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

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

The collegiate church with the choir

Between the moment the foundations were laid and the choir was vaulted some forty years elapsed: from 1351 till ca. 1391. Together with the truss the choir and its vaultings are among the oldest, nearly intact architectural realisations to be found in Antwerp. Most keystones date back to just before 1391. Since the 1992 restoration they have been showing their original qualities and their bright polychromy, which was preserved underneath several layers of whitewash. The first effigy we discern from West to East is John the Baptist, who points at the Lamb of God on his arm. The lost sculpture of the second keystone was renewed with a relief of Mother Mary and Child in 1993. Saint Peter proudly shows his power over the keys and shows his article of faith in an open book: ‘Credo in Deum p[atrem]’ (I believe in God the Father). Finally everybody is blessed by Christ as Salvator Mundi in the apse. The fact that His face is broken has probably been caused by the metal tube that was later pierced through the embossing. Because this mysterious tube is at the culmination point of the six vaulting ribs it happens to be at the level of His mouth. It opens out to a brick tray above the vaulting. Was it used to hang up something above or in front of the Medieval or Baroque high altar? Or was something strewn down from it?

The choir stalls

From the very beginning until 1798 Our Lady’s Church was a collegiate church, with a college of canons, whose number doubled from 12 to 24 in 1224, praying the hours together. Because here they mainly sang I suggest the prayers this special praying place is also called the ‘choir’. From the choir stalls the canons used to direct their attention towards the high altar in the East during chapter mass.

Due to lack of congress centres the choir with its numerous seats was used for important conferences for centuries. Thus the 22nd chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece took place here in 1555. According to custom the coats of arms of the knights of this order remained above the then choir stalls, as a reminder, for nearly 250 years, until the French Revolutionary Rule, when they were burned in public. It was also less usual that on the occasion of this very noble assembly the three stained glass windows in the apse were donated by the Grand Master of the Order, but that this was the case emphasizes how much then politics and religion were closely knit in the most important part of the cathedral. In the left window, iconographically right, is the Grand Master, king Philip II of Spain, kneeling on a prie-dieu. He faces his then, English, wife, Mary Tudor. Both are patronized by their respective name saints: Philip the apostle and Mother Mary. The central stained glass window is mainly devoted to the Order of the Golden Fleece, represented by its patron saint, Saint Andrew, with the fleece of the gold-haired ram at his feet, the sign of the Order, and Saint-Andrew’s cross with the Burgundian firesteel. Saint Paul probably reminds us of the former trio of stained glass windows, which in 1408 were paid for by criminals as a fine and in which the apostles Peter and Paul flanked the city’s coat of arms. The stained glass windows were installed in 1557 by Cornelis van Dale, but during the 1875 restoration they were greatly renewed by the Stalins and Janssens company.

We have not the slightest idea of what the medieval choir stalls looked like, but in the sketchbook in which painter Pieter van Lint made a tour around the cathedral in ca. 1625 we get a glimpse of the early Baroque piece of furniture from ca. 1610, which was sold during the French Revolutionary Rule. Although the chapter had been abolished by the 1801 concordat the church board wanted new choir stalls for the clergy, singers and the church board members. In 1839, from the submitted projects, the neo Gothic design by the 23 year old architect and sculptor Frans Durlet was chosen, whose star was rising in the starting neo Gothic zest. He drew exceptionally monumental stalls, which are unequalled in size as they had to be in harmony with the excessive neo Classicist high altar of those days. During a continuous period of more than 40 years (1840-1881) several sculptors worked at it, such as Joseph Jacques Ducaju, Karel Geerts and Jan Baptist de Cuyper, under the lead of Jozef Geefts, but finally the lion’s share was delivered by Jean-Baptist van Wint and Jean-Baptist de Boeck.

Antwerp cathedral - The choir stalls, left side (JV)
Antwerp cathedral - The choir stalls, right side (JV)

The choir stalls have 72 seats, with a bottom row and a top row of 18 places at each side, which in the middle is interrupted by a high tower that refers to the tall church tower. In the wainscoting 36 scenes in high relief tell the story of Mary’s life. Moreover the high back walls are swarming with all kinds of Biblical characters and saints, and angels with the instruments of the passion. In each of the four zones there is a row of eight partitions with on each of them a detached little statue. At the side of the crossing altar Church Fathers face as many founders of religious orders. At the side of the high altar the rows of freestanding statues (works by Joseph Jacques Ducaju) surprisingly evoke two texts of the Gospel that are part of the core of Jesus’s message.

In the North we are invited to pray as Jesus taught us to: Our Father (Mth. 6:9-13), starting at the tower. Each part of this prayer has been represented separately.

