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

Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation

The Calvary garden: on a pilgrimage 'round the corner'

The prophets are speaking

First of all a (Jewish) ‘pro-phet’ is someone who frankly ‘fore-tells’ the actual truth to the entire people and threatens doom but also gives outlook on a definite manifestation of God’s salvation.

Because Christians regard God’s Covenant with the Jewish people as a first or ‘old’ impetus to the New Covenant in Christ, the prophets of the ‘Old Testament’ are read from this new religious point of view . But in early Christian tradition their actions were mostly seen as ways of fore-telling the salvation that would be fulfilled in Christ. Stubborn, recalcitrant preachers were thus reduced to acute, honourable fortune-tellers. So, in Christian imagery the original strong commitment of these popular sources of inspiration was changed into less threatening musing of future predictors. Either their cautious gaze is focused on the banderol with one of their quotations, or they are inward-looking with head bowed, or they scowl in front of them, or they look up to Heaven. They hold the unrolled scroll in both hands, or in one while with their right index they point at it to endorse their oral sermon.

The length of their books of the Bible determines the division into ‘minor’ and ‘major’ prophets. To the three ‘major prophets’ the Christians added Daniel, probably because of concern about the numerical parallel with the four evangelists.

Except for Jeremiah, the major prophets are symbolically high against the buttresses of the church, whereas the twelve minor prophets act on ground level. The order of their positioning, starting from the entrance of the garden, is mostly the same of the one in the Bible. This makes one wonder if originally the positioning was not entirely Biblically correct.

The names of all these men of God have been engraved in Latin of the time into the plinths. Their costumes are conspicuous and exceptional. With most of them the gown does not reach further than their knees. In this way this unique full plastic series of sculptures has been prevented from giving a far too stereotyped impression and these men of God get a more dynamic character. Moreover some of them wear some exotic fashionable outfit. The message of a few of them has been typified by striking attributes, such as the cow’s horns with Hosea and the lanterns with Zephaniah.

As they are wise men it may be considered evident that these prophets have been represented as middle-aged or elderly persons. As a result of this (alleged long) experience they have, as if it were by definition, long beards: the heavy, full ‘prophet beard’. As the apostles most of them are barefoot.

As a preacher a prophet can be recognized by the unrolled scroll, the antique carrier of texts. This historically faithful element first of all materializes the prophet’s message. In this way prophets were distinguished from apostles, who mostly had to exchange the scrolls of their time for more modern books, the medieval Christians’ medium. Of course the quotation comes from the prophet’s book that is part of the Bible.

The quotations are not always literally from the prophet in question since the passages from the New Testament were preferred in which the prophet is quoted, sometimes in slightly different words. Because Latin was the universal language of the Catholic Church it was also used in religious art at least until the end of the 19th century. Biblical texts were mostly taken from the Vulgate. Quite remarkably the Antwerp Dominican Baroque statue garden is an important exception to this. Here the prophets ‘speak’ the vernacular, Dutch. In this way they can already reach a wider audience.

The 12 minor phophets (p)

(p1) Hosea, ‘Ozeas’, (Michiel I van der Voort, ca. 1701-1709)

He keeps his head lying on his right shoulder, directed towards the visitor at the entrance door: first eye-contact from man to man – only then the message comes up! The fertility cult of the Canaanite idol Baal, against which he fulminated so much, is symbolized by bulls. But the prophet judged these statues could only be removed and smashed up (8:4-6). This is what both cow’s horns at the prophet’s feet refer to: one of them is broken. In spite of all this the Messianic deliverance from the shades can still be heard in the quote on the scroll: “O DOODT / ICK SAL SYN / UWE DOODT / Ozeas 13 V.14”. [O death I shall be your death Hosea 13:14]

(p2) Joel (Michiel I Van der Voort, ca. 1701-1709)

