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

The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The Saint Ignatius chapel

Jesuit saints as an example for young and old

Although the church was devoted to Saint Ignatius, the main painting on the high altarSaint Ignatius, could not always be on display due to the rotation of the paintings. This may have been the reason why the Jesuits wanted to devote a separate side chapel to the beloved founder of their order. It is slightly smaller than Our Lady’s chapel but was built at the same time, in 1621-1625. Because of their exuberant expenditures the Antwerp Jesuits were forced to economize by their generalate in Rome. This explains why it is relatively austere. Because there was no Maecenas there was no way to get around this measure. Only the marble decoration of the wall of the apse could be realized thanks to Mr and Mrs Bustanci-Moens, in 1625.

The stone barrel vaulting makes clear that the chapel is devoted to the holy founder of the Company of Jesus, Father Ignatius: “S. P. IGN. DE LOYOLA SOCIETATIS JESU FUNDATORI” [Sancto Patri Ignatio]. In the centre Jesus’ monogram, surrounded by sunbeams and the symbols of the four evangelists, makes clear who is the most important one in the Company. At the side of the altar one can read the motto of the order on a banderol: “AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM” (To the greater glory of God).

One of the paintings that used to decorate this sober chapel was a bust of Saint Ignatius embedded in a garland of flowers, by the famous Jesuit brother Daniël Seghers (ca. 1643; now in the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts). Frolicsome angels honour him with even more flowers (as a crown) above his head. The book of the Constitutions of the order in his hand also typifies the founder of the order in the scaled down copy of the statue Artus I Quellin made for Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome.

The material of the magnificent communion rails by Alexander Van Papenhoven (ca. 1720) has been worked so truly to nature that you would forget it is white marble. The communication with Jesus in Holy Communion is brought into vision in the openwork panels with the chalice and the Host of the Eucharist together with the IHS monogram, the sacrificial lamb of the Apocalypse on top of the sealed book and the pelican sacrificing himself to feed his young. From left to right the medallions show a few important Jesuit saints: Aloysius Gonzaga, Francis Xavier, Francis Borgia and Stanislas Kostka. These men found their way to holiness thanks to the inspiration from the founder of their order, Ignatius, who consequently receives the (central) place of honour.

By the way: do you not find it striking that the dedicated doctor J.H.A. Van Kerckhoven (1839-1883) was honoured by his friends with a marble monument (Fr. Deckers, 1885) that besides his painted portrait consists of a relief of the Good Samarian? While the Jewish priest and the Levite just walk along, either sunk in the Scriptures, or just looking back out of curiosity, of all people a (despised) Samarian takes pity on the injured Jew and moreover he is prepared to have taken care of him from his own means – notice the purse at his belt – (Lc.10:29-37). Did not Jesus say (according to Mth. 25:40) “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”?

The eventful life of Ignatius:
The Saint Ignatius altar
and the wainscoting in the southern aisle

The altar of Saint Ignatius in the Antwerp Saint Charles Borromeo’s church

The foundation of the Jesuit order by Ignatius did not happen at once. It was preceded by a whole spiritual ripening process. This is represented in phases in the apse of Saint Ignatius Chapel, both on the actual altar retable by Jesuit brother Melchior Hamers, and on the three painted marble panels on the side walls. The figures were painted by Hendrik Van Balen, the landscapes by Jan Brueghel the “velvet”. The unpainted veined marble represents the rocky landscape and a cave. The spiritual progress in Ignatius’ life can also be read from the entire structure. The whole should be read as a story, so from left (top to bottom) to right (bottom to top). On the panels at our left-hand side Ignatius is wearing elegant clothes, including high white boots with gilded spurs, at our right-hand side he is (already) wearing the Jesuit cassock, whereas on the retable, the turning point in his long contemplation with the Spiritual Exercises, he is wrapped up in a simple jerkin.

