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

Saint Charles Borromeo church

A brief survey

Dear visitor, welcome to our beautiful baroque parish church. Although in the course of time this monu­ment has seen a great deal of upheaval, it has always remained a true temple of art. It is, more than any other church, a real Rubens church; not only did P.P. Rubens create a lot of paintings for this church, but he also designed a number of decorative sculptures for it. No wonder its fame stretches far and wide…


This classic example of baroque architecture is built during the years 1615 – 1621 by order of the, at that time, very fer­vent Jesuit Order. The building plans are drawn up by members of the order it­self: firstly by the rector François d’Aguilon, and later on by friar Pieter Huyssens.

In 1773 the Jesuit Order ceases to exist by order of the pope, who has bowed under the pressure of a number of secular leaders who somehow or other are bothered by these learned, wise clergymen. All over the world, Jesuit goods are confiscated and publicly auctioned. Some years later, under the patronage of the holy bishop Charles Borromeus, their church here in Antwerp has a change of use: it becomes a chapel for catechism. It is this model saint of catechism who will give his name to the church when, with the concordat of 1803, it becomes an independent parish church. Under the Dutch government, King William wants to offer it to the Protestants, but he doesn’t reckon with the Catholic majority. Promptly the loyal parishioners launch a campaign to raise money, through which they succeed in buying their church.

The Square

The entire design of this beautiful square has been the realization of the Jesuits. This is the place where they used to have their headquarters in the Flemish province. Since c.1555 the fathers have gradually expanded the territory of their pastoral activities in Antwerp, with, as their major achieve­ment, the building of a secondary school. In 1614 several houses and even a (small) street were demolished in order to build this new baroque complex. As the new monastery was built around a square with an open character, we can imagine a really modern urban development in the medieval network of streets

The facade (⇒ A)

The impressive facade has been directly based on the order’s mother-church in Rome: the ‘Gesù’ (which had already been built forty years earlier). Similar to any other baroque building, the facade of the church tries to catch the passerby’s attention by every means possible such as:

  • its gigantic dimensions (the facade is higher than the building itself);
  • the balance between the vertical and the horizontal;
  • its dynamic design, with huge volutes and a classic arrangement of columns and pilasters (the heavier Corinthian columns on the ground floor, the elegant Doric ones on the first floor);
  • The sumptuous decorations, which are partly attributed to Rubens.

Thus, the facade reflects the enormous self-confidence of the Catholic Church during the age of the Counter Reformation. Although we have left this mentality far behind, we still wish to share in the joyful sounds produced by the numerous musical instruments at the bottom.

In 1621 the church is devoted to Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the order, who was still beatified. That is why in addition to him, Our Lady is chosen to be the ‘real’ titular saint of the church. All this explains why the facade is adorned by both the laureate bust of the ‘beatific father Ignatius’ and a pediment picturing the Madonna and Child, made by Hans van Mildert. One year later, the founder of the order is canonized. From that moment the church was generally known as ‘St. Ignatius’. This canonization, and that of the great Jesuit missionary Francis Xaverius, is comme­morated with lustre: processions, spectacles and all kinds of street decorations. Central to the Jesuit Order is its ‘IHS’-motive, which expresses the order’s devotion to Jesus (accor­ding to the original Greek text the letters IHS are the first three letters of the name Jesus; according to the Latin version, they are the initials of the act of faith that Jesus is the saviour of all people).

General interior (⇒ B) 

The interior of the church bears a striking resemblance to that of a baroque banqueting room, and it was meant to be like that. After all, the place is meant to be a heaven on earth; or rather it wants to give people a foretaste of heavenly rejoicing in the eternal Father’s house. Enormous amounts of money were spent on decoration; quite logically the Jesuit church was called ‘the marble temple’. Because of this enormous expenditure, the authorities in Rome would rap people’s knuckles here and urge them to be more responsible. This explains the relatively sober decoration of the church’s side chapel, which was the last one to be decorated. The numerous preserved pictures of the 17th C. interior prove that this church was once very picturesque.

