therefore, looking, beholding, has a key position in understanding a Baroque church, certainly for Jesuits. The representations are not meant to be a mere scenery to look at. You are supposed to empathize, to question. To sustain the meditation for the wider, illiterate audience qualitatively the masters of brush and chisel were invited and paid. The purpose of their artistic imaginative power in painting and sculpture is to cause emotions among the spectators. These emotions should evoke contemplation, good choices and in this way lead to God.

Two of the four original paintings – Saint-Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier – were made by Rubens (ca. 1617-1618). They cost 3,000 florins for the two of them. Rubens’ masterpieces, The Descent from the Cross, for former Saint Walburga’s Church and The Raising of the Cross for the arquebusiers in Our Lady’s Cathedral, were conceived for old-fashioned triptych altars seven years before. But these painting were adapted to the modern type of the rectangular portico altar. Both saints are represented as miracle workers: a popular representation in Counterreformation times, when a miracle was the utmost sign of holiness. “ (…) drive out demons, (…) speak new languages (…)drink any deadly thing and not be harmed (…) lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” are moreover signs Jesus promised to his apostles (Mc 16;17).  And since Ignatius took the mission of the apostles as an example for his ‘Society of Jesus’, Jesuits tend to typify their big figures with such apostolic signs.

At the abolition of the Jesuit order nearly all paintings the Jesuits possessed were auctioned. But Joseph II, co-regent of the empress, wanted to acquire a few for the imperial galleries in Vienna, now the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Joseph de Rosa, who was the superintendent of the gallery, came here to make his choice before the auction catalogue was compiled. Some thirty pieces, especially masterpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck, Brueghel and de Craeyer, were transported to Vienna.  Among them were the two Rubens’ paintings of the high altar and their respective oil sketches. There they would “at all times testify of the fame of the Flemish school of painting”.  Together with two Van Dyck paintings that Mary Theresa had already demanded they yielded 60,620 guilders; the entire proceeds amounted to 98,100 guilders. The sale of all the other paintings from the Jesuit residences in Antwerp and Lier on 20th May 1777 in the college in Prinsstraat only realized 5,505 guilders. This low revenue for 853 paintings, 152 drawings and 8 sculptures can be explained by the fact that some ‘parties’ consciously depreciated the paintings out of sympathy for the Jesuits. The works for which too low a price was bid had to be withdrawn from the sale.

The two other paintings of the high altar can still be admired in turns:

  • The crowning of Our Lady (Cornelis Schut), which remained on the spot
  • The Raising of the Cross (Gerard Zegers), which could be bought back in 1839. This painting is exposed in Lent and calls up a prayer by Ignatius:

Dialogue with Christ
“Lord Jesus Christ, I see you right in front of me nailed to the cross.
What made you switch from Creator to man,
… switch from eternal life to untimely death
… die like this for my sins?
I look at myself and I wonder: What have I done for you?
                                                         What am I doing for you?
                                                         What ought I do for you?”

  • In the present rotation of altar pieces Our Lady of the Carmel also takes part. This painting by Gustave Wappers came here in 1840, together with the statue of the same name, from the former Carmelite convent in Meir. The statue is now at the entrance of Our Lady’s chapel. Some of Mary’s symbolic titles surround her: morning star, mirror, Ark of the Covenant, golden home, ivory tower.
  • And who has a good proposal for a new 4th (contemporary) painting?

The four life size statues of Jesuit saints in white Carrara marble (1657) in the niches of the choir mediate between the meeting with God at the high altar and the believers in the church. Below there is Ignatius (North) and Francis Xavier (South), carved by Artus I Quellinus. On top Francis Borgia (North) and Aloysius Gonzaga (South) were probably sculpted by Hubert Van den Eynde. Ignatius, whose physiognomy was determined by his death mask, shows the book of constitution of his order. The great missionary Francis Xavier raises the mission cross and wears a stole to administer baptism. Aloysius Gonzaga, who died young, is typified by a devotional crucifix, and Aloysius Gonzaga by a skull at his feet, to show his renunciation of worldly life. The loose folds of Borgia’s and Aloysius’ garments and the agility of Xavier’s rochet with long sleeves, are superb examples of a true-to-life rendering in marble.

'Mary's Crowning' by Cornelis Schut, ca. 1635-1640
'The Raising of the Cross' by Gerard Zegers
'Our Lady of the Carmel' by Gustave Wappers (1803-1874)