Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation.

The calvary garden:
on a pelgrimage ’round the corner’

The Calvary of Saint Paul's Church, one of the most picturesque corners of Antwerp - colored lithograph, published by Granello in Antwerp, 19th century. © Museum Plantijn-Moretus/Prentenkabinet Antwerpen
Saint Paul's - The Calvary today

The Dominicans and the pelgrimage to Jerusalem

For many a Christian the pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a goal in life. In 17th century Antwerp the Dominicans took the lead in the promotion of this pilgrimage. Within the Brotherhood of the Rosary they founded the Fellowship of Palmers. The last ones to visit the Holy Land at the end of that century were the two Ketwigh brothers, both Antwerp Dominicans. Because the Holy Land had become inaccessible due to the advancing Ottoman troops Dominicus (Domien) van Ketwigh conceived the plan to convert the graveyard next to the church into a contemplative statue garden evoking Jerusalem. The burial function of the churchyard was to be preserved. So this Baroque creation was meant to be a kind of spiritual ersatz good. By seeing Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection impersonated life size, the spectator can call these mysteries of faith to mind more vigorously and experience them more deeply. Already before 1699 Willem I Kerricx drew the first design for the ‘hill’, but it took nearly half a century to have the entire project realized. For this cause until 1741 an appeal was made to several Antwerp Baroque sculptors including Jan Claudius De Cock, Willem I Kerricx and Willem-Ignatius Kerricx, Jan Pieter I van Baurscheit, Michiel I van der Voort and Alexander Van Papenhoven.

Although the dominant Calvary lends its name to the entire garden of the former graveyard, it is in fact also a garden of resurrection, as Jesus’ rising from the dead is brought into vision ‘live’ by His encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden! Moreover the prophets foretell Jesus’ suffering as well as His resurrection. Whoever was involved in Jesus’ sacrifice of love by His crucifixion and His triumph over death, either as a direct witness, a prophet or as a worshipped pious person, has been given a place here. By the thematic positioning of the statues and by the lively dialogue of some groups of statues this remarkable ensemble looks somewhat like an open air theatre.

Four Dominicans, who were palmers themselves, carrying rosaries, accompany the visitors. To illustrate the destination of their fellowship, they hold shields with on them the Christian escutcheon of Jerusalem, while palms refer to the pilgrims’ custom of entering their hometowns triumphantly with this ‘piece of evidence’.

At the beginning of the path two beatified Dominicans invite the visitor to join them on their journey by means of the texts on the rim of their shields. On the left there is Jordan of Saxony (D1), who succeeded Dominicus to be the second magister-general of the order. In 1237 however he was killed in a shipwreck when coming back from the Holy Land. He recommends the visit with a verse from the psalms: “AENBIDT OP SYNEN HYLIGHEN BERGH. Ps: 98.” [Worship on His Holy Mountain] (Ps. 99:9). To the right there is the Portuguese Gondisalvus of Amarante (1187-1259) (D2), who, after a stay in Palestine for over ten years, became a hermit and afterwards a Dominican. On Gundisalvus’ shield there is: “SYN GRAF SAL GLORIEUS WESEN ISA : II”  [His tomb shall be glorious] (Isaiah 11:10).

On top of the hill, on the terrace underneath the cross, two fathers are preaching. They are the co-founders of the fellowship of the palmers: Domien Vanden Boom (D3), on the left, and the crippled Jaak Pussens (D4) on the right.

