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

No convent church without a choir

‘“Saint Dominic’s vision” by Rubens, ca. 1618-’20.


The eye catcher of the entire church, but originally only of the choir, is the triumphant high altar (1670), which closes off the apse like a gigantic screen.

On the former high altar “Saint Dominic’s vision” by Rubens figured, which can be dated stylistically ca. 1618-1620. Dominic is said to have had a vision in which he saw himself and his friend Francis of Assisi protect the sinful world against the wrath of Jesus. In line with the three worst sins man can be tempted by – pride, lust and greed – Jesus shoots as many lightnings. Upon this Mary tries to calm Him down. She proposes two loyal servants to Him, who can convert the world: Saint Dominic and Saint Francis. By this altarpiece the attention of the Dominicans in the choir stalls was permanently drawn to their mission: to follow the footsteps of the founder of their order by mediating the Saviour’s divine mercy for humanity.

The marble portico altar

The Dominican and former prior Marius Ambrosius Capello, bishop of Antwerp, wanted to bequeath to his convent an unforgettable present: the marble portico altar, up high in the sanctuary. The then prime cost of 80,000 guilders is the equivalent of no less than 3.8 million Euros today. The colossus, designed by Ambrosius’ private  chaplain Frans Van Sterbeeck, was executed by father and son Peter Verbruggen, and consecrated by the Maecenas-bishop in 1670.

Gigantic marble pillars, with a diameter of about 63.5 cm (= 2 ft) and a weight of about 4,500 kg carry an immense broken fronton with two curling shells.

In the central niche Paul, the apostle, is honoured with his title ‘doctor gentium’, the teacher of the gentiles. With a sword and a book in his hand he shows that he is prepared to die a martyr for the preaching of the word of God: Jesus’ gospel. The two open books by his side may refer to the books of the Old Testament, which he no longer regards as God’s final word, but only as a prelude to the New Testament. With an almost imploring gesture he looks at his audience sternly. Above the niche four small angels come flying in to offer him the attributes of divine reward for martyrdom: a laurel wreath and a palm.

The motto of the Dominicans, which runs through on both curling shells – “IN FIDE ET VERITATE” (in faith and truth) – is impersonated above it by two personified virtues. First, on the left, Christian faith, with the cross. This allegoric figure is holding the chalice with consecrated hosts in her other hand, which specifically refers to Catholic doctrine. On the right truth is symbolised by the one, universal sun, an open book of literacy and a triumphant palm. The cross that fits in an enormous, glorious halo and crowns it all, is the square cross of the Dominican order.

The white marble busts of the four Western Church Fathers enliven the black marble altar base, because they are symbolic of the theological brainwork that wants to connect faith with reason. From left to right: Jerome, the penitent, with the trumpet of the Last Judgment; Ambrose of Milan with the beehive of (honey-sweet) eloquence; in the centre pope Gregory with the allegoric dove of the Holy Spirit, which inspires at teaching; Augustine with the flaming heart. They share ‘the honour of the altars’ with Saint Thomas Aquinas, the famous Dominican theologian and ‘Doctor of the Church’ since 1567, on the extreme right.

The commissioner could not resist immortalizing himself in this monument, although in a relatively modest way. There are also a few biographical references of his, referring to his religious development: as a baptized Christian, as a religious with three vows, as an enthroned bishop.

Nearly invisible details on Gregory’s cope allude to Capello’s baptismal name, because two tableaus in ‘embroidery’ refer to Saint Marius, a Persian who came to Rome in the third or fourth century. Just like the honourable Quirinus he was concerned about the Christian prisoners. Marius looks into the prison through the barred window (scene on the left). Afterwards Marius sought contact with Christians, attracted by their singing of psalms. Out of fear for the police they open the door for him only hesitatingly (scene on the right). The same ‘embroidered medallion’ is to be seen on the cope the white marble bishop Capello is wearing on his tomb in Our Lady’s Cathedral (Artus II Quellinus, after 1676).

Because Capello received the name Ambrosius as a monastic name when entering the order, after the Dominican beatified Ambrosius Sansedonius, Ambrose of Milan was also his patron saint. This was a rewarding occasion to eternalize Capello’s portrait as the Church Father’s face.

