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

Antwerp's St Andrew's Church, a revelation.

A building history of five centuries

By the end of the Middle Ages, the city of Antwerp had become home to a considerable number of monastic communities. Before 1511, Augustinian monks had acquired a spacious plot of land on the Boeksteeg (current Nationalestraat). The first chapel built by the monks at this site was completed in 1513 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. By 1514, however, large audiences gathering for some of the order’s rather popular preachers compelled the monks to begin the construction of a bigger church.

While studying at the German town of Wittenberg, the priors and brothers of the Antwerp monastery witnessed the critical preaching of a fellow Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. In 1517, Luther published his famous ‘Theses’ in Wittenberg. In Antwerp, the Augustinian monastery pioneered as the city’s first venue for reformist preaching, especially through the work of the monastery’s prior – and friend of Luther – Jacobus Praepositus (whose original name was Proost). A question frequently asked by the town’s citizens during this period was “Wat geloove heddij, prekers- oft augustijnsgeloove?” Bearing witness to the religious situation, the question translates as: “What do you believe, the faith of preachers or that of Augustinians?” The ‘preachers’ belonged to the Order of Preachers: the Dominicans, who defended and preached catholic orthodoxy as explained by the teachings of Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In contrast, many of the Augustinian monks at the time strongly adhered to Luther’s teachings.

Only a decade after the order’s establishment in Antwerp, the Augustinians were taken into custody on account of their Lutheran sympathies. It should be noted that this arrest was not supported by the bishop, who still resided in Cambrai at the time. Instead, the decision was authorised by Emperor Charles V, who considered it his political duty to safeguard orthodoxy. At the time of the arrest, the nave of the Augustinian church had not yet been completed.

From the rood screen of the Church of Our Lady, most Antwerp Augustinians finally renounced Luther’s teachings. Yet some monks continued to preach reformist beliefs to great acclaim, a.o. in the Mint building.

Unwavering reformists Hendrik Voes and Jan van Essen were burnt at the stake on the Great Market of Brussels on 1 July 1523. On 6 October of the same year, Margaret of Austria ordered the Antwerp monastery to be abolished. When Luther learned about the death of his fellow brothers, he composed and dedicated the song with rhyming verse “Eyn newes lied wyr heben aan…”.

The humanist thinker Desiderius Erasmus, who had before voiced his admiration for the authentic character of the Augustinians’ preaching, now, however, condemned the monks’ ‘errors’.

The church building was now designated a forbidden area, and the plot was walled in. The district’s landowners, who had hoped that the church’s presence would increase the neighbourhood’s land value, were reluctant to see the completed parts of the building fall to ruin. The developing quarter needed a new, independent parish church, and the landowners proposed that this place of worship was to be completed. Permission was granted through the city council, by governess Margaret of Austria and Pope Adrian VI. As Saint Andrew was also patron saint of the House of Burgundy, the parish’ new patron saint has often been thought to have been adopted as a token of gratitude toward the governess. In this account, however, the latter’s role is probably given more weight than it actually carried. Although Margaret of Austria did sign the required documents, she may not have taken the actual initiative. Historians are often tempted, though, to make ‘clean’ causal connections between historical events and well-known historical figures.

In 1527, the monastery’s grounds were sold and parcelled out in order to finance the church’s construction. In 1529, the church was ready to use. Promptly, the parish was canonically established; one week later, on the 6th of June, the church was consecrated. A year later, eight side altars were consecrated as well.

Saint Andrew’s Church, Antwerp – Floor plan in 1529

Later on, the church’s west side was embellished with a tower; further, the building was extended with a transept. The Augustinian monks hadn’t considered such architectural elements, which were unnecessary for a modest monastery church. As such, it is also assumed that the vaulted aisles were only constructed after 1529. To finance such expenses, Charles V allowed for the organisation of a lottery. In 1559, the tower was finally adorned with a pear-shaped crown. Devotional fraternities in particular contributed to the artistic decorations, by constructing and adorning altars.