Joel compared the imminent coming of the Day of the Lord to the invasion of enemy forces, setting the world ablaze: “fire has devoured the pastures of the plain, and flame has enkindled all the trees of the field.” (1:19). Cause and result are represented. At Joel’s right hand side we can see the flames, whereas at his left hand side there is a bare tree trunk with branches. In the verses that follow the threat reaches a climax, because he implies celestial bodies. He reads his quotation seriously: “DE SONNE / EN DE MANE / SYN VERDU=/=YSTERT GH=/=EWEEST / IOEL 2. V 10”. [The sun and the moon have been darkened. Joel 2:10]. For Christians this is an obvious allusion to the eclipse at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion as mentioned by Luke (23:45a)

(p3) Amos (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

Just as with Joel the text alludes to the eclipse at Jesus’ crucifixion: “DE SONNE SAL ONDER GAEN / IN DEN MIDDAGH. 8.V.9.” [The sun will set at midday. 8:9]

(p4) Obadiah, ‘Abdias’ (Alexander Van Papenhoven?)

The scroll has been unrolled downwards and in it he foretells: “ENDE GHY SYT SEER VERSMAEDELYCK. ABDIAS 2” [You are held in dire contempt; Ob. 2]. The speaker remains icily calm and stares straight ahead.

(p5) Jonah, ‘Jonas’ (Alexander Van Papenhoven, ascribed)

Due to his adventures at and in the sea delicate or long garments and elegant footwear do not suit him. The quote is one of the prophet’s autobiographical texts: “JONAS WAS IN DES VISCHS BUYCK DRY DAGHEN ENDE DRY NAG[ten]. / IONAS 2. V.1”. [Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 2:1]. Traditionally this three day’s stay inside the big fish is interpreted as a prefiguration of the period between Jesus’ death and His resurrection.

(p6) Habakkuk, ‘Habacuc’ (Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit, signed)

The prophet had to take the stew he had cooked to Daniel, who was imprisoned in the lions’ den in Babel. Because he protested “the angel of the Lord seized him by the crown of his head and carried him by the hair; with the speed of the wind” he was taken to Babel. This explains why he is wearing a short robe up to just above his knees, and his flying locks. Here we can see how much he likes taking a taste from the pot (Daniel 14:23-42)

His quote, a complaint against the disloyalty of God’s people – “GY SYT VERVULT MET SCHANDEN VOOR GLORIE. II, 16” [and shame comes to your glory; 2:16] – is adapted to Jesus here, whose shameful crucifixion smears His glory.

(p7) Micah, ‘Michaea’ (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

He refers to the terrible suffering Jesus had to endure to be able to give new life: “DE PYNE HEEFT U BEVAN/GEN ALS EEN BAERENDE VROUW. 4.V.9.”. [you are seized with pains like a woman in travail; 4:9].

(p8) Nahum (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

He too points at Jesus’ wounds: “UWE WONDE / IS DE ALDERQUAEDSTE. 3.V.19” [there is no healing for your hurt. 3:19]. The reference to his book has been playfully put on the second scroll, behind the first one.

(p9) Haggai, ‘Aggaeus’ (Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit, signed with the monogram JPVB)

The figure full of character has a wealth of hair and cautiously looks up to heaven: “DEN HEERE HEEFT VERWECKT DEN GHEEST VAN JESU. AGGAEI. I° V.14” [the Lord stirred up the spirit of Jesus; Haggai 1:14], an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection. The pronounced pleats render relief to the entire figure.

