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

The Antwerp jesuit church, a revelation.

The façade

An open history book

Do you not know the history of this church by heart? Let us organize an open book exam outside on the church square then. The façade tells you broadly speaking the church’s weal and woe with gilded dates, either in numbers or intellectually and playfully hidden in inscriptions or chronograms [Greek: time-writing]. The latter were extremely popular in the Baroque period, but hard to grasp by the common people. All Roman letters that also have a numerical value are written in capital letters:

M 1000 · D 500 · C 100 · L 50 · X 10 · V 5 · I 1

The sum is a year. In the Latin alphabet the U was also written V.

Let us decipher the history of this monument

  • In the crowning of the main porch we see the dedication of the church (1), which took place at the consecration of the church by Bishop Johannes Malderus on 12th September 1621. The text goes like this:
ChrIsto Deo, VIrgInI DeIparæ,
b. IgnatIo LoIoLae
soCIetatIs aVthorI SenatUs
popULUsqUe antVerpIensIs
pUbLICo et prIVato aere
ponere VoLVIt
To the divine Christ, the God- bearing Virgin,
the beatified Ignatius of Loyola,
founder of the Society, the municipality
and the people of Antwerp
with public and private funds
have wanted to build [this].

Due to an absent-minded restorer, however, an error has crept in. The first ‘I’ of aVIhori [sic.] must be a ‘t’: “aVthori” (which is the corrupted, but current form of ‘auctor’: the founder, think of author).

Above the side windows of the second section this date is repeated, both in Latin – MDCXXI – (2) and in Arabic numerals – 1621 (3).

  • We do not find any date on the brand-new façade to remind us of the glorious festivities at the occasion of the canonization of the founder of the order Ignatius and the great missionary Francis Xavier in 1622. It was an incredible spectacle with thanksgiving masses full of music, processions and theatre performances. In an exuberant parade, which lasted four hours, the crafts and guilds strutted along with the richly costumed pupils of the college, before the float of Francis Xavier. Along the road shows were performed in lavishly decorated streets. Chiming bells (of other churches) and cannon salvoes intensified the emotions. In the evening there were theatrical fireworks, the façade was lit with candles and there was a lightshow with large painted transparencies that were alternately shown from the two stair towers, as if using dissolves before the term existed!
  • The sumptuous decoration of the church, the lighting of all the church towers in town and of the Jesuit residences, everything had to contribute to the greater glory of God and His Jesuit saints.

But throwing parties and building cost money. In 1625 the debts even exceeded half a million florins (1 florin = a day’s wages of a master mason). Despite the favourable economic climate of the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621) the generosity of benefactors, fund raisings and municipality subsidies remained insufficient. Despite Father General’s command to economize, Father Tirinus, who oversaw the construction, continued undisturbed: he added two side chapels to the church (1621-1625) and started extensions of the professed house. It is logical that he was replaced by Jan de Tollenaere. Thanks to suspending the statutes of the professed house temporarily, which was kept a secret for the general public, they succeeded in settling the gigantic debt in three years’ time.

  • However, the Antwerp Jesuits were not spared misfortune. 18th July 1718 is a black page in the church’s diary. A bolt of lightning destroyed the nave entirely. Many works of art, including 39 ceiling paintings by Rubens, went up the flames. In a poem of hundreds of verses Godefridus Bouvaert, former pupil of the Jesuits, cannot stop telling about this disastrous fire:

O! July, how sad to remember your eighteenth day,
For the eye, ear and heart it was too bitter a lash!

After having been closed only 1 year, 3 months and 19 days, the church could again be consecrated on 6th November 1719. Thus was reported by the same author in his new poem, in which he paraphrased Apocalypse 21:4-5.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death or bitter mourning,
nor sadness, or wailing or pain or shouting
the first things have once again passed by
And the one° who sat on the throne has spoken: (° God)
“Behold I make all things new and none was broken.”

The good news of this resurrection has also been made clear in an allegorical way on the tympanum of the main porch (4): the name of Mary rises from a tomb. Exactly like Mary was reawakened from her sleep into new (and eternal) life, this church, which was dedicated to her, arose from its ashes, as described in the accompanying chronogram: “MarIae DICata eX CInere restItVor” (1719).  This is a sample of the symbolic-associative way of thinking that was extremely popular in de Jesuits’ educational theory. On both doors together (5), you can also read the year of restoration ‘anno 1719’, but then you will need some patience to ‘decipher’ this playful Baroque calligraphy in mirror view.

After two more years of interior restoration, led by Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit the church had completely risen from its ruins.

  • 1773, the year of the abolition of the Jesuit order, is not to be found on the façade – nobody likes showing his sorrows. For an increasing number of Catholic nations, the powerful order had become undesirable because of their dogmatic perseverance (contrary to the increasing Enlightenment), their widespread influence and social resistance in South America (as can be seen in the film The Mission). They were expelled from Portugal, France and Spain. It is hard to understand, but under heavy political pressure pope Clemens XIV finally decided to abolish the order on 21st July 1773. The Society then had 39 provinces and 23,000 members. With the prospect of new revenues for the treasury the Austrian empress Maria Theresa had this papal decision executed immediately; the Jesuits’ possessions were confiscated and most of them were sold off.

