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

The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The interior

Interior of the Saint Charles Borromeo's church (WS)

The Baroque church was built, furnished and decorated in a span of time of only six years: it was started in 1615 and already consecrated in 1621. Indeed, it is a smaller church of a religious order, but even so the fervent order got a move on. This becomes clear when looking at the more complex construction of Gothic churches, like Saint Paul’s of the Dominicans, which took decades to build (1512-1634). Even without mentioning Our Lady’s Cathedral, the construction of which lasted 170 years.

The church was very modern in its time. A lot of thinking and consultation preceded the construction. Designs even show a more modern central construction, like the Scherpenheuvel basilica. Eventually they opted for a rectangular building so that a larger audience could be addressed.

Unlike conventuals, such as the Dominicans of Saint-Paul’s church, or canons in Saint-James’ church, Jesuits do not know one single moment of solemn commonly sung Divine Office. Since the Jesuits prefer pastoral work to communal religious life, they pray the daily breviary individually, during their work. Ignatius talked about “Contemplation in action”: a motto for the Jesuits. So, there is no need for choir stalls in a long choir, which permits putting the altar much closer to the people.

Church architecture in the Baroque no longer used the symbolism of a cross-shaped floor plan and so there are no transepts, which causes the altar to be even closer to the people. Because crafts could only have an altar of their own in a parish church and not in a church of a religious order, there is no need for a great number of private side altars either.

The three-aisled church is 60 m (196 ft.) long and has nine bays. The height and width of both side aisles are exactly half those of the central nave. Because such a floor plan and construction were characteristic of the early Christian churches or ‘basilicas’, this type of construction is called a basilical church.

Anton Gheringh, Interior of the Antwerp jesuit church, 1665 (Wikipedia)

New also was that the aisles consist of two levels and consequently are as high as the walls of the central nave. The reason for this is not a technical one, but to be understood from the functional usage of the galleries as meeting chapels for the Marian congregations of youngsters and as catechism hall for the poorer city youth. Aloysius Gonzaga († 1591) and Stanislas Kostka († 1568), both Jesuit students who died young, became the model saints in the two didactic chapels. How did these unruly young people get up there? The two stair towers at the sides of the façade each have a door that gives access to sturdy bluestone stairs. Moreover, the galleries continue as a rood loft over the entire first bay (and beneath the organ).

Just like the aisles below, both galleries end in a half circular apse. As a result, the church contains five altars, apart from the two in the side chapels that were added in 1621-1625.

Gothic churches give full attention to the divine light shining through the colourful stained-glass windows. A Baroque church however wants to realize this celestial dimension inside with pomp and circumstance. To create a spacious and elegant church, a wooden vaulting was used, which weighs less and so allows the walls of the nave to be pierced by two arcades: round arches, supported by decorative, lighter marble pillars with Doric capitals below and Ionic ones on top.

The Jesuits would regret this construction technique a century later. When in 1718 a bolt of lightning struck, the burning roof collapsed on to this wooden vaulting. The consequences were terrible: the famous ceiling paintings by Rubens and the magnificent marble pillars were destroyed for ever Gothic architecture may have been considered barbaric by post Renaissance man, a Gothic ribbed vaulting would certainly have resisted burning roofs…

The reconstruction of the basilica of pillars was entrusted to Jan Pieter I van Baurscheit, with some assistance of his son Jan Pieter II, who in Antwerp became reputed as a late Baroque architect. After three years the church could re-open its (new) doors. But the old glory had gone. The marble monolithic pillars had been replaced by cheaper ones, made of grey stone blocks, which could be built faster and moreover remained unpainted. Only at the 1980-1983 restoration a more immaculate effect was pursued by having them whitened, but it is not a real marble imitation yet.

The interior of the church looks much like a Baroque banqueting hall, especially in its original condition without chairs. You might imagine yourselves in a ballroom of Sissi, the empress. And that is exactly what it was meant to be. In a Baroque church, it was intended to give people a foretaste of the celestial feast in the eternal Father’s house. Meeting God: elated joy! Since in the 17th and 18th centuries civil and ecclesiastical life find their inspiration in the same Baroque culture, the comparison with a ballroom is not inappropriate. Although he was anti Roman Catholic, the Hussite minister Adam Samuel Hartmann from Bohemia, who visited the church in 1657, admitted that these Jesuits have their Heaven on earth.

In the Baroque, this joy is partly evoked by exuberant decoration. Neither pains nor costs were spared. And although the present furnishing of the church can hardly be called sober, still it was a great deal richer before the fire of 1718. We know exactly what the interior used to look like thanks to innumerable painted church interiors.

It was not for nothing that until the 1718 fire the Jesuit church was known as ‘the marble temple’, although this designation was created by the Jesuits themselves. This is a masterly example of image building. Marbles of all colours and patterns could be found more than now. A few examples:

  • the wall of the apse, which was spared thanks to the stone vaulting of the semi-dome.
  • the high altar, idem
  • In 1719 the veined white pillars of both levels were replaced by simple ones, which were whitened in 1983.
  • In the aisles, there used to be niches for reliquaries, with festoons and garlands. Now a series of paintings of apostles are in front of them.
  • The floor with a playful black and white pattern is sometimes mistaken for a labyrinth.

On both levels, the aisles were finished with flat ceilings, which have now been plastered with stucco but originally, they were covered by 39 ceiling paintings by P.P. Rubens.

Above the wall of the apse the original barrel vaulting with gilded coffers is still there. Such was the entire vaulting of the nave before the 1718 fire. Jan Pieter I van Baurscheit replaced it by transverse ribs, which is a cheaper and quicker solution that lends the interior a Classicist-Baroque aspect.

