Dear visitor, welcome to our ‘prestigious’ parish church. Once you have left the stress of the Antwerp shopping centres behind, you’ll hopefully feel at home in this fascinating ‘house of God’. In this monumental church, where impressive Gothic architecture and amusing Baroque art go surprisingly well together, you will soon enjoy the peace that comes from the One who contains eternity. Being a Christian believer or not, here you can get in touch with the eternal values through the centennial beauty. The artistic importance of this church is thanks to the unbelievable richness of the Renaissance and Baroque pieces of art, as there are for instance 23 altars with as many paintings. But even more spectacular than that is the exuberant Baroque sculpture art, e.g. the communion-rails and epitaphs. Finally, the memorial chapel of great master Peter Paul Rubens makes this church a must for every tourist interested in culture in Antwerp.
Like in many other European cities, the St James church in Antwerp started here in 1431 outside the city walls as a guest house for pilgrims from the north of Europe, on their way to the tomb of the apostle James in Santiago de Compostella. Still today pilgrims come here to ask for the benediction for their journey, mostly on foot. Usually, they get a shell to hang around their neck as a sign of their pilgrimage. You can find this and other travelling attributes like the stick, calabash, hat, and cape integrated in the decorations of the tower, on a house at the corner of Lange Nieuwstraat, and in the whole church.
Fifteen years after the promotion of the chapel to a parish church in 1476, they started constructing the actual church in Brabant-Gothic style. Strong pillars support the typical skeleton-like construction while the top tracery of many glass windows gives a decorative background. For reasons of stability on the one hand and for the unity in style on the other hand, they continued the eastern part with the choir and the ambulatory in Gothic style although it was the first half of the 17th C., the Baroque period. Even Baroque-master P. P. Rubens got a brand new memorial chapel in Gothic style (⇒ U).
The universal temptation to always get more, build higher, stimulated the constructors of St James’ church to the idea to have (only) one tower that puts into shadow even the big tower of Our-Lady’s Cathedral. However, in the end, only one third of this 150 m high dream was realized. Instead St James’ church got a strong, solid tower which is by now not only an essential part of Antwerp’s skyline for already 500 years, but it also suddenly appears in the streets of the city.
As a parish church St James’ church also – just like Our Lady’s Cathedral – offered a place for the chapels of some smaller corporations as the peat transporters and the silk workers. The musicians, around the miserable Job, show their inspiring wind as well as stringed instruments (⇒ O). Some of the corporations chose their patron saint as a professional model; St Ivo who defended the poor for the lawyers (⇒ S), St Joseph for the wood carpenters (⇒ G). Besides, many confraternities used to have their devotion in their own chapels. So did the confraternity of the Holy Trinity that raised money in order to free Christian slaves in the North of Africa (⇒ R). The most prestigious confraternities, with the biggest chapels, are still active, as the one of Our Lady and the one of the Blessed Sacrament.
After finishing the choir in 1656, a chapter is erected. Because of this group of colleague-canons living here the church got its status of a ‘collegiate’ church until 1801. Every day, on fixed hours, they would come to the choir stalls to pray and sing in honour of God. Even the flora and fauna join in this hymn as you can see in the sculpture; the imagination of uncle and nephew, Artus Quellin I and II (1658-70) is really amazing. Everyone’s attention is drawn to the glorification of James on the flamboyant and the triumphant main alter in marble (A. Quellin II, 1685). God sits on his throne under a baldachin (in wood!) in the shape of an enormous open Compostella shell. Another characteristic feature of the St James’ church is the 17th C. rood loft, with an organ of the famous J.-B. Forceville (1727) whose mechanical action is still working.
Don’t look for the original Gothic and early Renaissance pieces of art here; they were destroyed in the two iconoclasms of 1566 and 1581. After the Calvinistic occupation the church was given back to the Catholics in 1585. The revival of the Catholic faith creates an enormously rich Baroque artistic patrimony; as for instance a plenitude of marble stones.
The fact that almost everything in St James’ church was preserved is very exceptional. This is thanks to a priest who was loyal to the French revolutionary Council and made an oath in favour of the Republique. As a kind of reward he could choose one church in Antwerp to be spared. Because of that particular kind of collaboration, St James’ church kept his magnificent patrimony. Nevertheless, the damage of most of the stained windows during the WWII was a tragic loss for the church.
Here you can admire the beauty of baroque sculptures at their highest level; particularly the communion-rail that was designed by W. Kerrickx and H. Verbruggen in 1695. The rail is so realistically carved that you almost forget that it is made of marble. Lovely, angelic altar boys adore Jesus in the elements of bread and wine with appropriate gestures and they recognise Him in the real Lamb of God.
The glass window shows a marvellous green landscape. This masterpiece of Jan Labaer (1626) represents, in several scenes, the story of Rudolf of Habsburg who was willing to offer his horse to a priest so that he could administrate the last sacraments with the Holy Communion to a dying person.
Have you ever seen a pig eating in a church? Look at the Prodigal Son. As an example for all converted sinners he stands near one of the confessionals to give support to other sinners to find reconciliation.
St James’ is rich in memorial monuments because it used to be the parish church of many bourgeois people in the 17th and 18th C. Some other monuments arrived in the 19th C.
(⇒ E) Do you feel compassion with the mother who ordered a portrait statue for her dead son who was a Carthusian monk? The young monk with the shaved head looks as realistic as the skull that encourages you to contemplate about death.
(⇒ H) So, what do you think about Mr Cornelis Lantschot who was so confident about a place in heaven only because of his many alms and his ‘powerful’ prayers?
(⇒ I) Did you ever see a strategist who in spite of his ingenious brains and his impressive arsenal still has to surrender to the one last enemy, death himself? Indeed, the marquis of Pico de Velasco, once governor of the citadel, doesn’t present himself as a very important person (VIP) any longer, but shares the final destiny of all mortals.
Some fortunate families of the 17th C. paid for private memorial chapels.
(⇒ U) The most famous among them is of the family of P. P. Rubens (Our Lady’s chapel, in the eastern part of the church). It was completed five years after his death, in 1645. Rubens himself dedicated the painting Our Lady surrounded by saints that for some reasons never reached its original destination, to his own memorial chapel. So, don’t look here for portraits of his relatives, nor himself.
(⇒ V) The Carenna family of Milan origin has chosen Saint Charles Borromeo of Milan, represented as patron saint of the plague-ridden by J. Jordaens.
The platform of the pulpit, made by Lodewijk Willemssens in 1675, is carried by allegoric figures. In the middle stands Faith, the important virtue, supported not only by Truth but also by Theology as the intellectual side of it. Faith must be proclaimed in preaching to instruct the people, but always in full respect of the truth. Almost hidden under the stairs Instruction keeps a mirror with the text: “Look here and you’ll become wiser.” in its hand. Teachers like to inspire people by reflecting about famous model figures who can be an example in a particular field. The question is always: “Who is my model?”
The reputation of the church quickly spread across Europe and was then acknowledged by Pope Clemens XI in 1705 when he gave St James the title of a ‘prestigious church’. As you can understand, we are still proud on it. Furthermore, at the end of the 19th C., a German visitor, who was more than impressed by all the richness and the beauty, said that the St James church “as the richest church of the Germanic countries should stand in Venice”. Well, even though the chauvinist people of Antwerp enjoyed that compliment, they, of course, prefer to keep their Sint-Jacobskerk here among them.