Floorplan of the calvary garden

Dominicans   Apostles
D1 Jordan of Saxony A1 Peter
D2 Gundisalvus of Amarante A2 Paul
D3 Domien Vanden Boom
D4 Jaak Pussens Evangelists
Ev1 Matthew
Angels Ev2 John
E1 crown of thorns Ev3 Luke
E2 image five wounds Ev4 Mark
E3 sponge and name board ‘INRI’
E4 seamless robe and dice Minor prophets (Latin inscriptions)
E5 cross p1 Hosea (Ozeas)
E6 ladder p2 Joel (Ioel)
E7 shroud p3 Amos (Amos)
E8 scourge and ropes p4 Obadiah (Abdias)
E9 Veronica’s veil p5 Jonah (Jonas)
E10 whipping post and crown of thorns, (nails, whip, dice) p6 Habakkuk (Habacuc)
p7 Micah (Michaea)
Sorrowful Mysteries, Tomb and Resurrection   p8 Nahum (Nahum)
DM1 Death agony p9 Haggai (Aggaeus)
DM2 Flogging p10 Malachi (Malachias)
DM3 Crowning with thorns p11 Zephanaiah (Sophonias)
DM4 Bearing of the Cross p12 Zachariah (Zacharias)
Holy Grave (above it Crucifixion and Pietà)
JC – MM: Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene Major prophets
P1 Isaiah (Isaias)
Worshippers P2 Ezekiel (Ezechiël)
V1 Empress Helena P3 Daniel (Daniël)
V2 Mary of Egypt P4 Jeremiah (Jeremias)
V3 Longinus
V4 Peter and the crowing rooster Old Testament
V5 Pelagia Mo Moses
V6 Jerome Da  King David
V7 Eustochium

The Passion of Christ

To testify to Jesus’ gruesome passion angels at both sides of the path show the visitor the tools of the passion. The positioning of these heavenly ‘squires’ was inspired by Bernini’s Ponte Sant’Angelo (1669), which Dominicus van Ketwigh admired during his stay in Rome from 1714 till 1716. The tools have been distributed as follows: crown of thorns (E1), (cloth with) the 5 wounds (E2), the inscription INRI on the cross and a sponge (E3), the seamless robe (which was diced for) and the dice (E4), the cross (E5), the ladder (E6), the shroud (E7), the scourge and the ropes (E8), the (alleged) cloth of Veronica (E9), whipping post and the crown of thorns, glove, nails, scourge and dice (E10). The angels show their grief: they look sad and some are weeping.

Jesus’ suffering is also depicted in the 4 medallions (Willem Ignatius Kerricx, 1741) against the church wall. Together with the calvary they constitute the 5 Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. The remarkable idiosyncrasy that Mary is present in every scene should not surprise us too much since both the commissioner and his brother Jan Baptist had been great promoters of the daily devotion of the rosary since 1703. Each mystery is accompanied by a poem.

First Mystery, the Agony (DM1)


Second Mystery, the Flagellation (DM2)


Third Mystery, Crowning with Thorns (DM3)


Fourth Mystery, Carrying the Cross (DM4)


Peter (A1), in a cavern right of the tomb, is tortured by remorse because of having denied Jesus. This is symbolized by the crowing rooster above him. He has put the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven on the ground and he is on his knees, humbly asking to be forgiven.

By representing Jesus’ crucifixion high on top of this steep hill, the cross becomes somewhat triumphant. The skulls at the foot of the cross refer to the name of the spot: ‘Calvary’, i.e. ‘Place of skull’.

True to tradition His mother and His beloved disciple John, respectively (iconographically) right and left of Him, flank the cross. Mary (M) looks up at her Child; John (J) points Him out to us.

Because according to Jewish tradition Adam was buried near Mount Calvary, just outside Jerusalem, Christians welcomed this fact to represent Adam’s skeleton (Ad) as a symbol of death at the foot of the cross, which stands for (hope for) eternal life. The same (old) Adam, naked, and with the shovel of his labour (Ad) is here looking up as a living person at the ‘new Adam’, as Jesus Christ is being called (Rom. 5:14-21, especially Cor. 15:22,45-49)

In a cavern underneath the cross, Mary (M) is holding her dead Son (JC) on her lap and mourns over Him: the Pietà. Jesus’ sacrifice of love is symbolically repeated by the pelican that in the last resort opens its chest to give its innermost parts to its young so that they may be fed and can survive.

Jesus’ lifeless body (Willem I Kerricx) lies in state movingly ‘true to life’ in the cave on the ground floor: the Holy Grave. The Roman soldier Longinus (V3), who pierced Jesus’ heart, belongs rather to the Calvary on top of the hill, but here he actually represents the sentry by the tomb.