Between the statue of Saint Paul and the altar painting bishop Capello’s coat of arms is prominently present.

Stimulated by the example of the Jesuits nearby (the present Charles Borromeo’s Church), the Dominicans also provided their Baroque portico altar with a system that allowed them to change altarpieces, albeit with only two paintings. These were put at both sides of a long vertical axle, with their backs against each other. Besides the Rubens mentioned The Martyrdom of St Paul by Theodoor Boeyermans (ca. 1670) could be admired. In 1794 both paintings were requisitioned by the French occupiers and transferred to Paris. In 1811 Napoleon gave them to regional museums. After the Battle of Waterloo this was a nice alibi for the French not to consider them as part of the collection of paintings the Louvre had to repatriate. This explains why Rubens’ Saint Dominic is now the eye-catcher of the Lyon Musée des Beaux Arts, and Boeyermans’ Saint Paul is in Aix-en-Provence, now in Ste Marie Madeleine Church.

In substitution for these masterpieces Cornelis Cels painted The descent from the cross, which is however quite academically cool, in 1807. Could the mechanism to change paintings be reinstalled  to include a second painting, a more contemporary creation? But then this new painting will also have to measure 5.55m x 3.72m (= 18ft 2½in x 12ft 2½in)!

The Martyrdom of St Paul by Theodoor Boeyermans (ca. 1670)

In about 1670, for the second painting, The martyrdom of Saint Paul, Theodoor Boeyermans was completely inspired by Rubens, who had treated this theme for the Rood Klooster near Brussels. Paul is partly kneeling  on a hill, his eyes upward to Heaven, awaiting the fatal gash that will make his head roll. At Paul’s request Plautilla is coming to blindfold him, following the Legenda Aurea by Dominican De Voragine. The lookers-on on the hill flank, soldiers and Christians, help to constitute the diagonal (upward) axle leading to the spot of the execution. Angels already bring the laurel wreath and the palm of Paul’s Heavenly victory.

The white marble antependium (Jan Baptist de Cuyper, 1845) contains an extraordinary representation of Eucharistic Christ: Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist.

In the 17th century stained-glass artist Abraham Van Diepenbeeck got the commission to represent the story of patron saint Paul in the ten windows at either sides of the choir.

The four stained-glass windows we can now see behind the high altar (H. Leenen, 1967) are a reminder of saints that were popular in the former parish church, Saint Walpurgis: Saint Eloy, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Amandus and Saint Walpugis.

Saint Paul's - Stained glass in the choir

The choir stalls
(Jean de Jupploye?, ca. 1632-1638) 

The most important piece of furniture, which was daily used by the Dominicans, are the choir stalls. They provide accommodation for no less than seventy-two religious to praise God.

The ‘choral prayer’ takes place several times a day. For the brothers this ‘divine office’ is a time of personal devotion, whereas for the ordained fathers it is an official task, which they fulfil in the name of the entire church community. This is why it is called ‘office’ (task). The Dominicans normally pray the office four times a day: in the morning (lauds), at noon, in the evening (vespers) and at the closing of the day (compline). At the northern and southern side of the choir the stalls, which were originally positioned in a U, form impressive furniture walls protecting the monks from the cold.

Saint Paul's - choir stalls North
Saint Paul's - choir stalls South

The stalls consist of two rows of which the second is higher than the front one. The lower ones only have seats and standing room, whereas the upper row also has a tall back and carries a heavily worked out cornice. The upper row is considered to be the place of honour and is meant for the older monks; the lower one for the novices.

For patrons and sculptors the commission to design 72 modest seats is an opportunity to create an immense piece of church furniture. The structural rectilinearity of the early Baroque choir stalls is kept in balance by a wealth of decorative motifs. By the many profiled elements per partition the perspective line pattern is multiplied, which renders a sublime rhythmic effect to the entire composition. The Baroque foot of the seat has the typical form of a sturdy animal’s paw. In the handle of the seat often a mask has been incorporated. The armrest of the standing place shows a thicker end, below which a three dimensional angel’s head has been hidden. Just as is the case with the angels in the friezes of the panelling the hair dress of the tens of angels is extremely varied. A source of inspiration for exuberant hair styling?