A comic strip is easy to read. This does not mean they are only meant for children; grownups also can be captivated by pictures, especially when they are illiterate – which was the case in the 18th century. So, the adventurous life of Ignatius of Loyola can be read as a comic strip from the reliefs in the wainscoting of the southern aisle [followed by the present serial number in the row]. The present order does not always correspond with the chronological order of Ignatius’ life: original mistakes or a later rearrangement? [In the following outline of Ignatius’ life we mention the most important events, even when they have not been represented. At each scene, the first paragraph tells the story, the second one contains an iconographic description.]

In 1491 Iñigo was born in a noble family at the castle of Loyola. He was a fourteen-year-old orphan when he was admitted in the court, and afterwards in the personal bodyguard of the viceroy of Navarre. He grew up in a world of games, women, duels. He came into contact with the law court more than once.

At the defence of Pamplona against the French in 1521, in which he acted courageously, a cannon ball hit both his legs.

The heavily wounded Iñigo was taken to his family. To be able to take part in worldly life again he had himself operated on a second time to have his shorter leg lengthened and an ugly bump cut away. The recovery in bed lasted months. Because of lack of easy reading – there was no TV yet – the bedridden man read the Life of Christ by Ludolf von Sachsen and popular hagiographies. The commitment of these characters made him think and brought about an inward conflict. The contemplation of a political or military career in the service of a mistress, caused a pleasant but finally empty feeling. When he thought of a life in the service of the Kingdom of God, he remained fulfilled by it. Having discovered “God is working in me” he chose to change radically. From then on, he considered himself a pilgrim in search of God. His mistress would be Mary. Since then he wanted to live chastely.

In an army tent, his weaponry next to him, the bedridden Iñigo – still with luxuriant hair – is reading. As a sign of divine inspiration, a beam of sunrays falls on to the convert.

He said goodbye to his family, including his elder brother and left for Montserrat, the famous pilgrimage site.

Unlike the fashionable clothes of his relatives, he is dressed simply as a pilgrim with a staff. Historically this is not correct: Ignatius left in plain clothes on a mule and bought a staff just before arriving in Montserrat. As a sign of goodbye Iñigo taps on a man’s shoulder, possibly his brother’s.

In a cave, the still richly dressed Ignatius is on his knees, looking up to Heaven. Behind him his mule is kept by the reins by a servant. This composition shows that Ignatius leaves this social class and his whole past ‘behind him’, whereas a new perspective in his life is brought into vision by the Heavenly vision before him. An angel hands over a wreath of mainly white flowers: an allusion to his intension of living chastely or – more generally – something sublime waiting for him?

In Montserrat Iñigo definitively broke with his past: he spoke his general confession. This is shown in a gesture: he offers his nice knight’s clothes (a scarlet cloak and a hat with white feathers) to a poor man. From then he will be dressed as a pilgrim wearing a roughly woven jerkin.

During the night Iñigo kept his knight’s vigil at the statue of the Black Madonna as Christ’s knight. In simple pilgrim’s clothes, with a cord round his waist, he presented his dagger and sword as ex-votos to his new ‘Mistress’.

Ignatius, who is already balding, has knelt and is looking up at the statue of Our Lady. His luxurious clothing, e.g. white boots and gilded spurs, is not correct from a historical point of view. On the foreground, right there is his armour. He keeps one hand humbly on his chest, while with the other one he points at his battle gloves behind him as a sign of his spiritual offer. Here the Romanesque Black Madonna of Montserrat is white, contemporary, lively and charming.

At Montserrat Abbey Ignatius became acquainted with the book Exercises for the spiritual life. When afterwards he sought out the loneliness in a cave near Manresa this would inspire him to write his personal exercise book. Then he read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. This was a time of probing experiences. One experience was decisive: seeing the river Cardoner in the depth. He saw more: he obtained a new view on his life. Later Ignatius said that by the banks of the Cardoner he learned more than from the theologians at university. (Even centuries later, for his followers such an important moment in Ignatius’ life still serves as a scheme of interpretation for their in-depth experiences. “Maybe also modern man should look from a bridge into the water more often, and look deeper…: slowing down instead of need to perform, workaholic, rush and stress”, according to a Jesuit on an Amsterdam bridge, in the year 2001.)