Finally Jesus’ resurrection has been brought into vision ‘live’ (by Michiel I van der Voort): He (JC) meets Mary Magdalene (MM) in the garden – the gospel of the day of Easter (John 20:14-17). She was the crown witness of that great mystery, namely that He has overcome death. Initially she thought that He was the gardener, which accounts for His spade. When she recognized Him, from her disbelief she wanted to touch Him, but she was told: “Do not touch Me” (‘Noli me tangere’, which is the traditional name for this scene). Awe struck she slightly kneels and crosses her arms.

The four evangelists, who have put the account in writing, are at the side of the garden opposing the church wall. They can be recognized by their winged symbols and their writing materials. John (Ev2) and Luke (Ev3) are writing; Matthew (Ev1) is looking up to Heaven. Mark (Ev4) is holding a scroll on which we can read the first verse of his gospel.

The two most important apostles (A), Peter and Paul, are part of the right row of angels. They can be recognized by their physiognomy and their respective attributes – two keys and a sword – and both of them are holding a scroll.

In Peter’s (A1) one can read from his first letter:

[Christ also suffered for you; I Peter 2:21]
[Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ; I Peter 3:21]“

On Paul’s (A2) scroll we can also read from his letters:

[Christ died and came to life; Rom. 14:9]
[We proclaim Christ crucified; I Cor 1:23]“

Further all prophets make their appearance, the ‘major’ (P) and the minor (p) ones, to announce Jesus’ sacrifice of love on Mount Calvary with one of their quotations and in Dutch too.

That the Dominicans had a great liking for Mary Magdalene (MM) can be concluded from her being present no less than three times, including the apparition to her on Easter morning. The reason is that Mary Magdalene, who is identified with several characters of the New Testament, including the sister of Lazarus and Martha, was the patron of the Dominican third order in the Southern Low Countries (until the beginning of the 19th century). This patronage is linked with the history of the order, which served the place of pilgrimage Sainte Baume until it was destroyed during the French Revolution. The legend says that after Mary Magdalene had gone ashore in Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, together with Lazarus and Martha, she retreated in ‘Sainte-Baume’, filled with remorse over her sinful life (‘baoumo’ is Provençal for ‘cave’). On the first platform of the ‘hill’ she is flanked by her brother and sister, while she lies meditating about the extremes as a repentant sinner in the cave. For this meditation she uses a skull (and originally also a cross in her left hand). The mysterious peacock-like bird may symbolize her vanity. Her most important attribute is the small vase of costly balm, which she anointed Jesus’ feet with in the house of Simon the Pharisee and which also refers to her intention to embalm Jesus’ dead body on Easter morning. In that cave she lived a life of prayer and solitude for thirty years. According to the legend she was assisted by archangel Michael (E), who, dressed as a Roman soldier and armed with a ferula and flaming sword, chased the dragon (Dra) that lived there. The same fending off powers are attributed to her sister Martha of Bethany (Mta), who is holding a cross in her hand as a weapon. Her brother Lazarus (L), who is blessing as a bishop, is holding the sword of his decapitation. On their way to the Holy Land many pilgrims also passed by Sainte-Baume, including Jaak Pussens in 1633.

Finally we find Mary Magdalene against the stairs tower, where, true to the legend, seven times a day angels raise her in ecstasy high above the clouds, so that she can hear heavenly music until she may enter Heaven definitively.

The prophets are speaking

First of all a (Jewish) ‘pro-phet’ is someone who frankly ‘fore-tells’ the actual truth to the entire people and threatens doom but also gives outlook on a definite manifestation of God’s salvation.

Because Christians regard God’s Covenant with the Jewish people as a first or ‘old’ impetus to the New Covenant in Christ, the prophets of the ‘Old Testament’ are read from this new religious point of view . But in early Christian tradition their actions were mostly seen as ways of fore-telling the salvation that would be fulfilled in Christ. Stubborn, recalcitrant preachers were thus reduced to acute, honourable fortune-tellers. So, in Christian imagery the original strong commitment of these popular sources of inspiration was changed into less threatening musing of future predictors. Either their cautious gaze is focused on the banderol with one of their quotations, or they are inward-looking with head bowed, or they scowl in front of them, or they look up to Heaven. They hold the unrolled scroll in both hands, or in one while with their right index they point at it to endorse their oral sermon.