In Austrian times, the college buildings provided accommodation for the Royal College and the Military Academy; from 1794 till 1927 it was a military hospital. The three country estates were sold to private individuals. The college buildings were well taken care of, but the destiny of the stately professed house was quite sad. Together with the sodality building it passed into private hands. All materials that could be sold were broken away, only the exterior fronts at the church square were preserved. The sodality building was used for the most varied of purposes: meeting hall of the revolutionary Jacobin Club (the Société des Amis des Droits de l’Homme), a music and theatre hall, a party and dance hall that was very popular in nightlife, a bazaar. In 1866 the Algemene Werkmansbond (one of the predecessors of the socialist movement) organized a meeting in favour of universal suffrage there. Finally, in 1879, the premises were bought to be the municipal library. This was a triumph for the anticlerical: C’est aujourd’hui la chapelle silencieuse du Livre, propice à l’étude et aux méditations” [Today it is the silent chapel of books, suitable for studying and meditating.] The new main entrance received Baroque doors from the former chapel of the town hall. In 1883, while he was still alive, Hendrik Conscience (a very popular Flemish Romantic author) got a statue from the municipal government on the square that was named after him.

All movables were stored in a depot and listed. The furnishings of the sodalities were also confiscated, despite their righteous protest they had an independent statute, separated from the order. It resulted in a large sale of church ornaments and linen, silver, altars, (500!) paintings, furniture, kitchenware. The manuscripts and a few books were transferred to the (later) Royal Library, the schoolbooks to the new state schools. The government did want the Acta Sanctorum, the work of the Bollandists, to be continued.  To this end some former Jesuits could have 8,000 books and 453 manuscripts from their predecessors at their disposal. Since the 19th century this Bollandist project, the oldest scientific institute in the country, has been continuing in the Collège Saint-Michel residence in Brussels.

  • What happened to the church? The first plan was to re-open it as a church for the northern Our Lady’s parish, but this was called off. In the meantime, Bishop J. Wellens got acquainted with an initiative of popular education in Milan, which had been founded by Archbishop Charles Borromeo († 1584). And so, he started a Foundation for Christian Teaching of Elderly People in Antwerp. Its patron was Saint Charles Borromeo and in 1779 its seat became the former Jesuit church. In its new function of catechesis hall for adults, the church itself also got Charles Borromeo as the new patron saint (saint’s day on 4th November). The bishop of Antwerp asked the government to return a few paintings for the church, which had taken up its function again, but only some insignificant works came back.
  • Under the Austrian reign the church was used as an infirmary for a short time, but under the French Revolutionary reign it got various uses, successively:
    • 1794: depot for confiscated churchly goods
    • 1797: Temple of the Law for civil marriages and the worship of ‘la Déesse de la Raison’ (the Goddess of Reason). Where did the French Revolutionaries’ idea of starting a worship for Divine Reason come from? They believed in God as the Supreme Being. But they saw Him only as the ingenious Reason that had brought about everything. For them the Love of God ‘the Father’, which the Christians are so rapt with, was only humbug. The French philosophers compared God to a watchmaker (‘Dieu le Horloger’), who, once his product, creation, has been delivered, shows no more interest or wants to have no contact with his clients. To build up a relation with God through prayers was considered senseless wasting of time. Monasteries and convents for contemplative orders and churches for praying worshippers were completely needless for them. They confined themselves to a short ceremonial honour to Divine Reason.
    • 1800: Tribunal criminel (Correctional court of justice)
  • In 1801 the Antwerp diocese was abolished and the greater part of it was added to the archdiocese of Malines. After the 1802 Concordat between the Holy See and Napoleon the church was re-opened for Catholic service and even served as main church since Our Lady’s Church could temporarily not be used. The catechesis lessons for adults were also started again. One year later, on 6th June 1803, it became the parish church of an independent parish and it kept its name, Saint Charles Borremeo. Willem Van Bomberghen became the first parish priest. The Latin chronogram on the base of the second section (at the north side) (6) alludes to this:
SanCte CaroLe BorroMaee
Saint Charles Borromeo,
[dedicated] to you
by the faithful
  • In 1815 the church was used again as a military hospital for English soldiers, wounded at the Battle of Waterloo. For two months services took place in the big sacristy.
  • During the Dutch reign (1815-1830) the Calvinist King William wanted to transfer the church to the protestant Christians. Immediately the loyal Catholic parishioners started raising funds so that in 1817 the fabric committee succeeded in buying the church from the state for 14,000 guilders. But they had raised about the double of this amount so that the façade, roof and tower could be repaired. The result is quite unique: the church committee is now the owner of the building.
  • Immediately after the Belgian independence in 1830 churchwarden J. Baesten ostentatiously resigned to show disapproval with the explicit Orangist sentiments of parish priest A. Van den Broeck.
  • In 1860 a private person donated a part of the former professed house to the parish: it has become the present presbytery.
  • On the base of the second section (south side) (7) reference is made to 1865, the year in which the restoration, which had started in 1849 under the lead of F. Berckmans, was finished:
sanCtI CaroLI
prIstInUs DeCor
[In honour] of saint Charles
the former glory
has been repaired.
  • Since 1939 the church has been listed in the heritage register, which has made the burden a lot lighter for the church committee
  • In the 1960’s the façade had become so dilapidated that hoardings were placed to protect passers-by against falling stones. The last restoration of the front was done by architect Joseph-Louis Stynen in 1978-1980.
  • In 2009 a disastrous fire was avoided that threatened to start because some spotlights for a television recording had overheated and insulants in the gallery floors had started to smoulder. Restoration of the interior has become urgent.