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

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


Whoever approaches Antwerp by the Scheldt, no matter how much he may be fascinated by the slender Gothic Our Lady’s spire, he cannot deny the impressive silhouette of the Baroque tower of Saint-Paul’s. In spite of urban developmental chaos resulting in inappropriate high-rise blocks built in  the last few decades, even now, in the 21st century, this tower is a beacon in the Antwerp roadstead. The church owes its charm to the intrinsic tension with its surroundings. After all it always used to be the background of busy harbour activities at the quays of the Scheldt and it is still embedded in the old defiant Sailors’ quarter. But on the other hand it is protected from this hectic world by the picturesque and grandiose Calvary, the subdued cloisters and the monastery ruins and garden, which surround it and make this church complex a timeless oasis of quietness.

The renown of this church is boundless because of its unequalled wealth of Baroque art. The Baroque furniture harmonizes wonderfully with the Gothic architecture. Painting is richly represented, not only by the Antwerp big three – Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dijck – but also by their colleagues. Even more abundant is sculpture. The astonishing craftsmanship of Artus I Quellin, Peter I and II Verbruggen, Willem I and II Kerricx shows in oak and marble in the altars and communion rails, the choir stalls and the organ, the funeral monuments and the porches. The confessionals, with their dozens of life-size figures and extremely detailed wainscoting full of fantasy, are of extraordinary quality. The enormous sculpture garden around the Calvary is really unique. In a ‘live’ open air theatre a great Bible story is evoked.

It is less well known that this church thanks its existence to the Dominican order, whose monastery was an intellectual study centre. True to their motto on the high altar and to their patron Saint Paul, the Dominicans went to preach ‘in faith and truth’ in town and its surroundings.

Because in the 19th century Saint Paul’s became a parish church, to replace the ramshackle Saint Walburga church, a part of the choir furniture that was linked with the monastery church, more specifically the rood loft, was pulled down. Thus a magnificent depth view on the sanctuary with its monumental high altar was created.

In 1968 a disastrous fire ravaged the entire complex. But difficulties create opportunities: thanks to the thorough restoration the Antwerpian can still be proud of ‘his’ Saint Paul’s church.

The first comprehensive description of Saint Paul’s is thanks to Aloïs Janssens’ pioneering work (1971), to which, during the restoration works, Raymond Sirjacobs added numerous new insights in publications of his own and in the unsurpassed magazine Sint-Paulus Info. The dynamic group ‘Saint Paul’s welcomes you’, supported by the Antwerp pastoral service for tourists, opens the deeper meanings of this church, which is more than religious heritage, to many a visitor.

In his striking imagery Father Paul Scheelen expresses his fascination for this extraordinary church patrimony like this: “Whoever enters Saint Paul’s church is struck by a rare harmony between Gothic and Baroque. If you are receptive to sacredness, which is tangible in this space, if you have an eye for the wondrous play of light and colour, which changes from hour to hour, you will come closer to yourself. Commonplace triviality will be lifted to a higher dimension. A couple of snails in a painting, two women brimming over with expectation – so many symbols that enclose and disclose the mystery of our existence. So many expressions of beauty that refer to this ultimate experience that makes man silent and makes him sigh: “God, how beautiful”. In this church building the greatest 17th century artists have given expression to the deepest source of life, which is called Love and surpasses everything that kills real life. The heartfelt cry of man and so also of God abounds in colours and sculpture, oak or marble. From the wealth of spiritual greatness and  deeply humane emotions so much beauty ensues… A place of prayer and repentance or liturgy ringing with joy.”

Domini Canem

Those who assist at a great orchestra mass on church festivals, live through the true reason of Baroque splendour: to uplift heart and mind to the Creator of all life, in good as well as in bad times. And do not be afraid when you are face to face with one of the many dogs carrying a torch in this church. Maybe this true companion of Saint Dominic knows how to set you too, present-day visitor, ablaze for God’s goodness, truth and beauty!

the author