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

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

No convent church without a choir

The choir stalls
(Jean de Jupploye?, ca. 1632-1638)

The most important piece of furniture, which was daily used by the Dominicans, are the choir stalls. They provide accommodation for no less than seventy-two religious to praise God.

The ‘choral prayer’ takes place several times a day. For the brothers this ‘divine office’ is a time of personal devotion, whereas for the ordained fathers it is an official task, which they fulfil in the name of the entire church community. This is why it is called ‘office’ (task). The Dominicans normally pray the office four times a day: in the morning (lauds), at noon, in the evening (vespers) and at the closing of the day (compline). At the northern and southern side of the choir the stalls, which were originally positioned in a U, form impressive furniture walls protecting the monks from the cold.

Saint Paul's - choir stalls North
Saint Paul's - choir stalls South

The stalls consist of two rows of which the second is higher than the front one. The lower ones only have seats and standing room, whereas the upper row also has a tall back and carries a heavily worked out cornice. The upper row is considered to be the place of honour and is meant for the older monks; the lower one for the novices.

For patrons and sculptors the commission to design 72 modest seats is an opportunity to create an immense piece of church furniture. The structural rectilinearity of the early Baroque choir stalls is kept in balance by a wealth of decorative motifs. By the many profiled elements per partition the perspective line pattern is multiplied, which renders a sublime rhythmic effect to the entire composition. The Baroque foot of the seat has the typical form of a sturdy animal’s paw. In the handle of the seat often a mask has been incorporated. The armrest of the standing place shows a thicker end, below which a three dimensional angel’s head has been hidden. Just as is the case with the angels in the friezes of the panelling the hair dress of the tens of angels is extremely varied. A source of inspiration for exuberant hair styling?

Even though the pilasters have identical structures, they have individual designs. This is most clear in the upward spirals and in the capitals. The vertical drive of the Baroque spiral pilasters is accentuated both by the alternating surfaces of light and shadow, and by the plants growing upwards like ivy. All this is enlivened by playing animals: birds eating berries and fruits, a wild boar and a pig keen on acorns, a monkey and a unicorn.

The iconography intensified the Dominicans’ praising of God. On the pillars and pilasters flanking the seats the flora joins in singing, while hosts of little angels and animals play music with for example a tambourine, a flute and a violin.

The urge for witticism becomes clear in the many tens of masklike decorations that have been worked into partitions, handles, capitals, friezes and cartouches. There are also innumerable figurative representations. The birds like eating fruit growing on twigs and vines. Often animals quarrel among their own sort, or with snakes and monsters. When looking at the friezes you may find yourself all of a sudden face to face with strange scenes, such as an owl with four young, praying putti, a blessing Christ or God the Father in a Roman outfit, an angel playing music and accompanying two singing colleagues.

The coats of arms in the panelled backs belong to persons or authorities that paid for the cost of a seat including the Town of Antwerp and the Margrave of Antwerp.

Part of the choir stalls are a choir lectern and two precentor stalls. After the old medieval custom the Baroque choir lectern contains an eagle with a bookend on its back. Its orientation towards the sun is symbolic of pious praying man directing himself to God. This also included the Dominicans, who prayed the hours here at least thrice a day. The precentor seats were for the two precentors, to whom both choirs answered alternatingly psalm verse by psalm verse.

St. Paul’s – Lions Gate North

After the choir screen had been pulled down in 1833 the two short rows of stalls, with eight seats that had been with their backs against the screen, were sold. They are now to be found in Hotel Adare Manor (Limerick, Ireland). In about 1856 the gap was filled by the so-called lion gates. In 1869 the church wardens wanted to add four extra seats at both sides in the choir stalls. Because the inferior quality of the new pilasters would not be too conspicuous, they were spread over the entire series of choir stalls.

After the new Sint-Paulusstraat had been laid in 1855 and the new entry gate had been built in that street in 1859-1862 a new beautiful entrance in the church itself was created. In 1565 both inner gates to the choir then got too big a frame, which is typically 19th century. The base and the crowning of the woodcarving are by Jean-Baptiste van Rooy and Gerard Van der Linden, as well as the eight carrying lions. For the framing of the four polychrome reliquary busts of Dominican saints (beginning 18th century) pillars and pilasters of the Baroque choir stalls were reused.

St. Paul’s – Lionsgate North – central post

The central post of the Northern gate shows an image to those who pass by from the sacristy at the beginning of the Eucharist. An angel with a finger on his mouth summons to be silent, while a second one warns to lift the censor a bit higher so that it would not bump against the steps.

Above the gates the two most important scenes of the patron saint’s life have been worked out in reliefs.

Above the Northern gateSaint Paul’s conversion. On his way to Damascus Paul was touched by the blinding light Jesus threw to him from Heaven. Because as a Jewish persecutor he received cooperation from the Romans, Paul is represented as a Roman officer. In this way his ‘falling to earth’ got a more dramatic character in tradition by having him fall from a horse. A soldier tries to subdue the bolting horse.

St Paul’s – Lion Gate South – The Martyrdom of St Paul.

Above the Southern gateThe martyrdom of Saint Paul. In an execution field Paul kneels down awaiting the headsman’s sword that will also decapitate him. A Roman priest points at an idol (the emperor’s?) in the background, in a last effort to convince Paul to bow for it. Paul does not pay attention to this and directs his eyes to Heaven. From Heaven an angel sails down to comfort the martyr by already offering him the magnificent martyr’s crown. Just like in the original altar painting by Theodoor Boeyermans, the loyal Plautilla is ready to blindfold Paul at his request.

The majestic  level above all this consists of neo-Baroque framings around a canvas: in the North, half length, Saint Dominic, in the South Saint Paul.

The scientific justification of the data concerning the choir of Saint Paul’s in Antwerp can be found HERE.
It is basically written in Dutch, but using the translate button you can ask for an instant translation in English