The church’s furniture – including the organ – was smashed to pieces during the destructive frenzy of the first Iconoclastic Fury in 1566. By the end of 1578, Antwerp was under Calvinist rule, and the city’s religious politics were mirrored in the church building, where a wall divided the space between Catholics and Calvinists. The three-aisled nave distinctly resembled a ‘room’ and housed the church’s pulpit. This part of the church was therefore assigned to the Calvinists, who underlined the importance of the proclamation of the Word of God. As Catholics greatly valued liturgical celebration, they were assigned the church’s choir and transept, which contained several altars.

Saint Andrew’s Church, Antwerp – divided between Catholics and Calvinists (late 1578)

Two years later, in 1581, this separation wall became even more useful, as Calvinists abolished Catholic services altogether. Consequently, Calvinist believers razed the ‘superfluous’ choir and transept to the ground. This ‘thorough’ approach sought to prevent any possible return of Catholic believers. In effect, the 1581 ‘church cleansing’ of St Andrew’s surpassed the brutal destruction of fifteen years earlier.

Saint Andrew’s Church, Antwerp – after the ‘purification’ in 1581

In 1585 the tables were turned. Representing the legal Spanish authorities, Alexander Farnese succeeded in recapturing Antwerp; immediately afterwards, Catholic believers reclaimed the church. The Gothic church building had been halved and was now furnished with painted altarpieces, in late Renaissance or Mannerist style. The churchwardens commissioned an altarpiece by Otto van Veen for the main altar; Maerten de Vos began working on the minters’ altar. A member of the district’s large Francken family furnished the Holy Cross altar and the Venerable altar. By the time of Rubens’ return to Antwerp in 1608, the entire church building had already been decorated by these ‘modern’ masters. Therefore, the churchwardens did not commission any further altarpieces, not even from Rubens – even though the master-painter did reside in the parish of St Andrew’s for a while. He married in the abbatial church of St Michael, but his first children were baptised in the parish church.

Several memorial statues were completed in early and high Baroque style, including the funeral monument of Mary Stuart’s ladies-in-waiting (1620), by an unknown artist; and the one for canon Peter Saboth (ca. 1658), by Artus Quellinus the Elder.

Saint Andrew’s Church, Antwerp – after 1585 redesigned as a Catholic parish church

The St. Andrew’s Church with the eastern wall of the central nave, as it existed from 1581 to ca. 1660. As a detail in the Plan of the St. Andrew’s Parish, Pieter Hendrik Goos, ca. 1716, but based on the town plan by Pieter Verbiest, 1662 (?). The original is lost, but kept in photocopy. © Archive of the Saint Andrew’s Church

After over half a century of planning, a great building campaign started in the middle of the 17th century. First the nave was vaulted in 1659-1661, an addition which finally improved the building’s fire safety. In 1663 the transept – which had been pulled down by the Calvinists – was restored and expanded. On the building’s north side, the churchyard reached only up to the side aisle; now, the transept was extended right up to the side of the street. On the south side, the churchyard extended further towards the east; the south transept extension was somewhat shortened, so as not to divide the yard. These transept extensions ‘upgraded’ both first pillars of the eastern nave to crossing pillars once more.

Once the Calvinists’ separation wall had been torn down, the Venerable altar and the altar of Mary were relocated from the aisles to the (provisional) eastern transept wall. Later that year, bishop Ambrosius Capello consecrated the transept. In 1664 the main altar was moved to the new choir. By relocating the three most important side altars, it became possible to move the altars of the Holy Cross (1664-1665) and St Anne (1673-1674) to the first eastern pillars of the nave: a place of greater importance, too.

St. Andrew’s Church, Antwerp – after the construction of the new transept in 1663

In 1666 the Holy Sacrament chapel association began constructing a separate devotional space, which in 1678 was followed by the construction of the Mary Chapel. Since 1683, consequently, the church choir (two bays long) was flanked by both chapels. Each chapel was furnished with its own sacristy. In 1685-1686, the transept was vaulted with a star vault at the crossing.

Sint-Andrieskerk, Antwerpen – In 1678 met de aanzet voor een nieuw koor tussen de nieuwe kapellen in.

