The very first church in Antwerp was erected in the 7th century by Saint Amand and devoted to Saints Peter and Paul. After the Norman invasions it was replaced by a new parish church with the archangel Michael as given saint patron. In 1124 Saint Norbert adjoins an abbey community to this church. The French Revolution abolishes this norbertine abbey (1794) and the premises are gradually erased.
In order to face the demographic explosion of the 19th century the Spanish walls are erased around 1864. The demolition of the citadel takes until 1881. A brand new neighbourhood is planned: ‘The South’. This includes erecting a new parish with a new church. A historical reflex leads to choosing Michael again as saint patron, with the adjunction of saint Peter. Both the pastor and de city want it to be a unique monument: no one more neo-gothic church, but a basilica plan. After traveling to Aachen and Italy the pastor and architect Frans Van Dijk opt for a combined neo-Romanesque and Byzantine style. Van Dyck is well documented on the French architect Paul Abadie († 1884) who did restore Romanesque churches in the Dordogne and conceived the Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre. All these influences got merged into a unique eclectic and successful style.
Due to financing problems building the church was delayed until 1893. Next to the contributions of the parishioners and some subsidies from government, province and city, the major financial contribution comes from the pastor(s brother.
Although sacred on the 4th of May 1897 by cardinal Goossens, the decoration and further interior fitting will take several additional decades, be it with respect for the initial project. Gilding the church ceiling and the marble lining of the choir never came into being because of their excessive cost.
In 1921 a building behind the church is inaugurated to house the parish services and social works.
In 1983 the church gets classified on behalf of being a historic example of neo-architecture.
De west front is mainly ornated with Romanesque style elements. Especially the typical Romanesque rounded arch is frequently used. The tympanum, richly decorated with reliefs, shows Christ in Majesty holding the Book of Life in the left hand, and surrounded by the symbols of the four gospel writers.
The east front is dominated by the high choir, its apsis and the four apsidioles of the transept.
The square tower, 70 m high, is mainly set up with red bricks and has round Romanesque arched windows. As from the fifth layer, the tower gets more elegant. The white stone campanile, surrounded by small columns, carrying a gospel writer’s symbol on each corner, reminds of its Venetian equivalents. Above it the rounded gallery is topped by a scaled pine cone.
As for old basilicas the nave and the transepts are quite high, whereas the aisles are half as high.
The crossing is higher than nave and transept, giving the opportunity to have 12 extra windows.
Next to that extra daylight, the light effects on the golden mosaics result into a clear atmosphere. This symbolically refers to the text from the Book of Life written in the apsis: ‘Ego sum Lux mundi’ (I am the Light of the world).
The mosaics in this church are based on 11th and 12th century Byzantine examples from churches in Rome, Sicilia and Venice. They can be found in lots of architectural elements, such as the apsis, the vaults, the tympanums and the long friezes. But also in the furniture: high altar, communion rail with ambos, stalls, pulpit and confessionals. Cosmatesque work, a technique initiated by the Italian artist’s family Cosma, consist in encrusting cut coloured marble pieces along a geometric pattern. This technique as applied on the floor of both the nave and the choir.
Due to its set-up and colourful decoration the high altar is the main attractive point in the church. Five veined Carrara marble steps lead to the altar covered by a white Carrara marble ciborium. The latter rests on four green veined marble pillars. The door of the tabernacle, with the Lamb of God in its centre, was richly decorated with jewels and rock crystal by the Antwerp goldsmith J. Junes. He also created the Byzantine cross above the altar with in enamel the gospel writer’s symbols.
De pulpit (1905) is mainly made of white marble and included a large variety of costly marbles and mosaic stones. The two little lions ahead as of blue turquois marble, carrying green marble columns.
The six white marble confessionals are embedded in the wall. Their bronze doors are flanked by two granite columns, of different colours. Above the confessionals a figure, presented amidst a floral decoration, links to confession: the Arch of Noach and the Good Shepherd stand for salvation; a weeping Petrus for contrition, a Fenix for resurrection.
The fourteen cupper stations of the Cross Way (1903) were made by the etcher Mauquoy according to drawings of the Hendrik Redig from Antwerp.