A new wooden wainscoting covers the walls of the aisles.

A catholic church is a house of prayer. People come there to be more conscious of God’s presence: praying thankfully because of the past, praying contemplating about the present, praying imploringly for the future. Burning candles testify to this. That is why in the 17th and 18th centuries the church was open to the public all day, from 4.30 am! It is hard to think of keeping open house more than this.

Certainly for the Jesuits, during the Counter Reformation a church was also a house of study in which through the power of images they tried to convince the visitors of the Catholic truth about God, the Church, the sacraments, the saints and virtues.

But above all a Catholic church is a space where believers celebrate the community with God. In the Baroque, certainly a Jesuit church evolved into a grandiose banqueting hall. To be given the occasion to meet God already now in His son Jesus, in the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist, to be allowed to feel Jesus’ loving personality, that must be a feast! Unlike the Protestants and the Jansenists later on, the Jesuits were zealous advocates of frequently receiving the sacraments such as confession and Holy Communion. From 1630 onwards the ‘General Communion’ on the first Sunday of the month became the custom. Soon about 200,000 times a year Communion was administered here. On some days of feast the communion rails were not sufficient anymore and also those of the side chapels and the sodalities were used.

In the eyes of the Jesuits of those days no pomp nor circumstance was too much for the divine service. A lot of work was put into the decoration of the altars, while on days of feast the services were graced with choir music and orchestral accompaniment. Thus, Father Willem Greyns was responsible for musical representations in the church for 38 years.

The order also knew the forty hours’ prayer on Shrove Tuesday and the day before. In Antwerp, it was extremely popular to offer candles in the octave (eight days’ period) of the feast of the Presentation of Mary (21st November), at the occasion of which the sodalities competed to offer the greatest number of candles. Those were lined up between the pillars of the ground floor and of the galleries; this must have been quite a spectacle!

And then there were the special occasions. To start with the consecration of the church in 1621, when the celebration lasted for eight days. On the square in front of the church 400 college students performed in a large-scale play.

The canonization of the members of the own order were always celebrated with impressive ceremonies. The magnificent festivities at the occasion of the canonization of Ignatius and Francis Xavier in 1622 outdo all other celebrations. The tower, which had just been finished, “white in its new stones”, was irradiated by thousands of wax candles, of which the reflection was intensified by silver plated metal reflectors. While trumpets and flutes blared, fireworks were shot down – along threads – to the square, where they made the heretic ‘castle of jealousy’ explode.

Another majestic event was the centennial anniversary of the order in 1640. At this occasion the famous Imago primi saeculi, under the lead of Johannes Bolland(-us) was published in Antwerp, as well as a shorter version in Dutch: Afbeeldinghe van d’eerste eeuwe der Sociëteyt Iesu [Image of the first century of the Society of Jesus]. Its content was acted out on stage on the inner square of the college. In 1726 the canonization of Aloysius Gonzaga and Stanislas Kostka was celebrated with a lot of splendour.

We must not forget to mention the exceptionally festive composition that was performed at the occasion of the Joyous Entry of Cardinal-Infant Ferdinand of Austria in 1635. To each section of the choir of the mass for 22 voices (by H. Benevoi) a keyboard instrument was added. And where was the best location to position such a series of instruments so that they could be heard well? Indeed, on the galleries: one keyboard instrument per compartment. Impressive!

Also, the parishioners of Saint Charles Borromeo Parish have come here to celebrate since 1802, especially at the great turning points in life: baptism, confirmation, wedding and funeral. In the 1920’s there were seven Sunday masses, including an early mass at 5.45 am. In 1912 the parish had about 6,500 inhabitants, 5,140 in 1954 and 3,450 in 1964. In the 1970-1980’s the number was reduced to less than 2,000. This demographic evolution was reflected in social life, which took place in the parish hall, Coppenolstraat 3, from 1913 till the 1980’s.

A very special event since 1943 has been the Artist’s mass on Sundays and days of feast at 11.30 am. The initiative was taken by Maria-Elisabeth Belpaire and Benoit Roose in full wartime. The purpose was that artists could meet there. This beautiful tradition has been kept for many years now, thanks to the attention it gets throughout Antwerp. Although parish life is not evident any more in a metropolis, many hundreds of Christians from the conurbation choose ‘Saint Charles’ to be their parish church.

Interior of the Saint Ignatius Church, Antwerp, Wilhelm von Ehrenberg, oil on white veined marble, 1668 – Rubens House Antwerp (Wikipedia)

Saint Ignatius’ Church, which was also known as the marble temple, was one of the Antwerp touristic showpieces in the 17th century. It is elaborately described in every travel account. According to Edward Brown (1668), court physician of Charles II of England, the Jesuit church surpassed by far all other churches he had ever seen in Italy.

Of all Antwerp churches, its interior is apparently the most ‘picturesque’ one, judging from the incredible number of church interiors, a popular genre in 17th century painting, of which Peter I Neeffs, Anton Gheringh en Wilhelm von Ehrenberg. were the most famous painters.

In the church itself, three of them are kept:

  • a small, nearly naive representation on parchment, by Alexander II Casteels
  • a canvas by Wilhelm von Ehrenberg [see image]
  • an anonymous canvas

Two church interiors from the Antwerp Jesuit residence ended up in Vienna, after the court had bought them at the abolishing of the order:

  • a painting by Peter I Neeffs and Sebastiaan Vranckx
  • a work by Anton Gheringh, of which variants can be found in Munich, Madrid and Würzburg.
  • The Rubens House possesses a beautiful, sober specimen on white veined marble, by W. von Ehrenberg. Of the same artist, there is a large colourful work full of imagination, in the Elsene museum.