Even though the pilasters have identical structures, they have individual designs. This is most clear in the upward spirals and in the capitals. The vertical drive of the Baroque spiral pilasters is accentuated both by the alternating surfaces of light and shadow, and by the plants growing upwards like ivy. All this is enlivened by playing animals: birds eating berries and fruits, a wild boar and a pig keen on acorns, a monkey and a unicorn.

The iconography intensified the Dominicans’ praising of God. On the pillars and pilasters flanking the seats the flora joins in singing, while hosts of little angels and animals play music with for example a tambourine, a flute and a violin.

The urge for witticism becomes clear in the many tens of masklike decorations that have been worked into partitions, handles, capitals, friezes and cartouches. There are also innumerable figurative representations. The birds like eating fruit growing on twigs and vines. Often animals quarrel among their own sort, or with snakes and monsters. When looking at the friezes you may find yourself all of a sudden face to face with strange scenes, such as an owl with four young, praying putti, a blessing Christ or God the Father in a Roman outfit, an angel playing music and accompanying two singing colleagues.

The coats of arms in the panelled backs belong to persons or authorities that paid for the cost of a seat including the Town of Antwerp and the Margrave of Antwerp.

Part of the choir stalls are a choir lectern and two precentor stalls. After the old medieval custom the Baroque choir lectern contains an eagle with a bookend on its back. Its orientation towards the sun is symbolic of pious praying man directing himself to God. This also included the Dominicans, who prayed the hours here at least thrice a day. The precentor seats were for the two precentors, to whom both choirs answered alternatingly psalm verse by psalm verse.

After the choir screen had been pulled down in 1833 the two short rows of stalls, with eight seats that had been with their backs against the screen, were sold. They are now to be found in Hotel Adare Manor (Limerick, Ireland). In about 1856 the gap was filled by the so-called lion gates. In 1869 the church wardens wanted to add four extra seats at both sides in the choir stalls. Because the inferior quality of the new pilasters would not be too conspicuous, they were spread over the entire series of choir stalls.

After the new Sint-Paulusstraat had been laid in 1855 and the new entry gate had been built in that street in 1859-1862 a new beautiful entrance in the church itself was created. In 1565 both inner gates to the choir then got too big a frame, which is typically 19th century. The base and the crowning of the woodcarving are by Jean-Baptiste van Rooy and Gerard Van der Linden, as well as the eight carrying lions. For the framing of the four polychrome reliquary busts of Dominican saints (beginning 18th century) pillars and pilasters of the Baroque choir stalls were reused.

The central post of the Northern gate shows an image to those who pass by from the sacristy at the beginning of the Eucharist. An angel with a finger on his mouth summons to be silent, while a second one warns to lift the censor a bit higher so that it would not bump against the steps.

Above the gates the two most important scenes of the patron saint’s life have been worked out in reliefs.

Above the Northern gate: Saint Paul’s conversion. On his way to Damascus Paul was touched by the blinding light Jesus threw to him from Heaven. Because as a Jewish persecutor he received cooperation from the Romans, Paul is represented as a Roman officer. In this way his ‘falling to earth’ got a more dramatic character in tradition by having him fall from a horse. A soldier tries to subdue the bolting horse.

Above the Southern gate: The martyrdom of Saint Paul. In an execution field Paul kneels down awaiting the headsman’s sword that will also decapitate him. A Roman priest points at an idol (the emperor’s?) in the background, in a last effort to convince Paul to bow for it. Paul does not pay attention to this and directs his eyes to Heaven. From Heaven an angel sails down to comfort the martyr by already offering him the magnificent martyr’s crown. Just like in the original altar painting by Theodoor Boeyermans, the loyal Plautilla is ready to blindfold Paul at his request.

The majestic  level above all this consists of neo-Baroque framings around a canvas: in the North, half length, Saint Dominic, in the South Saint Paul.

Further decoration of the choir:
Funeral monuments, statues of saints
and the former choir screen

The funeral monuments in the sanctuary

Because in 1629 the troops of the Dutch States Party had definitely taken his cathedral city ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Michael Ophovius had to take refuge. He found accommodation for himself in the Antwerp Dominican convent  and in the church for his funeral monument, fit for a bishop of his time. It was completed two years before his death in 1637. The Avesnes stone monument, with the statue of the kneeling bishop, has been attributed to Hans van Mildert.