During this period, plans were made to extend the choir even further. A round tempietto (an exceptional architectural feature within the context of the Low Countries) would be constructed to highlight the altarpiece Apotheosis of Holy Andrew. Six design sketches (signed by Hendrik Frans Verbruggen) remain; yet the project itself was never realised.

In 1755, the collapse of the dilapidated tower of the church of St Andrew attracted widespread public attention. Although the tower had been shored for a while by this time, the support evidently proved insufficient.

Collapsing onto the three western bays of the south nave, the tower destroyed graves and funeral monuments in this part of the church, as well as the rood screen and the nave’s organ. The bays of the south nave were reconstructed in modern bluestone and can still be recognised by the distinctive grey colour of the ribs.

A year later, construction started on a late Baroque tower, designed by master builder Engelbert Baets. This new tower was positioned entirely within the western bay of the nave; as such, the two nave pillars could be used as extra abutments to support the church’s weaker interior walls. It took until 1763 (seven years of work) to complete the 58 metre tall tower, which was topped with a double roof lantern, a pair of wooden open copulas. The architect would use this type of spire crowning again for the Basilica of Our Lady in Halle, some 10 miles south of Brussels.

St. Andrew’s Church, Antwerp – with central tower and new choir after 1769

Immediately after the tower had been completed, the characteristic 18th century bluestone grey was used again for the extension and vaulting of the choir (1765-1769). The contractor’s name, which had been chiselled in the wood of a 1763 tower beam, was now carved in one of the attic beams as well: “ANNO . 1766 . DEN . XIII . 7BER // . A.V. BUSSEL” (“In the year 1766, on the 13th of September // Adrian Van Bussel”). Why, one wonders, did mid-18th century architects and constructors still go to such lengths to create this gigantic choir space? Indeed, as a normal parish church, St Andrew’s did not host any regular canons or clerics and was therefore not in need of choir stalls. Did the Baroque desire for decorum perhaps require such immense, theatrical space? At any rate, no expense was spared; even the small passage to the parsonage, and a school building at the east side of the church had to make way.

Design for the choir and the high altar, attributed to Cornelis De Smet or to the Augustinian friar Alipius, c. 1769 © Archief Sint-Andrieskerk

The late Baroque design sketch for this choir space (possibly by the Augustine brother Alipius) depicts a boarding with oculi windows in the light vault and round arch windows on the ground floor. A round arch can be found too on the two opposite doors, one leading from corridor to sacristy and one to the current tabernacle. Eventually, this design of a Baroque high altar was abandoned too. However, the main altar with the Van Veen painting in its apse was flanked by both the statue of St Peter by Artus Quellinus the Elder and its new pendant: the Statue of St Paul by Jozef Gillis.

In 1794, the war tax imposed by the French effectively forced the church of St Andrew to part with great quantities of its church silver. Upon seizure of the church in 1798, two of its most beautiful artworks were confiscated: Maerten de Vos’ triptych for the minters’ altar, and the statue of St Peter by Artus Quellinus the Elder. And that was the end of it. For in contrast to St George’s, the neighbouring parish church that was sold and torn down, St Andrew’s, remarkably, survived the French Revolutionary Rule.

The new French constitution expressed faith in God as the Supreme Being, but regarded Him solely as the reasonable, intelligent Mind that had created everything. The revolutionaries banished the central idea of Christian faith – that God is Love – to the realm of myth. They denied the meaning of building a relationship with God through prayer, even less through community during religious service. Seeking to encourage people to partake in more ‘useful’ activities, the revolutionaries decided on principle to close all churches in 1797.

Saint Andrew’s Church, Antwerp – Pastor Van der Stalle, Jan Mertens, after 1788

In order to protect their political legacy, however, the revolutionaries allowed for some religious concessions. Every priest who publically swore the Oath of Hatred of Kings was allowed to keep any church he wished in return. But the Catholic Church remained firmly opposed to the revolutionary rule and was prepared to pay a huge cost to remain faithful to its principles. According to the Church, God’s kingship constituted the sole legal authority at the time; His kingship couldn’t be recanted. It would be unthinkable, moreover, for Christian believers to swear any oath of hatred. Thus, the parish priest Alexander Van der Stallen was sentenced to be deported, as were most Antwerp priests who held true to the ecclesiastical point of view. In 1799, Van der Stallen was arrested and taken into custody, but he escaped from the citadel hidden under a cattle farmer’s grass cargo. The cattle farmer was a parishioner of St Andrew’s; Van der Stallen hid and continued to serve the parish in secret.