18 July 1718: a black page in the church’s history. That day lightning strikes. 39 of Rubens’ ceiling paintings go up in flames, as well as all the different kinds of marble used in the nave. The rebuilding of the colonnade is left in the care of Jan Pieter Van Baur­scheit senior, and only three years later the church is opened again. During the 1980’s it is again completely restored. By so doing they have tried to approximate the original interior from 1718, especially with the imitation of marble.

The high altar (⇒ C) 

Typical of a Jesuit church, is that when entering, attention is immediately drawn to the high altar, which is presented as a grand stage set in the sight of an audience. In order to be able to ‘sustain its part’ as an eye-catcher, the high altar has a special system for turning the gigantic paintings. A huge receptacle is placed behind the altar. It contains four paintings which are placed on the stage in turn by means of a pulley, according to the theme of the liturgical year. After all, the aim of baroque paintings is to make the audience feel part of the depiction and involved with Jesus or the saints. The depiction of a biblical scene includes the Ignatian method of meditation. The observing eye is so important in order to fully understand a baroque church. That is why all four paintings were made by great masters. Two of them – ‘St. Ignatius’ and ‘St. Francis Xaverius’, both depicted as miracle workers – are painted by Rubens. During Austrian rule, in 1776, they were taken to Vienna by personal order of the empress Maria-Theresia. In turn the other paintings can still be admired in the church: ‘The raising of the cross’ by Gerard Zegers, and ‘The coronation of Mary’ by Cornelis Schut. A third painting was added to these, namely ‘Our Lady of the Carmel’ by G. Wappers (late 19th C.).

The fact that this monastery church has no choir stalls (or large choir chapel) has to do with the typical character of the Jesuits: pastorally, they want to be as efficient as possible, and thus Jesuits all say the daily divine office individually.

The nave 

On the panel work of the side aisles in between the confessional boxes you can see the life history of Ignatius (F D) and of Francis Xaverius ( E), each depicted in about twenty medallions. This work is by Michiel Van der Voort and Jan Pieter Van Baurscheit senior (after 1718).

The latter also made the monumental pulpit ( F), representing the allegory of the Church triumphant as a supporting figure which crushes the monsters of falsehood and ignorance, together with the masks (!) of deceptive appearances.

Our Lady’s Chapel (⇒ G) 

Even more wonderful is the appearance of the Madonna in the extraordinarily rich Lady Chapel. All this was realized with the patronage of the three Houtappel sisters from Ranst, who in Jesuit spirituality were called ‘spiritual daughters’. In this chapel, Rubens’ paintings form a unified theme with the marble sculptures by Colijn de Nole. Mary, who is shown in glorious colour being taken up into heaven, is at the same time crowned by God, who originally offered a gilded crown. This extraordinary chapel is the place in Antwerp to admire baroque works of art. Here, baroque can be admired by you for the beautiful pattern of the marble panels, the small painted marble panels on the altar telling the life of Mary made by Hendrik van Balen senior; the extremely true-to-life communion rail with flowers, corn-cobs and bunches of grapes; the stucco ceiling, designed by Rubens, with Our Lady’s symbolic ho­norary titles; and the probable stylized masklike consoles and relief work. Very few people will leave this chapel feeling sad…

The chapel of St. Ignatius (⇒ H) 

This is a much more modest chapel. We only want to draw your attention to the white marble communion rail; it has been worked in such a way that you could almost forget it is really carved marble.

Music and singing 

This feast for the eye goes together well with a feast for the ear, which you can enjoy here – both vocally and instrumentally – during Sunday service at 11.30 a.m. This beautiful tradition, started by Benoit Roose, has persisted for half a century, thanks to the interest it still attracts in Greater Antwerp.

The Museum of lacework 

The extraordinarily rich collection of lacework in the museum of the church is best visited by appointment.

The tower (⇒ I) 

Let’s not forget, by way of farewell, to greet the exceptionally beautiful tower in St.-Katelijnevest. True to its symbolic character and close to the main altar, this jewel of baroque art, which is 58m high, points to God from Whom all this baroque joy draws its true inspiration…