With their funeral monuments in the sanctuary bishops kept ‘acting’ life-size in the choral prayers. With their folded hands they do not just indicate the position of the high altar in the East, but they also bridged the monks’ prayers in the choir stalls with the perpetual adoration in the hereafter. Ophovius’ sculpted face evokes his portrait (in common habit) by P.P. Rubens, which was popularised in many versions, one of which is in the entrance hall of the treasury. Later (ca. 1670?) the theme of adoration was demonstrated further with the statue of Our Lady with Child (Claudius de Cock). In the crowning a weeping alabaster putto holding a torch upside down and an hour glass, with his foot on a skull, he points out transient life: memento mori!

On the funeral monument of Jan Frans Capello and Maria Boxhorn, which is sometimes attributed to Peter II Verbruggen, the commissioner, bishop Marius Ambrosius Capello, has primarily honoured himself. The bishop is kneeling down in front of a prie-dieu. The patron of his monastic name ‘Ambrosius’, the blessed Dominican Ambrose of Siena (1220 – 1287), stimulates his protégé to read in a book. It has been remarkably combined with the statue of the resurrected Christ, high up against the wall.

The funeral monument at the southern side, which has been attributed to Andries Colyns de Nole, cherishes the memory of Henri de Varick, bailiff and margrave of Antwerp († 1630), and of his wife Anna Damant († 1641). Notice the bailiff’s spurs: they really roll! Both figures wear big ruffs, and cuffs of the same type adorn the fringes of their sleeves.

Because in the 19th century it was no longer allowed to bury in towns and churches, the funeral monument of Jacobus de Vries and Maria van Elsacker (Jean-Baptist de Boeck and Jean-Baptist van Wint, 1868) is a cenotaph. On it the deceased have not been represented, but instead their devotion (for the rosary), i.e. ‘Our Lady hands the rosary to Saint Dominic’. The commissioner was their son, Jacobus Antonius de Vries, who was a church warden. Later he also donated the pulpit.

The statues of the dominican saints (1631-1700)

Eight life size white stone statues of Dominican saints, crowning funeral monuments between the windows in the choir, functioned as examples for the Dominicans facing them in the choir stalls. The series of statues progressed rather slowly: the first ones date from the period 1631-1637, the last statue completed the series only in 1700!

The number of saints might tempt us to ‘find’ a deeper religious meaning and a relation with the eight Beatitudes. However such Biblical inspiration was not the foundation of the series of statues. First of all the number of statues was determined by the number of wall sections available between the windows and moreover there are no specific indications to identify one of the eight evangelical Beatitudes with a single Dominican saint.

At the North

Sint-Dominicus (Andries Colyn de Nole) (1631-37)
Saint Dominic (Andries Colyn de Nole) (1631-37)
To the right of the high altar the founder of the order is in the place of honour.
Sint-Petrus van Verona, alias Sint-Petrus de Martelaar (Jan-Pieter I van Baurscheit, 1700)

Because the popular preacher (Verona ca. 1205-1252) was killed by two hired assassins we can see him here with his head cleft by a sabre and his breast pierced by a sword. Heavy drops of blood pour from this wound. Dying he writes the word ‘Credo’ (‘I believe’, the beginning of the Catholic creed) on the ground with his own blood.

Thomas van Aquino (Andries Colyns de Nole, 1635-1636)
Thomas Aquinas (Andries Colyns de Nole, 1635-1636)
The great scholar (12225-1274) was acclaimed “Doctor Angelicus” (“Angelic Doctor”). He left an enormous amount of writings, including the Summa Theologica, which accounts for the pen and inkwell as his attributes. In art he can also be recognized by the chain on his chest with on it the sun of philosophy, an allusion to the conquering light of divine truth. Because the office of Corpus Christi and the hymn Lauda Sion is to his credit, he also carries a sun monstrance. In line with the legend two angels gird on a ‘chastity belt’ that extinguishes lust in the loins. With the inscriptions they carry the putti at both sides of the console refer to this: “cingulum” and “castitatis”. In Saint Paul’s church there was also a brotherhood around this so-called “Thomas’ little rope”.
Sint-Hyacinthus (Artus I Quellinus, ca. 1650?) (Kamień Śląski in Silesia 1185 – Krakow 1257). He preached in Northern and Eastern Europe, and for this he was also called ‘the Apostle of Poland’. When the Tatars took the town of Kiev, Hyacinth could take the consecrated wafers in a ciborium from the cathedral at the very last moment. Here it is represented as a monstrance. According to the legend Hyacinth also took a very heavy statue of the Virgin Mary, which by miracle became as light as a feather.

