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

The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The façade

Attention! Attention! A message for public advancement

The Baroque façade does not call attention to itself. It proclaims a message of a higher level. Before you enter the church, it is important to know how to read this front message.

In the church – and also in the Church – everything has to do with Jesus. He – the Saviour, the Redeemer, the Messiah – is symbolised by the big gilded cross on top. That Jesus was prepared to give Himself so much as to die on the cross, was stressed in some sketches by Rubens, in which life size angels occur on the fronton. At the far left and right an angel holds an instrument of Jesus’ passion in his hand: the right one three nails of His crucifixion, the left one the lance His heart was pierced with to ascertain death. A third angel would support the cross on top of the façade. However, they remained but sketches.

This Jesus has been sculpted plastically once (by Hans van Mildert) as a child standing on His mother’s knee. He blesses the world, starting with the passers-by on the church square. The gaze of the Madonna enthroned follows this blessing. Because Jesus and Mary are not an ordinary ‘mother and child’ their dignity is accentuated by an elegant canopy, of which the sideways hanging curtain is held up by an angel. In the 17th century the rumour went that this Jesuit’s Madonna could look over the roofs into the Town Hall.

Jesus’ gospel is universal and is passed on from generation to generation by all possible means. The first ones to contribute to this were the four evangelists. Initially their life size statues in their niches formed an X-formation in relation to the Christ monogram in the centre.

Originally the main responsible of the Twelve, Peter, and this other great apostle Paul, also in niches, flanked Jesus’ name in the central escutcheon. Both apostles are often named in one and the same breath, such as for instance in St.-Pieter en St.-Pauwelstraat (Saint Peter and Paul Street) nearby. The Roman Catholic Church is pre-eminently the apostolic church, as it is formulated in the Profession of Faith.  This means that its existence and functioning are rooted in the mission of the 12 apostles and in the apostolic succession of popes. The devotion and the mission of Jesus’ apostles, the first companions of Jesus, do form an important keynote for the spirituality of Ignatius, the founder of the order.

Although the six life size statues were hurled down during the French Revolutionary Rule, the corresponding symbols in relief remained in the façade. But the two evangelist symbols at the ground floor were an easy prey for destructiveness. Unfortunately, the 19th century restorers interpreted the damaged winged heads of Mark’s lion and Luke’s ox as angels’ heads. And because angels do not belong to the evangelists Mark and Luke, the new statues of the evangelists were put next to the central medallion on the first floor and consequently both apostles came to stand next to the main porch. The result of this confusion is to be seen till today. A 17th century etching shows that there is no doubt that the apostles Peter and Paul used to be at the first floor. They can clearly be recognized by their attributes: the keys and the sword. Also, the evangelists Mark and Luke on the ground floor can be identified because of their writing pose. The 19th century restorers could easily have avoided their mistake by poring over this etching, which was commonly known.

The four evangelists can be identified by their personal attributes on their bases. Except for Mark they all hold something that refers to writing in their hands. Their current position is as follows:

  • top left, John looking up as a sign of an even stronger heavenly inspiration, with an eagle
  • top right, Luke with an ox
  • bottom right, Mark as an orator pointing upward, with a lion
  • bottom left, Matthew with an angel

For the bust of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, we must look up once again. In fact, the Jesuits wanted this church to be the very first one devoted to him. In the Roman Catholic vision, a church is first of all meant as a house of God, i.e. a space where a community celebrates God, who has revealed himself especially in His Son Jesus. Besides, houses of prayer are also assigned a patron saint, a salutary person who is considered a model and protector; in this way God’s assistance is made more tangible. For the patronage of a church only people the church has canonized officially are appropriate. Such a canonization is done in different stages; you must be beatified first. When the church was consecrated in 1621, Ignatius had not been canonized yet and so the Jesuits had to appeal to an official saint. They soon chose Jesus’ mother, Mary, who plays a very important role in Ignatius’ spirituality. That is why the Madonna and child are enthroned in the fronton of the façade, whereas underneath we can see Ignatius’ bust, which was originally made in marble, white (the head) and black (the cassock): two monumental angels laurel him, as happened before with a Roman triumphator. Exactly one year later Ignatius was canonized and since then the church was known as Saint Ignatius Church (orally abbreviated to ‘Saint Ignatius’), the first one by that name. One can wonder if the sculptures would have been different if Ignatius had been canonized earlier: without Our Lady and Child?

