Antwerp, Churches and Tourism
Tourism Pastoral, Diocese of Antwerp (TOPA vzw)

The Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp, a revelation.

The confessionals

One of the seven sacraments in Catholicism is confession: ‘the sacrament of reconciliation’.  As ‘penitents’ Catholic Christians go to a priest to confess their sins and he gives forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:23). To further increase the personal character of confession, a new piece of furniture was created by the Council of Trent (1545-1563): the confessional. Adapted to the body-language of repentance, the penitent kneels down to humbly show his remorse. The priest, the ‘confessor’, sitting in the middle with a penitent at each side, listens to them one after the other indirectly. Because the conscience-stricken man is not looked at directly, free conversation is stimulated: tactful psychology long before Freud’s conversations on the couch…

In 1798 all original confessionals disappeared at the cathedral’s forced clearance sale under the French Revolutionary Rule. Soon after the 1801 Concordat the churchwardens could buy confessionals of abolished churches and convents. So, against the wall of the uttermost northern aisle there is a series of Baroque confessionals originating from former Saint Bernard’s Abbey in Hemiksem: works by Willem Ignatius Kerricx and Michiel I van der Voort from 1713. At each confessional the outer statues represent virtues, which recommend man’s reconciliation with God. In the two inner statues we recognize apostles with the attributes of their martyrdom. They stand for ‘apostolic tradition’ and emphasize that Jesus’s promise of forgiveness is passed on to every generation  through the Church.

Antwerp cathedral - The confessionals 1 to 3 from the former Saint Bernard's Abbey in Hemiksem: works by Willem Ignatius Kerricx and Michiel I van der Voort (1713)

Confessional 1

(1) A woman with bare feet and worn down clothes represents Lamenting evil. The woman is at the point of tearing her veil. In the Old Testament tearing clothes was a sign of mourning, also in the case of blasphemy. In spite of all remorse one remains desperately constrained with oneself; hence the distorted face.

Andrew can be recognized by the legendary X-cross, his brother Peter by the as legendary inverted cross. In the medallion Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is looking for every lost sheep.

(4) Repentance is barefoot and is wearing a hair shirt. She keeps her hand modestly on her chest and torments herself with a scourge. The fish is symbolic of fast, the pelican of mourning and remorse. According to Saint Jerome the pelican would complain three days without interruption after having killed its own young.

Confessional 2

(5) Self-knowledge is watching herself in a hand-mirror: an inner mirroring or ‘reflexion’. The lily in her hand and the sun on her chest are symbols of purity and truth. After all, confessing is standing in truth with a pure view.

James Minor has a pair of fuller’s tongs, Judas Thaddaeus an inverted cross.

(8) Peace of Mind is wearing a wreath of olive branches on the head, points her look and hand heavenward, and keeps an olive branch (that has broken off in the course of time) in the other hand as a sign of reconciliation. Whatever the sins may be, the broken relationship with God can always be healed and the consequence of this is inner peace.

Confessional 3

(9) Strength: it takes effort to see and recognize one’s own mistakes. The Power to confess is leaning on a baluster and has a piece of twined rope in her hand (the Worthy Wife from the Book of Proverbs (31:17.24) who makes garments and sells them, and stocks the merchants with belts).

The apostle Simon the Zealot is holding a saw, Philip a large cross.

(12) Someone who really looks inside himself, finds out that reform is needed ever again. A sinner’s reform includes a double movement. He turns his back on what usually seems to be so desirable: honour or success, power and wealth. And he turns toward the One who gave himself unto death and told his disciples: ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me’ (Mc. 8:34). Reform, veiled, tramples down the laurel wreath of earthly glory and shows Jesus’s cross.

Antwerp cathedral - The confessionals 4 to 6 from the former Saint Bernard's Abbey in Hemiksem: works by Willem Ignatius Kerricx and Michiel I van der Voort (1713)

Confessional 4

(13) Examination of Conscience checks what is good or wrong. The figure points her right index finger to her forehead: an allusion to deep thinking.

Bartholomew’s attribute is a knife (but it is missing), James the Great can be recognized by the scallop shell and the embroidered little cross on his pelerine.

(16) Devotion has one hand on her chest and is holding a burning torch in the other. By humble confession you become more pious: you are more profoundly allied with God again.

Confessional 5

(17) Gods Mercy: laurelled and with a large cornucopia full with fruits and flowers next to her. God’s ultimate answer is abundant mercy. Even when you do not deserve it, you will receive God’s love.

John the apostle is holding an Evangeliary and a chalice with a snake. Paul is carrying the book of the Holy Scriptures (the gospels and his own letters) as well as the sword of his martyrdom.

(20) ‘God’s Mercy’ is actually ‘Forgiveness’. She is carrying a book with the Latin bookkeeping text: solutus omni foener (acquitted from every debt). The heart of sacramental confession is the so-called absolution: ‘I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ By this ‘acquittal of sins’ the burden is taken off one’s shoulders. The renouncement has been wiped out and the relationship healed. For the believer this may be a new start.

Confessional 6

(21) Prayer has been represented as an old veiled woman carrying a censerLet my prayer be counted as incense before You (Ps. 141:2).

Matthew is holding a book and a quill, Thomas a short lance.

(24) An emaciated woman, barefoot, the left hand modestly before her chest, stands for Remorse. The humiliation of the broken idealized image and the pain of sincere regret can be read from her face, but they do form the start of a healing process.

Of a second series of closed confessionals the origin is unknown. Above each compartment there is a medallion with a bust, mostly of a male saint. The two figures that welcome the penitents are either exemplary remorseful sinners, or personifications referring to remorse. A striking specimen is the confessional in the northern ambulatory. Why is there a swine eating? The young man in ragged clothes who is looking at it in dismay is the Prodigal Son, the youth who, after having squandered everything in a loose life, finally repents (Lk. 15:10-32). He is the paragon of remorseful sinners that want to confess. The real protagonist in this parable however is God, the forgiving Father mercifully awaiting his prodigal son.

Further there are a few freestanding statues from confessionals. The spot where they are displayed may differ from time to time. The fact that Baroque figures can also express feelings in a serene way is proved by this early 18th century oak Peter. In a masterly psychological way Peter’s face shows the profound but stirring struggle of twinges of conscience, in this case the denial of a friend, more specifically Jesus (Mth. 26:75). The rooster at his feet reminds him of this. After all Jesus had predicted to him: Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times. (Mth. 26:34). Self-preservation versus friendship: an eternal conflict. But to make a stand for this friendship and this trust in Jesus, holy Peter was finally prepared to die a martyr. Hence the legendary inverted cross next to him.