The length of their books of the Bible determines the division into ‘minor’ and ‘major’ prophets. To the three ‘major prophets’ the Christians added Daniel, probably because of concern about the numerical parallel with the four evangelists.

Except for Jeremiah, the major prophets are symbolically high against the buttresses of the church, whereas the twelve minor prophets act on ground level. The order of their positioning, starting from the entrance of the garden, is mostly the same of the one in the Bible. This makes one wonder if originally the positioning was not entirely Biblically correct.

The names of all these men of God have been engraved in Latin of the time into the plinths. Their costumes are conspicuous and exceptional. With most of them the gown does not reach further than their knees. In this way this unique full plastic series of sculptures has been prevented from giving a far too stereotyped impression and these men of God get a more dynamic character. Moreover some of them wear some exotic fashionable outfit. The message of a few of them has been typified by striking attributes, such as the cow’s horns with Hosea and the lanterns with Zephaniah.

As they are wise men it may be considered evident that these prophets have been represented as middle-aged or elderly persons. As a result of this (alleged long) experience they have, as if it were by definition, long beards: the heavy, full ‘prophet beard’. As the apostles most of them are barefoot.

As a preacher a prophet can be recognized by the unrolled scroll, the antique carrier of texts. This historically faithful element first of all materializes the prophet’s message. In this way prophets were distinguished from apostles, who mostly had to exchange the scrolls of their time for more modern books, the medieval Christians’ medium. Of course the quotation comes from the prophet’s book that is part of the Bible.

The quotations are not always literally from the prophet in question since the passages from the New Testament were preferred in which the prophet is quoted, sometimes in slightly different words. Because Latin was the universal language of the Catholic Church it was also used in religious art at least until the end of the 19th century. Biblical texts were mostly taken from the Vulgate. Quite remarkably the Antwerp Dominican Baroque statue garden is an important exception to this. Here the prophets ‘speak’ the vernacular, Dutch. In this way they can already reach a wider audience.

The 12 minor phophets (p)

(p1) Hosea, ‘Ozeas’, (Michiel I van der Voort, ca. 1701-1709)

He keeps his head lying on his right shoulder, directed towards the visitor at the entrance door: first eye-contact from man to man – only then the message comes up! The fertility cult of the Canaanite idol Baal, against which he fulminated so much, is symbolized by bulls. But the prophet judged these statues could only be removed and smashed up (8:4-6). This is what both cow’s horns at the prophet’s feet refer to: one of them is broken. In spite of all this the Messianic deliverance from the shades can still be heard in the quote on the scroll: “O DOODT / ICK SAL SYN / UWE DOODT / Ozeas 13 V.14”. [O death I shall be your death Hosea 13:14]

(p2) Joel (Michiel I Van der Voort, ca. 1701-1709)

Joel compared the imminent coming of the Day of the Lord to the invasion of enemy forces, setting the world ablaze: “fire has devoured the pastures of the plain, and flame has enkindled all the trees of the field.” (1:19). Cause and result are represented. At Joel’s right hand side we can see the flames, whereas at his left hand side there is a bare tree trunk with branches. In the verses that follow the threat reaches a climax, because he implies celestial bodies. He reads his quotation seriously: “DE SONNE / EN DE MANE / SYN VERDU=/=YSTERT GH=/=EWEEST / IOEL 2. V 10”. [The sun and the moon have been darkened. Joel 2:10]. For Christians this is an obvious allusion to the eclipse at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion as mentioned by Luke (23:45a).

(p3) Amos (Jan Claudius De Cock, signe)

Just as with Joel the text alludes to the eclipse at Jesus’ crucifixion: “DE SONNE SAL ONDER GAEN / IN DEN MIDDAGH. 8.V.9.” [The sun will set at midday. 8:9]

(p4) Obadiah, ‘Abdias’ (Alexander Van Papenhoven?)