However, priest Jan-Michiel Timmermans was prepared to swear the Oath of Hatred. In doing so, he saved both himself and a church under threat. Indeed, in 1798 Timmermans chose the church of St Andrew as a reward for his Oath; the other ‘sworn priest’ in Antwerp, Mortelmans, chose the church of St James. Timmermans’ choice was ill received, both by the ecclesial authorities, who refused to recognise him as a parish priest, and by the people, who sympathized with the oppressed clergy. However, Timmermans’ disobedience to the church, and his obedience to state rule, ensured the continued existence of the church of St Andrew, including its art treasures, up until today.

Following the 1801 Concordat between the Holy See and Napoleon, the church of St Andrew became a parish church once more. The building had remained virtually intact. The abolished bishopric of Antwerp was added almost in its entirety to the archbishopric of Mechelen; from now on, parish priests would be appointed there. Parish priest Alexander Van der Stallen was officially reinstated on 2 May 1803. In the same year, the statue of St Peter by Artus Quellinus the Elder was returned to the church. The triptych by Maerten de Vos, however, would remain at the Academy Museum. The sober church interior was to be decorated further in Baroque style, which was still in vogue at the time. The main altar and pulpit – the church’s two most prominent artworks – date back to this period.

Initially, and partly still under French Rule, artworks were recuperated from abolished Antwerp churches. The demolition of the neighbouring church of St George caused the parish grounds of St Andrew’s to be extended significantly towards the south. Moreover, St Andrew’s became heir to the old church of St Philip at the Spanish castle. As such, the church acquired several exceptional antependia in high Baroque style. Further, St Andrew’s became home to devotional pieces from abolished neighbouring monasteries, such as the relics of the 36 Saints from the Abbey of St Salvator and the statue of Our Lady of Peace and Harmony from the Abbey of St Michael. The churchwardens proceeded to buy the imposing main altar of the former Abbey of St Bernard in Hemiksem, the Augustine Monastery’s choir stalls and the Alexians’ tabernacle door. From the church of the Calced Carmelites on the Meir came communion rail panels and a holy water font, which would henceforth serve as the church’s baptismal font.

Subsequently, assignments for artworks were given to artists, who, up until the middle of the 19th century faithfully adhered to the Baroque style. In 1821, the Renaissance pulpit was replaced by a pulpit in late Baroque style, unparalleled even in the Southern Low Countries before the French Revolution. The singing tribune (1828-1829) and the voluminous silver relic shrine of the 36 Saints by Jan Verschuylen (1845) demonstrate a more classicist Baroque style. Further, the new garments for the statue of Our Lady of Sustention and Victory also expressed the desire for abundant Baroque decorum.

The first station of the new way of the cross was painted in 1845. Only by 1857 was the entire sequence of fourteen stations complete. The large paintings were mounted in heavy decorative frames and hung in a colourful cycle across the church.

In 1855 the stained glass window by Jan-Frans Pluys in the Mary Chapel was completed – the beginning of a long series of neo-Gothic stained glass windows for the church. A glimpse of this first window can still be seen in the oldest painted church interior of St Andrew’s, a painting by Eugénie Van Haverbeke (1857). Between 1863 and 1917, a succession of glaziers working in neo-Gothic church style made the church bathe in an unseen wealth of colour: Jean-Baptist Capronnier, Henri Dobbelaere, Jean-Baptist Bethune, Petrus De Craen and the studio of August Stalins and Alfons Janssens. In a grand gesture motivated by the same neo-Gothic desire, parapets were added to the upper windows in 1868.

In 1889, the explosion of the Corvilain gunpowder factory in Oosterweel caused great damage to the church – as it did to many other buildings. Almost all new stained glass windows on the church’s north side were destroyed. Not until the First World War would most windows be replaced.

