Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation.
Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation.
In the duchy of Brabant, to which Antwerp belonged, the international Gothic style, developed into a specific regional variant, especially in church building. The characteristics of this Brabant Gothic style, applied to Saint Paul’s, are:
For the interior walls brick was used, whereas the exterior paraments and constructive parts have been made of sandstone (“Ledische zandsteen”).
|length:||in total ca 88 m (589ft), consisting of the nave (38.32 m = 125ft 8in), the transept (11.60m = 38ft) and the choir (39m = 128ft)|
|height:||nave, transept and choir: 24.9m (81ft 6in), crossing: 26m (85ft 3in)|
|width:||in total 25m (82ft), of which the central nave 11.3m (37ft), the choir 11.1m (36ft 5in)|
|The total roof surface is about 3,000m² (32,292 ft²), it is covered with nearly 200,000 slates, of which each has been fastened with two copper nails and of which the total weight is 87 tonnes.|
Now the floor level of the church is about 1.7m (= 5.5ft) above street level. The steps in Nosestraat make one experience the figurative ‘elevation’ of the sacred space, reminding us of the psalm-verse “Let us go up to the House of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1) Here you are assimilated into Beauty, which exceeds temporality. After all the church is not a common space for religious services, but wants to evoke ‘Heavenly Jerusalem’. The consecrated church first of all is meant to be the house of God, where one may be a guest, especially at the altar, and where one lets himself being filled with the Light of God’s presence. Here one enters into a different dimension of life, which refers to the Perfect and the Eternal. The sacred space makes it possible to experience God’s presence thanks to the following characteristics:
The height, which is 24.9m (81ft 6in) in the choir and 26m (85ft 3in) in the stellar vault, combined with the depth (of 88m = 289ft), which is so extraordinary thanks to the long choir, determines the grandeur. It is a pity that the coloured light of the stained glass windows, which marked the space even more, has disappeared. The special effect must have been even bigger for those who, in former days, lived in a small house such as the ones at the foot of the façade (p. 17). Symbolically this religious idea of God’s eternity (‘transcendence’) is supported by the golden stars, which represent the firmament of Heaven. In the same way as we cannot grasp the stars with our hands, we cannot grasp God with our brain. However much God transcends our limited intellectual capacity was depicted in a 15th century painting on a side altar. In it we see Saint Augustine on the beach, meeting a little boy who tries in vain to pour the water of the entire sea into a little pit. The saint, who questions the seriousness of this attempt, receives the reply that his attempt to understand the full mystery of God is even less realistic.
The grandeur of the church building wants to make us experience God as the Lord of all life. The orientation of the church however indicates that God came closest to mankind in His Son Jesus. By his sacrifice of Love until his death on the cross, and by His resurrection this Jesus has overcome evil and has deprived death of the last word. That is why for Christians He is ‘the Saviour of the world’, ‘the Light of the world’ (after John 1:5). This explains why, just like every single medieval church, Saint-Paul’s has been oriented, i.e. with the high altar and the side altars oriented towards the East, where the sun rises. Just like sunlight engenders the new day and by its light and warmth makes everything grow and blossom, Jesus offers real light to people. Christians orient themselves to Him. In the church building they do so literally and symbolically: the believers, led by the Preachers, directed their prayers in the divine offices and in the (morning) Eucharist towards the sun rising in the East.
That the immeasurable God shows Himself in Jesus Christ, can be seen in the floor plan, which has the form of Jesus’ cross. In other words: the floor plan of the church shows that this ‘house of God’ is indeed of Christian nature, which can be seen best in an aerial photo of the choir, nave and transepts.
The most important part is the choir, the ‘sanctuary’. Here the Preachers gathered a few times a day to pray the divine offices. This is why this choir has been conceived as the head of the crucified Jesus. After all the church community is the “mystical body of Christ” (Saint Paul) with the clergy as “its head”.
The transepts represent the transverse beam of the cross.
When Jesus died at the cross, His mother remained loyal to Him until the end; this is why Mary receives the place of honour in a crucifixion scene, i.e. Jesus right hand side. This is also the reason why in the cruciform floor plan of a medieval church as this one, Our Lady’s Chapel is on the right, which is the northern side.
The symbolism of the twelve apostles is present in the very architecture of the church building, more specifically in the twelve pillars bearing the central nave. In his Epistle to the Galatians (2:9) Paul calls the apostles “the pillars” of the Church. In Revelations (21:14), where the wall of Heavenly Jerusalem is supported by twelve pillars with in between the names of ‘the Twelve’, the architectural symbolism is even more explicit.
At the top of each pillar there is a more than life-size white stone apostle statue (2.25m = 7ft 4in tall), sculpted by Michiel I van der Voort. Preliminary studies of these are kept in the Antwerp Print Room; one bozzetto, that of Andrew, is in Brussels (KMSKB).
So as to be able to realise the series of statues financially, each apostle statue became part of a funeral monument of a single wealthy citizen, with the huge plinth carrying the text of their epitaph. All persons who continue ‘living’ here in memory belonged to the same Emtinck family of substance. The order of the names of the family members is chronological according to the date of their death. The series starts with Peter, and Eduard I († 1620), the Antwerp primogenitor. Eduard III († 1724), lawyer and almoner, as mentioned in his epitaph below the apostle John, seems to have been the most central character of the twelve family members mentioned. He is the father of the six children whose names were written underneath the last six apostle statues – sometimes even decades – after the series had been realised. Moreover his date of death matches best the stylistic dating between 1700 and 1720.
The position of the apostle statues, from East to West
|Central nave North||Central nave South|
|1. Peter||2. Paul|
|3. Andrew||4. James the Greater|
|5. John||6. Thomas|
|7. James the Less||8. Philip|
|9. Bartholomew||10. Mathew|
|11. Simon the Zealot||12. Jude Thaddaeus|
True to tradition the apostles are barefoot – reminding Jesus’ advice when He gave them their mission to proclaim faith. In order to create a more vivid impression, most figures have one foot protruding from above the plinth. The contrast with the wide folds in their garments accentuates the muscled anatomy of these half naked Men of God. All of them have beards, except for John and Bartholomew. Many carry their instruments of torture as attributes.
It is quite original that all apostles who contributed in writing to the New Testament, however small their contribution may have been, are represented as authors, with their writings being depicted in proportion to the volume of their contribution. Could this underline the intellectual procedure of the Dominicans when preaching?