The scroll has been unrolled downwards and in it he foretells: “ENDE GHY SYT SEER VERSMAEDELYCK. ABDIAS 2” [You are held in dire contempt; Ob. 2]. The speaker remains icily calm and stares straight ahead.

(p5) Jonah, ‘Jonas’ (Alexander Van Papenhoven, attributed)

Due to his adventures at and in the sea delicate or long garments and elegant footwear do not suit him. The quote is one of the prophet’s autobiographical texts: “JONAS WAS IN DES VISCHS BUYCK DRY DAGHEN ENDE DRY NAG[ten]. / IONAS 2. V.1”. [Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 2:1]. Traditionally this three day’s stay inside the big fish is interpreted as a prefiguration of the period between Jesus’ death and His resurrection.

(p6) Habakkuk, ‘Habacuc’ (Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit, signed)

The prophet had to take the stew he had cooked to Daniel, who was imprisoned in the lions’ den in Babel. Because he protested “the angel of the Lord seized him by the crown of his head and carried him by the hair; with the speed of the wind” he was taken to Babel. This explains why he is wearing a short robe up to just above his knees, and his flying locks. Here we can see how much he likes taking a taste from the pot (Daniel 14:23-42)

His quote, a complaint against the disloyalty of God’s people – “GY SYT VERVULT MET SCHANDEN VOOR GLORIE. II, 16” [and shame comes to your glory; 2:16] – is adapted to Jesus here, whose shameful crucifixion smears His glory.

(p7) Micah, ‘Michaea’ (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

He refers to the terrible suffering Jesus had to endure to be able to give new life: “DE PYNE HEEFT U BEVAN/GEN ALS EEN BAERENDE VROUW. 4.V.9.”. [you are seized with pains like a woman in travail; 4:9].

(p8) Nahum (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

He too points at Jesus’ wounds: “UWE WONDE / IS DE ALDERQUAEDSTE. 3.V.19” [there is no healing for your hurt. 3:19]. The reference to his book has been playfully put on the second scroll, behind the first one.

(p9) Haggai, ‘Aggaeus’ (Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit, signed with the monogram JPVB)

The figure full of character has a wealth of hair and cautiously looks up to heaven: “DEN HEERE HEEFT VERWECKT DEN GHEEST VAN JESU. AGGAEI. I° V.14” [the Lord stirred up the spirit of Jesus; Haggai 1:14], an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection. The pronounced pleats render relief to the entire figure.

(p10) Malachi, ‘Malachias’ (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

With an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection he gives consolation to everybody who finds himself in times of darkness: “ULIEDEN SAL OPGAEN DE SONNE DER RECHT­VEERDIG­HEIT.” [for you there will arise the sun of justice; Mal. 3:20]

(p11) Sephaniah, ‘Sophonias’ (Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit, signed with the monogram JPVB)

Zephaniah is holding a small lantern, of which, just like the three small lanterns behind him, a little door is open. Into each window a burning candle has been engraved: an inventive way to make clear how one and the same invisible candle can be seen from all sides! The prophet of doom let there be no doubt: on the “day of the Lord” evil will systematically be traced and retaliated: “At that time I will explore Jerusalem with lamps; I will punish the men”. At the same time on his scroll he offers hope: “VERBEYT MY IN DEN DACH MYNDER VERRYSENISSE. 3.V.8” [wait for me, says the LORD, against the day when I arise; Zeph. 3:8]

(p12) Zachariah, ‘Zacharias’ (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

He is carrying an ingeniously decorated letter case with a flap, from which protrude several sheets. By pointing out the following passage with his right index, he invites the visitor at the foot of Mount Calvary to look up at the crucified Jesus on top: “SY SULLEN OPSIEN TOT MY DIE SY DOORSTOKEN HEBBEN. Zach. 12. V.10” [they shall look on me, whom they have thrust through. Zach. 12:10]

The major prophets (P)

On the plinths of each of the three major prophets against the buttresses there is the escutcheon of the Fellowship of Palmers, the kernel of which is the Christian escutcheon of Jerusalem: four square crosses around a bigger square cross, which together refer to Jesus’ five crucifixion wounds. Also the two crossed palms underneath them refer to Jerusalem, the final destination of Jesus’ voyage of life. His joyous entry there, with bystanders enforcing the cheering movements of their arms with palms, had become the symbol of the entry into Heavenly Jerusalem, anyway.

