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

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

The cycle of Paintings The Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary

15 paintings, between 1615 and 1620, panels, on average ca. 7,2 ft high – ca 5,3 ft wide

The Rosary offered the illiterate of the 17th century something to hold on to in order to contemplate the most important passages from the lives of Jesus and Mary. As they prayed the one hundred and fifty hail Marys of the Rosary ten per mystery, lay people could imitate monks and nuns praying the one hundred and fifty psalms of the breviary. The fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary put together constitute Mary’s photo album as it were, though one that does not only show the joyful and the glorious moments, but – in fairness – the sorrowful moments as well. The fifteen Mysteries are put in a fixed sequence: first the five Joyful Mysteries, then the five Sorrowful Mysteries and finally the five Glorious Mysteries. There was no sign yet of the fourth series, the Luminous Mysteries, added in 2002 by Pope John-Paul II. The Joyful Mysteries deal with Mary as the young mother-to-be: the Annunciation to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elisabeth, Jesus’ birth, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the finding of Jesus in Jerusalem. Whereas one does not like to be reminded of one’s grief in a common photo album, yet the Sorrowful Mysteries are portrayed here indeed, to show in all honesty what life is like. Mary was able only to be present while Jesus was carrying the Cross and at His Crucifixion, but not at the three previous Mysteries. While Mary is at first a witness of Jesus’ Glorious Mysteries like the Resurrection and the Ascension, as well as of the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, she has the leading part in the latter two: her Assumption and her Coronation in Heaven.

Before 1617 the cycle of fifteen paintings on panel was commissioned for the northern aisle, which, as a continuation of the Mary-altar at the time, develops into a grand Chapel of Mary at the far end of that nave. In line with the chronological order of the story, the series reads from left to right, is therefore hanging from west to east, and comes to an end near the altar.

As no fewer than eleven different painters were asked simultaneously to account for at least one scene, this resulted in a unique series, representing the Antwerp School of Painters, including the works by the three great masters Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, and those by Cornelis de Vos and David Teniers the Elder. At the moment Saint Paul’s Church is the only place where one can find a Rubens, a Van Dyck and a Jordaens in their original locations. Although the eighteen year old Van Dyck was but a novice, all three of them were remitted an equal sum of money. They were obviously appreciated better by the commissioners than the other painters, as the only one who was still estimated higher – so we learn from his fee – was Hendrick Van Balen. From the point of view of style the paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and David I Teniers can be dated from ca. 1616-1617.

Most of the paintings are attributed to a benefactor known by name; only the fifth and the fourteenth were paid for with general contributions. Next to a Preacher and possibly an artist, other benefactors may have had a firm foothold in the Dominican Church as well, either as a (possible) relative of the Preachers, as the current or future dean of the Brotherhood of the Rosary, or because they – or possibly their relatives – were buried there.

Saint Paul's - Northern aisle (with baroque pulpit), engraving, T. Allom, J.C. Varell (before 1874)

The scientific justification of the data concerning the Mysteries of the Rosary 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