The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The front square and the residence

Modern urban design
in a
medieval street pattern

The medieval city of Antwerp (city view, Vergilius Bononiensis, 1565) with the indication of the jesuit building site
Modern baroque urbanistic intervention in a medieval street pattern

The old city of Antwerp took shape in the Middle Ages. Then urban design was easily guided by natural boundaries and it showed an irregular street pattern. The square-shaped markets that were added in the golden 16th century do not reflect a common building concept. So, this vast geometric square in the heart of Ancient Antwerp is quite surprising.  The layout and its harmonious design were both realised by the Jesuit fathers.  A few blocks of houses, including the complete Spuistraat, had to make way for this complex in modern baroque style.

That the church and the residence (dwelling, < Lat. Re-sidere: remain sitting, stay) have been built around a square of public character, reflects the Jesuits’ ideal to be active in society, both pastorally and intellectually. This is quite unlike most religious orders in those days, which experienced the regular rhythm of convent life as a goal as such. This showed in closed cloisters (Lat. claustrum:  bolt, enclosure) such as with the Dominicans at Saint Paul’s Church and the Norbertines at former Saint Michael’s Abbey. In this way, this new fathers’ square constituted a modern urban intervention in the medieval Antwerp street pattern.

It is not a coincidence that the construction of the luxurious Jesuit church (1614-21) and of the residence were situated during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-21), the first prosperous period for the town by the Scheldt since Antwerp had been reconquered by the lawful Spanish authorities in 1585. From an artistic point of view this period coincides with the development of the Antwerp masters of Baroque painting. Before starting this tour, a few questions must be asked. How did the Jesuits end up here? And what project did they envisage when they started this impressive new building?

a cloister: the Antwerp dominicans (etch, half 17th century)
a residence: the Antwerp jesuits (etch J. Neeffs, half 17th century)