At the South

Sint-Catharina van Siena (Peter I Verbruggen, 1646, ontwerp van Andries Colyns de Nole)
Saint Catharine of Siena (Peter I Verbruggen, 1646, after a design by Andries Colyns de Nole)
This member of the third order and mystic (1347 – 1380) in a vision got betrothed to Jesus  and as a sign of this she has received a ring. Moreover she bears the stigmata, the five wounds of Jesus. In this intense conjunction with Jesus she has exchanged her crown with his crown of thorns. And therefore she smilingly looks at the cross in her hands.
Sint-Antoninus Pierozzi van Firenze (Peter I Verbruggen, ca. 1650)

Antoninus, archbishop of Florence († 1459). Although the scales may refer to canon law as his specialty, here the legendary ‘Deo gratias’ scales are concerned. The donation in kind a farmer gave was paltry but this did not prevent Antoninus from giving thanks only: the sheet of paper mentioning Antoninus’ usual answer “Deo gratias” (Thanks be to God) turned out to be heavier.

Sint-Vincentius Ferrer (Peter I Verbruggen, 1643, naar ontwerp van Andries Colyns de Nole)s
Saint Vincent Ferrer (Peter I Verbruggen, 1643, after a design by Andries Colyns de Nole)s
As he was one of the most famous preachers of his time, who was able to mobilize entire crowds, this Spaniard (1350 – 1419) has his left hand in a rhetoric gesture. He warned his audience of the last judgment, which might explain the sculls as ‘memento mori’ in the cornucopias, which flank the base.
Sint-Raymundus van Peñafort (Peter I Verbruggen, 1660)

This Catalan (ca. 1175 – 1275) was the author of the first code of canon law. As an erudite professor and patron of jurists he reads from a book (openmouthed). Moreover he was a popular father confessor.

Choir screen, drawed by Lodewijk Serrure (ca. 1833), litho Jan Jozef Linnig, 1846

The former choir screen
(Peter I Verbruggen, 1654-1655)

A screen that screened off the choir from the nave gave the fathers the opportunity to pray the offices more quietly and more comfortably, because they were not in the draught. Together with two side altars the entire construction was built in 1654-1655 by sculptor Peter I Verbruggen, after a design by carver Servais Cardon. At the same time the colossal screen was the support of the gigantic white marbled wooden triumphal cross on a globe, which dominated the church interior. The crucified Jesus was flanked by His mourning mother and John the evangelist. Both marble statues are now in the back of the northern transept. Further this marble group of statues consisted of five mourning child angels, nearly 1 m tall, who sadly invited a look up at the Crucified Saviour. Four of them are now around the altar in the crossing.  Against the globe winged Chronos was sitting, armed with a scathe, indicating time on the zodiac with an arrow.

Above the gate to the choir was the so-called Portrait of Soriano, a type of painting of devotion with Saint Dominic in full length, called after the monastery of the same name. It was an ‘ex voto’ of the nineteen year old Barbara Spers, founder of the side altar that is now in the southern chapel. On Saint Dominic’s altar, left, at the northern side, was the canvas Our Lady heals Saint Dominic’s wounds of self-chastisement by Gaspar de Crayer (p. 68), on the Holy Cross altar there was the Pieta by the same painter or by Huybrecht Dirix (p.54).

So as to have a freer view on the high altar of the new parish church the choir screen was pulled down in 1833. The choir organ by Jean-Baptiste Forceville had already indirectly been sold to Our Lady’s church in Broechem (Province of Antwerp).