Eugénie Van Haverbeke, Interior of the Saint Andrew’s Church, oil on canvas, 1857, Saint Andrew’s Church Antwerp

During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, fraternities were thriving – at times, such societies counted thousands of members. In honour of their celebrated saints, these fraternities adorned the church interior with occasional decorations, transforming it into an extensive scenery for spectacles.

In 1929, the 400-year jubilee of the parish church was celebrated with a lot of circumstance. For the first time, the so-called Boat of Amalfi (the silver relic shrine of holy Andrew, by Jos Junes) was included in the procession. The organ was electrically pneumatised; a real symphonic concert was organised on the tower; and an illustrated church guide was published, the first of its kind in Antwerp. One year later, the choir was equipped with floor heating.

Een jaar later komt er in het koor vloerverwarming.

In 1938, the church of St Andrew and its furniture and art works were listed as a monument. Yet this status could not offer protection against the horrors of war. On 2 January 1945, near the end of the Second World War, 19 civilians fell victim to the impact of a V-bomb dropped on Friday Market. Once again, nearly every stained glass window on the church’s north side was destroyed. The church interior was covered under a layer of snow; the angels of the Mary chapel’s confessional appeared to be dressed in fur coats.

January 1945: after the impact of the V-bomb on the Vrijdagmarkt, the Sint-Andrieskerk is also full of chaos © Archief Sint-Andrieskerk

January 1945: after the impact of the V-bomb on the Vrijdagmarkt, the Sint-Andrieskerk is also full of chaos © Archief Sint-Andrieskerk

To prevent a (partial) repetition of the 1755 scenario, the dilapidated wooden tower lantern was wisely pulled down in 1961. The tower was then securely rebuilt in 1970-1975, constructed partly out of concrete.

Ten stained glass windows by Jan Huet (paid for so as to compensate war damages) ensured that the church has been bathing again in colour since the 1960’s. But parishioners could not enjoy these windows for very long: from 1970 until 1975, the church was closed for major restorations. Following the sudden postponement of the restorations’ fourth phase (which included the church’s central heating and the annexes), even the subsoil under the Mary Chapel became saturated with rainwater. Then, in 1983, the Chapel’s century-old sacristy collapsed and was irretrievably lost; so were its oak cupboards. After extensive administrative agony, the creation of the current museum and boiler room began in 2002.

Saint Andrew’s Church, Antwerp, today

From 2000 onwards, contemporary views on old art have given shape to the church as a playful space for art and spirituality for young and old alike. On the one hand, the church seeks to valorise its undervalued heritage in different ways: firstly, the acquisition of works of art that are directly ‘related’ to the church, such as the modello for Martyrdom of St Andrew by Otto van Veen, or – more importantly – the acquisition of stolen objects, such as a statue of St Andrew (p. 73). Sometimes, acquisitions of old art ‘from outside’ would elevate the church’s standard of decoration and spirituality, as seen in the wooden communion rails at the contemporary celebration altar.

Further, old works of art are being reconstructed; for example, the minter’s altar, the name panel  of the fraternity of ‘Faithful Souls’, the Way of the Cross, and the precious musical instruments of the organ case. The treasury’s thematic layout, and informative texts at the baptismal and death fonts, at the way of the cross, etc., seek to offer further access to, and understanding of, the meaning of the church’s old heritage.

On the other hand, the sober church now provides ample space for modern art. As the church of the 17th-century communicated its message using the style of the times, today’s church seeks to express itself through the 21st-century language of art. Contemporary audiences may feel challenged by, say, the robe for the Mary statue by Ann Demeulemeester and the painting What Is Truth? by Alain Senez. Other creations include: pop-art shoes for the journey of life, a punchbag for those who keep wrestling with God, and a representation of God as a DJ of all things living and moving, between the angelic musicians on top of the baroque organ. Aside a series of recent saints, the spectator can look into a mirror that mirrors the question: Are you next?

The language has changed as well: the international Latin of informative labels has given way to English, which isn’t merely used to accommodate foreign visitors.