(P1) Isaiah, ‘Isaias’ (Michiel I van der Voort)

His text is: “ONSE DROEFHEDEN HEEFT HY GEDRAGEN. Isaie [C.?] 53 [V.?] 4.” [it was our infirmities that he bore. 53:4]. ‘Infirmities’ must be read as ‘our weaknesses’ or ‘our sins’ and ‘he’ as Jesus (Mth. 8:17; John 1:29). The only quote of the prophet that can be associated directly with the two crossed burning torches, turned upside down on the lower part of the plinth is: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, (…) until her victory shines forth like a burning torch.” (Isa. 62:1). All the same Isaiah often uses the word ‘fire’ – threateningly, purifyingly or foretelling salvation.

(P2) Ezekiel (Jan Claudius De Cock, ascribed)

While he is looking straight ahead, with his right finger he points at a passage on the open scroll, of which the text is: “ICK HEB U SIEN VERTREDEN IN UW BLOED. 16. [?] 6.” [I saw you weltering in your blood; 16:6]. On the plinth there is a fleshless hand, skulls and bones. Together with the two trumpets these macabre remains represent Ezekiel’s vision of the bones that were brought to life (Ez.37).

(P3) Daniel (Alexander Van Papenhoven, ascribed)

The beardless young man points his left index to heaven, while his eyes are directed towards the audience below him. Underneath the plinth three plump lion’s heads with feet refer to Daniel’s stay in the lions’ den (Dan. 6). Although the original scroll has disappeared, its text is known: “CHRISTUS ZAL TER DOODT GEBRACHT WORDEN. 9, [?] 26.” [Christ shall be killed; 9:26]. Literally there is ‘anointed (king)’, a Messianic title that in the New Testament is exclusively used for Jesus, and consequently this is the case here too.

(P4) Jeremiah, ‘Jeremias’ (Alexander Van Papenhoven, ascribed)

Separated from his colleagues, the other major prophets, he is in a cavern on the right of the first floor of the Calvary. He is in dialogue and looks sidelong to the right, raising his left hand gesticulatingly. The (large, standing) book is quite exceptional for a prophet, but it can be explained by the extraordinary volume of his writings. His fifty-two chapters are only surpassed in magnitude by Isaiah’s text. Oddly enough only his name – “JERE / MIAS” – is to be read, as an identification, but originally maybe a quotation from his writings could be read here too.

Other figures

Venerators of the Holy Land

At last there are a few figures who spent some time in the Holy Land to live their devotion for Christ more vividly.

In the garden on the left empress Helena (V1) is sitting, venerating the Holy Cross that has been found.

Further, close to the grave not by coincidence, Mary of Egypt (V2) is sitting in a cave. After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land she converted and she retreated to the desert as a repentant sinner. She can be recognized by her extraordinarily long hair.

In the one hand Pelagia (V5) has a stringed instrument, a music score and a theatre mask, as vanitas symbols, and in the other hand she is carrying a skull as a symbol of transitoriness.

The half-naked Church Father Jerome (V6), who in the desert near Bethlehem wrote the translation of the Bible that we know as the Vulgate, is accompanied by the lion, his attribute.

The devoted pilgrim Eustochium (V7) also stayed in the region of Jesus’ birth place.

Figures of the Old Testament

On the Eastern garden wall there are two distinguished Old Testament figures. Moses (Mo), who is now wearing sandals, is holding the two tables with the Ten Commandments and with his finger points at the text: “EGO SUM DOMINUS DEUS TUUS Ex. 20:2” (I am the Lord, your God). King David (Da), crowned and with a star on the head, praises God playing a harp.

In the corner of purgatory, at both sides of the Holy Grave, the inscription says: “Het is een heilig en zalig gedacht voor de overledenen te bidden opdat zij van de zonden ontbonden worden” [“It was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” ] (2 Macc. 12:45-46)