Ignatius’ personal guidebook, The Spiritual Exercises, have later become a method for people who want to give form and content to their lives in a mystically and psychologically balanced way. Despite the sometimes too time-limited terminology or theology the reader is stimulated to find out what God desires of him, to ‘be with Jesus’ and so to answer God’s invitation.

Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises: ”Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him attain the end for which he was created. Hence man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him. (…)  Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.”

From this view on mankind we can understand the motto of the order: ‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ (to the greater glory of God), as can be read on the ceiling of Saint-Ignatius Chapel.

Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises: ”Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him attain the end for which he was created. Hence man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him. (…)  Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.”

From this view on mankind we can understand the motto of the order: ‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ (to the greater glory of God), as can be read on the ceiling of Saint-Ignatius Chapel.

2 Ignatius, now wearing a cassock, is kneeling in a cave with an open book and an inkpot by his side. The gesticulating angels represent divine inspiration.
E Ignatius, here too in a Jesuit cassock, is kneeling in a cave.
Ignatius, who was living in fervent solidarity with Mary, experienced inspiration from her when drawing up this spiritual guide book.

Ignatius points at a particular passage. The elegant helmet on the ground is historically incorrect; it alludes to Ignatius’ former life, with which he has now broken definitively. The whip of ropes with metal stars at their ends refers to penance; since his departure from Loyola he mortified the flesh every night. Due to lack of depth effect nature is rendered naively: the cave gives the impression of having been built and the two oaks make us think of bonsais.

After the first important historical stages, this 18th century series of images soon shifts the emphasis to what was then considered to be the main characteristic of holiness: miraculous events. This shows itself in different ways:  ecstasy (6) and apparitions (7, 10), healings (4, 14) and exorcism (13), rescue (8), conversion (11, 12), wonders of nature (5, 9). These stories are not always easily situated within the chronology of historical facts.

Chronologically this passage should be after medallion 15, since Ignatius only celebrated his first mass on 25-12-1538. The liturgical implements have been rendered in detail: candelabras, altar cards, a missal on a cushion and a chalice. The persons present look up frightened.
Several ecstasy stories can be situated in Barcelona. Isabel Ferrer became his benefactor.

In a living room, there is an elegant little table with on it a crucifix and a book. Ignatius’ sublime solidarity with God in prayer is shown by having him floated on a cloud.

In 1523 Iñigo went on a Pilgrimage to Palestine, where he vividly imagined what Jesus’ life had been like. Moreover, he intended to establish a (converting) conversation with the Islamite.

During the voyage back from Palestine, two large vessels were wrecked. The third ship, with Ignatius as a passenger, was really ramshackle, but it weathered the storm although the rudder was broken.

There is a fierce storm at sea. A wave washes over the rail, the mast has broken, the sail is fluttering, the ropes at the yard have free play. A man hangs on to the mast, while a second one is holding the rudder. Both scream with fear. In the front Ignatius with folded hands calls upon divine help to make the storm calm down. In the background, a large sailing ship is wrecked, struck by bolts of lightning, and two small rowing boats float helplessly with broken masts.

At his return via Northern Italy he ended up between the French army and Charles V’s imperial army. He was taken for a spy, his clothes were taken off and he was taken to the captain, his hands tied. This experience made him think of Christ, who had also been falsely accused, had been dragged away by soldiers to be judged by the authorities. Ignatius’ thoughts have been visualised in a kind of balloon.

Back in Spain he envisaged active missionary work. For this he started studying Latin and philosophy, first in Barcelona. There he was supported by some distinguished ladies.

Ignatius cuts through the rope of a man who has hanged himself. In doing so Ignatius gives him the opportunity to convert. The man who has wanted to commit suicide is lying in bed. We can recognize him because the noose is still around his neck. His relatives rush up alarmed.