[1] * Our Father, Who art in heaven * Christ, who is sitting during the Sermon on the Mount, is teaching the crowd how to pray Our Father and is pointing his hand towards heaven, while the smoke that rises heavenward from the censer is traditionally symbolic of prayer rising heavenward.
[2] * Hallowed be Thy name * A figure on his knees is holding a banderol with on it the text: ‘Soli Deo Honor et gloria’ (Honour and glory only to God).
[3] * Thy kingdom come * Saint Agnes, who can be recognized by the lamb, her attribute, is sitting on her knees, one hand modestly on her chest, her look directed towards heaven.
[4] * Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven * Christ on his knees is praying with closed eyes, in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane: Not my will but Yours be done (Lk. 22:42). The crown has been taken off and the sceptre let down, showing that he who was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped … and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death (Phil. 2:6-8).
[5] * Give us this day our daily bread * The humble king-priest Melchizedek, on his knees, shows a loaf of bread to give it to Abraham in the name of God (Gen. 14:18-20).
[6] * Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us * Deacon Saint Stephen is on his knees and begs God in orant pose to forgive the murderers who are stoning him: ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60).
[7] * And lead us not in temptation * While a snake is crawling at her feet, a woman, sitting quietly with her eyes closed, is holding prayer beads in her hands: by the power of her prayer she succeeds in resisting temptation.
[8] * But deliver us from evil * Next to a kneeling, praying woman there is a dead snake through an upside down crown, with underneath a string of beads: humble prayer conquers temptation of mainly lust for power and greed.

At the entrance to each side of the choir stalls angels making music accompany the singing in the choir. In the opposite zone of the southern stalls are the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Mth. 5:3-12), with which He praises a few attitudes to life of unconditional goodness as onsets of priceless happiness reaching to heaven. These ‘eight Beatitudes’ are to be read from left to right. Because in the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council the Vulgate was used as the standard Bible text, the order of the second and third beatitude differ from the present Bible translation:

[1] * Blessed are the poor in spirit * (read: the modest). At the feet of an elderly man in prayer are a full moneybag, a sceptre, a globe and a crown as a sign that he humbly renounces power and prestige.
[2] * Blessed are the meek. * The woman keeps her eyes directed towards a cross with a crown of thorns, symbol of Christ, who non-violently answered the injustice done to Him by obediently carrying the cross. Hence the pre-eminent attribute for Jesus’s meekness: the sacrificial lamb lying at the feet of the woman.
[3] * Blessed are they who mourn. * A dejected, old woman, with her foot on a globe, is, just as the skull, symbolic of the miserable, transitory world and of final adieu.
[4] * Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. * A thirsty disabled man is given a bowl of water. Exceptional for this series is that what this ‘blessing’ consists of in heaven is also being represented: they who … thirst … will be satisfied.
[5] * Blessed are the merciful. * A nun gives food and drink to the hungry and thirsty child.
[6] * Blessed are the clean of heart. * A young pious woman humbly holds a lily to her heart. The crown is the one of heavenly reward for her loyalty to God (Rev. 2:10). Her eyes are directed to heaven, which also shows the specific blessing in heaven here: to see God.
[7] * Blessed are the peacemakers. * As a sign of peace, which is stronger than violence of war, a young woman holds weaponry, including a shield, a visor, a club, an axe and sticks, under her feet, while on an escutcheon there is ‘pax’ (freedom) and a peace dove and an olive branch symbolizing peace.
[8] * Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. * Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is carrying the martyr’s palm. The stones refer to his death by stoning (Acts 7:54-60).

However much the rich imagery wants to be uplifting, the playfulness, which is so typical of many medieval choir stalls, is also present here, but not at eye-level. Nevertheless the funny figures in the canopies – of which there are more than one might think at first sight – are essential parts of choir stalls. God deserves to be praised by the entire creation: with their merry songs and music the numerous busts of angels, adults and choir boys support the liturgical lauds underneath them in the choir stalls. In its way also flora sings the praises of creation. The (three) swallow’s nests evoke Psalm 84:1-3: How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord… The bird also has found a house, And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, Even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, My King and my God. There are as many bats. Traditionally they symbolize dark powers, but for the time being they remain a big question mark.

Annexes mainly for the canons

The original chapter house (second half 14th century or beginning 15th century) was situated at the north side (see Saint Joseph’s chapel). In 1482-1487 a number of service buildings were constructed under the lead of Herman de Waghemakere next to the southern ambulatory. They included the chapter sacristy, now the large sacristy, which is as close to the sanctuary as possible. The adjacent chapter library was adapted as chapter house after 1585, while the library was moved to the more sunny ‘Papenhof’.

For the numerous chaplains who were in charge of one of the tens of side altars, a special sacristy was built. Besides there was even a separate ‘bread and wine counter’, where the sacramental wine and the wafers were kept.

The churchwardens, who worked together with the chapter until the French Revolutionary Rule, were given a meeting room of their own with the adjacent ‘pay room’ (actually a strongroom), which was situated inside the former exterior wall of the ‘New Work’.