(p10) Malachi, ‘Malachias’ (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

With an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection he gives consolation to everybody who finds himself in times of darkness: “ULIEDEN SAL OPGAEN DE SONNE DER RECHT­VEERDIG­HEIT.” [for you there will arise the sun of justice; Mal. 3:20]

(p11) Sephaniah, ‘Sophonias’ (Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit, signed with the monogram JPVB)

Zephaniah is holding a small lantern, of which, just like the three small lanterns behind him, a little door is open. Into each window a burning candle has been engraved: an inventive way to make clear how one and the same invisible candle can be seen from all sides! The prophet of doom let there be no doubt: on the “day of the Lord” evil will systematically be traced and retaliated: “At that time I will explore Jerusalem with lamps; I will punish the men”. At the same time on his scroll he offers hope: “VERBEYT MY IN DEN DACH MYNDER VERRYSENISSE. 3.V.8” [wait for me, says the LORD, against the day when I arise; Zeph. 3:8]

(p12) Zachariah, ‘Zacharias’ (Jan Claudius De Cock, signed)

He is carrying an ingeniously decorated letter case with a flap, from which protrude several sheets. By pointing out the following passage with his right index, he invites the visitor at the foot of Mount Calvary to look up at the crucified Jesus on top: “SY SULLEN OPSIEN TOT MY DIE SY DOORSTOKEN HEBBEN. Zach. 12. V.10” [they shall look on me, whom they have thrust through. Zach. 12:10]

The major prophets (P)

On the plinths of each of the three major prophets against the buttresses there is the escutcheon of the Fellowship of Palmers, the kernel of which is the Christian escutcheon of Jerusalem: four square crosses around a bigger square cross, which together refer to Jesus’ five crucifixion wounds. Also the two crossed palms underneath them refer to Jerusalem, the final destination of Jesus’ voyage of life. His joyous entry there, with bystanders enforcing the cheering movements of their arms with palms, had become the symbol of the entry into Heavenly Jerusalem, anyway.

(P1) Isaiah, ‘Isaias’ (Michiel I van der Voort)

His text is: “ONSE DROEFHEDEN HEEFT HY GEDRAGEN. Isaie [C.?] 53 [V.?] 4.” [it was our infirmities that he bore. 53:4]. ‘Infirmities’ must be read as ‘our weaknesses’ or ‘our sins’ and ‘he’ as Jesus (Mth. 8:17; John 1:29). The only quote of the prophet that can be associated directly with the two crossed burning torches, turned upside down on the lower part of the plinth is: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, (…) until her victory shines forth like a burning torch.” (Isa. 62:1). All the same Isaiah often uses the word ‘fire’ – threateningly, purifyingly or foretelling salvation.

(P2) Ezekiel, ‘Ezechiël’ (Jan Claudius De Cock, ascribed)

While he is looking straight ahead, with his right finger he points at a passage on the open scroll, of which the text is: “ICK HEB U SIEN VERTREDEN IN UW BLOED. 16. [?] 6.” [I saw you weltering in your blood; 16:6]. On the plinth there is a fleshless hand, skulls and bones. Together with the two trumpets these macabre remains represent Ezekiel’s vision of the bones that were brought to life (Ez.37).

(P3) Daniel (Alexander Van Papenhoven, ascribed)

The beardless young man points his left index to heaven, while his eyes are directed towards the audience below him. Underneath the plinth three plump lion’s heads with feet refer to Daniel’s stay in the lions’ den (Dan. 6). Although the original scroll has disappeared, its text is known: “CHRISTUS ZAL TER DOODT GEBRACHT WORDEN. 9, [?] 26.” [Christ shall be killed; 9:26]. Literally there is ‘anointed (king)’, a Messianic title that in the New Testament is exclusively used for Jesus, and consequently this is the case here too.

(P4) Jeremiah, ‘Jeremias’ (Alexander Van Papenhoven, ascribed)

Separated from his colleagues, the other major prophets, he is in a cavern on the right of the first floor of the Calvary. He is in dialogue and looks sidelong to the right, raising his left hand gesticulatingly. The (large, standing) book is quite exceptional for a prophet, but it can be explained by the extraordinary volume of his writings. His fifty-two chapters are only surpassed in magnitude by Isaiah’s text. Oddly enough only his name – “JERE / MIAS” – is to be read, as an identification, but originally maybe a quotation from his writings could be read here too.