It was Ignatius’ true ambition to eradicate sin from the entire world.

Helped by divine inspiration Ignatius chases diabolic evil, which has taken the form of the snake from Genesis. With a seductive apple in its mouth it has wrapped itself round the globe.

Possession is symbolized by long hair fluttering away or rising, and by torn clothes and naked feet. In the sky three demons fly away. Depth is caused by the evolution from half-relief, passing by bas-relief to very low relief.

In Alcalà, a few fellow students were attracted by his ideals and they formed a group around him that could be recognized by clothing and way of life. Because he felt the threat of being arrested and taken a prisoner by suspicious inquisition he sought a broader climate of thinking in Paris, where he would stay for seven years (02-1528 – 1535) To pay for his studies he undertook begging tours to Antwerp. Together with nine spiritual partners he pronounced his first vows of poverty and chastity in a little church in Montmartre (15-18-1534). After he had earned his master’s degree Iñigo Latinized his name.

The story goes that one of his fellow students wanted to murder Ignatius.

Young Ignatius is sitting writing at a table. Cautiously the murderer, holding a dagger, sneaks inside, but is threatened by an angel, who points his sword towards Heaven: a call to the killer to examine his conscience or direct divine assistance to the unsuspecting victim? The halo around Ignatius’ head stresses how much he has been gifted by God.

After a year’s preaching and catechism to children in Spain, Ignatius studied theology in Italy.

According to their appointment Ignatius’ companions joined him in Venice to embark to the Holy Land. For a while they lived in a house of refuge for homeless people. They took care of elderly and ill people, especially those suffering from the plague and syphilis. In Venice, they were ordained priest (June 24th 1537).

In a small chapel in La Storta, near Rome, Ignatius received a vision in which he heard God the Father say to the cross-bearing Christ: ‘My son, I want you to take this person as Your servant’. At this Jesus said to Ignatius: ‘I want you to serve Us’. This mystical experience confirmed Ignatius in his mission and would inspire him to name his grouping ‘the Company of Jesus’.

God the Father is wearing a golden cope. A vista shows a charming townscape.

The threat of the Turks blighted every possibility to travel to the Holy Land. The companions put themselves at the Pope’s disposal to be sent to those places on Earth where need was highest. Pope Paul III confirmed the foundation of ‘The Society of Jesus’ with the bull Regimini militantis Ecclesiae.

Ignatius receives the foundation bull from the Pope. Behind the Pope some cardinals watch seriously, while the young Jesuits behind Ignatius react happily.

In 1539, at the death of empress Isabella of Portugal, spouse of Charles V, her chamberlain, Francis Borgia, wanted to leave courtly life. When later he became a widower, he entered the Jesuits.

An elderly nobleman kneels in front of Ignatius, one hand humbly at his chest, the other on a crowned skull. This is an allusion to the abhorrence he felt when he saw the rotting corpse of the once so beautiful empress, which made him change his life.

Philip Neri, who would later found the Congregation of the Oratory, used to preach under an oak-tree on the Janiculum, one of the hills of Rome. Ignatius, who was a good friend of his, visited him there. The two friends, in cassocks, take off their birettas in greeting. Both their heads are surrounded by halos; the beardless Ignatius’ one is fuller.
Ignatius died in the Gesù residence in Rome, in the presence of two fellow fathers.

Ignatius, on his deathbed, is surrounded by praying fellow fathers. Two angels fly to Heaven carrying the deceased’s soul. In line with tradition, this identity of a person, spiritual and invisible, is represented as a strongly reduced naked body stretching out its arms as a sign of joy at the arrival into eternal happiness with God.

The next day the funeral took place. At the death of its founder the order had about 1,000 members, in 12 provinces. Ignatius is on his deathbed and has a chalice in his hands: a reference to the practice of giving a priest a wax chalice in his coffin? One of the four women kneels, another blows her nose and still another one wipes her tears.