The fact that on the cartouche below Ignatius’ bust we can read a ‘B’ of Beatus (beatified) has nothing to do with his official status at that time, because only one year later, at the occasion of his canonization, it could already be replaced by the higher status of ‘saint’ (Lat. sanctus). As happened also in other orders before the Second Vatican Council, among each other the Jesuits talked about their founder as “our blessed father (Ignatius)”. ‘Blessed’ (Lat. beatus) means ‘in heaven with God’ and so ‘worth honouring’. But because the Jesuits direct themselves from this façade to a broad public, ‘noster’ (our) is left out and what remains is “BP.IGNs” (Beatus Pater IGNatius).

The blazon of the Jesuit order on the façade (photo WS)

Anyway, thanks to Ignatius the Jesuit order is there and they have their blazon right in the middle of the façade, which is even more striking by the contrast between the gilded letters I H S on the black background. According to the original Greek version they are three letters of the name Jesus (IHSOS). According to the Latin version, which is more current in Western Europe, they are the initials of the creed that Jesus is the saviour of all men: Jesus Hominum Salvator. That Jesus could only save humanity from the powers of evil and death by sacrificing Himself on the cross – and rising from the dead – is illustrated by the combination of His name and a few instruments of the passion: the cross above the crossbar of the ‘H’, and underneath three nails for His wounds: two for the wrists and one for the crossed feet. With this emblem the Jesuit order, alias the Company of Jesus or Societas Jesu, wants to express their identity and their devotion to Jesus. All over the world Baroque Jesuit churches can easily be recognized by this emblem. In Antwerp, no one less than the artist of that time, P.P. Rubens, was asked to design it. More than anybody else he succeeds in drawing the attention to this emblem playfully, with floating angels triumphantly flocking around the escutcheon.

On the spandrels of the main porch two herald angels blow the trumpet: ‘Come here! Something is going to happen here!’. They invite you and get you in the (right) mood to enter the house of God, filled with joy, looking forward to the encounter with His Son Jesus. This encounter is mainly experienced in the Eucharist and this is what the liturgical implements on the metopes of the frieze of the first section refer to.

  • The most important ones, used by Jesus himself at the Last Supper, are right above the entrance door: the chalice (1) (2), the cup for the wine, and the paten (2), the dish for the bread.

Other utensils for the Holy Mass are:

  • (3) the ampullas, the small jugs for the wine and the water that are poured into the chalice. After all wine is not drunk straight: to water down wine is common practice in warmer regions. Later this daily life habit was interpreted as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s divinity and humanity mixed in His one person. Or as a reference to His passion, when he was sweating water and blood in His agony in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:44). And did there not flow water and blood from His pierced side after His crucifixion (John 19:34)?
  • The carafe with basin and towel (4) is used for the ‘lavabo’, the ritual washing of the priest’s hands.
  • A censor (7) and an incense boat (20). Catholic tradition likes involving natural elements into rituals. The evoking power of these primeval symbols keeps appealing, even when used quite minimally. The fire makes the flavours of solidified tree saps ascend in sacred smoke. A probing act that wants to make God’s transcendence tangible.
  • (8) A holy water bucket and aspergillum. With holy water, the faithful cross themselves when entering the church, and at the beginning of the solemn Eucharist the priest sprinkles the faithful with holy water. The holy water reminds us of baptism, by which the faithful are purified and called to live as children of God.
  • (11) A sanctuary lamp. To draw the faithful’s attention to God’s permanent presence an oil lamp in a red glass burns by the holy consecrated bread in the tabernacle day and night.
  • As part of devotional scenery there are candelabras (5), candles (5) (9) and small flower vases (6) (16)
  • (Biblical) lectures can be found in the lectionary (15), the liturgical texts in the prayer book (16), supported by a cushion.

That the faithful experience the Eucharist as a festive event is brought into vision by musical instruments on this same frieze. Thus, several stringed (10) (14) (17) and wind instruments (13) (17) (21) can be noticed, as well as a positive organ (12) and scores (18) (21).

Notice that one side of the façade is nearly the mirror view of the other one. Only at the northern side there are a few metopes more (nbs. 18-21).