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

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


It is remarkable that in a church that survived the French Revolutionary Rule so well, so few original memorials, funeral monuments, epitaphs and tombstones have come to us. In the southern aisle they were destroyed when in 1755 the tower collapsed. This was the case for instance for the family tomb of the Francken dynasty of painters, with a self-portrait of Niklaas, the progenitor.

The tombstones alone are already worth a study. Who lay where? Did the vicars lie in fixed places? Were chaplains and assistant priests buried inside or outside the church? Do you find chapel’s guardians inside or close to their chapels or not? It is a pity that only a small number of the tombstones that are known, have also been preserved on the spot. Thus no tombstone has been preserved of the 27 mintmasters and other minters of the nearby Mint. It is stunning that when the tower was rebuilt from 1756 onwards, fragments of shattered tombstones were used for thresholds and lintels in the stair towers.

It is even more unfortunate that at the 1970-1975 restoration those tombstones that had been preserved were moved to sometimes very awkward spots. A number are even no longer traditionally oriented west-east, and some have been put vertically against a wall or serve as a kind of permanent mat at the main entrance or a side entrance, where they suffer far too much from wear. Passionate historian and vicar Peter Visschers took the initiative of noting down all pieces of information on the numerous tombstones that were still there in his day. Thus he stimulated Peter Génard, the keeper of the city archives, to write the unsurpassed monumental work for the entire Province of Antwerp:  Verzameling der graf- en gedenkschriften  [Collection of epitaphs and commemorative texts] (1856-1905).

Let us have a look at the specimens that have been preserved in the church. Sometimes the tomb is called ‘momentum’, ‘rustplaets(e)’ [resting-place] or ‘begraafplaats’ [burial place] or, as is the case with Joost Boncamp’s tombstone, which is the oldest one that has been preserved, they contain a simple statement: “Hier leet begrave…” [Here lyeth buried…]

The inscriptions follow fixed patterns:

On top is the dedication “D.O.M.(S)” (“Deo Optimo Maximo Sanctissimo”; “To God most good, most great, most holy”).

Then, in line with the social pattern of those days, there is the name of the man, often with a mentioning of his profession or function, sometimes his age, and the date of decease.

Then there is the name of his wife, typified as “syne huysvrouwe” [his housewife], with the date of decease and often with the names of the children.

At the bottom there is the pious recommendation:  “B.V.D.S.” (“Bid voor de zielen” [Pray for the souls]) or “R.I.P.” (“Requiescant in pace”; “May they rest in peace”).

Among the professions mentioned we find a lawyer as well as an “outcleercooper” [old clothes merchant]; Vrijdagmarkt with its traditional market of second hand clothes is nearby anyway. Further there is an “oudt-deken” [former dean] of the arquebusiers, as well as of the retailers and of the Old Crossbowmen.

Among the functions mentioned of laymen in Saint Andrew’s Church and parish there are a few church wardens (‘aedilis’ in Latin) or former churchwardens, a “cleynen alemoessenier in deze kercke”  [small almoner in this church] and a bell-ringer – grave-digger. Of one man, Jan de Briever, guardian of Our Lady’s Chapel, we know that he was four times a widower. In 1667 at last he had to follow his four wives into the grave; they were neatly mentioned chronologically on his tombstone, which used to lay at the foot of his funeral statue Mater Dolorosa, which was sculpted by Lodewijk Willemssens.

What the clergy is concerned: not a single grave of a vicar has been preserved, but one assistant priest’s and one chaplain’s have. There is the tombstone of Balthasar Mys, “pastor in Westmal” [vicar in Westmalle (15 miles east of Antwerp)] († 1720). There are also several ‘spiritual daughters’, well-to-do middle-class ladies who were linked with the Jesuits spiritually and actively. Some of them, such as the De Wael sisters, also had a funeral monument in the church.

One of the distinguished citizens who found their last resting place here was Melchior Moretus († 1634).

The 1784 decision of Joseph II to prohibit burials in the church and in the two churchyards next to it, proved to be one of the most radical changes from Austrian Times. From then on the parishioners had to accompany their deceased to the (inter)parochial graveyard of Kiel, outside the city gates and far from the built-up area then. Since 1921/1936 the cemetery of the city has been Schoonselhof.

For centuries the martyrdom of the Antwerp Augustinians who were executed for their Lutheran sympathies was only honoured by protestant Christians. Fortunately, today people dare to break a number of ancient prejudices in a spirit of ecumenism and show the self-criticism needed. This explains why the memory of these protestant martyrs is not only kept in protestant churches or institutions, but since 2004 has been cherished in their home, in catholic Saint-Andrew’s Church, which owes them its origin. The text of the memorial slab, composed by church historian Jos Vercruyssen S.J., reads as follows:

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mth. 5:10)

Here Augustinians of the Saxon Province settled.
In 1513 these monks opened a chapel
as the springing point of a convent and of this church.

Here the first Lutheran preaching in Antwerp took place.
Here dwelled the Augustinians Hendrik Voes and Jan van Essen,
who, because of their Lutheran sympathies,
were executed in Brussels the 1st July 1523.
In the same year the convent
was disbanded by order of Margaret of Austria.

In confused and confusing days
they too preached the Word of Christ…

“Eyn newes lied wyr heben aan…” (Martin Luther)

British visitors cannot easily deny the funeral monument of Barbara Mowbray († 1616) and her unmarried sister in law Elisabeth Curle († 1620): especially as Mary Stuart’s portrait draws their attention. Both sisters in law were ladies in waiting of the catholic Scottish queen, who also claimed the English throne. In 1587, after 19 years of imprisonment, she was decapitated by order of her Anglican rival, Elizabeth I. Like many catholic compatriots, the two ladies in waiting, who witnessed the queen’s execution, had to flee their country and arrived in Antwerp about 1589. Towards 1613 they moved to (present) Sint-Andriesstraat, in front of Waaistraatje, where their spacious premises soon got the popular name ‘English house’. Is it a co-incidence that they sought refuge in the shade of the church with the same patron saint as Scotland, their motherland and their queen’s? Their common tombstone used to be in the central nave, near the later (or then) Holy Cross altar. Hippoliet Curle, who was attached to the Douai Jesuit college, inherited their house.

According to the last will of the ladies he commissioned a funeral monument in their honour in 1620, possibly from Jan and Robrecht Colijns de Nole. Their patron saints, Saint Barbara with an open book and Saint Elisabeth of Hungary distributing bread, flank the Latin memorial slab and the portrait of their queen, who crowns the monument below her patron saint, Mary, with the infant Jesus.

The bust portrait on brass by an anonymous copyist goes back to the life size portrait of the queen that was commissioned by Elisabeth Curle and which she also bequeathed to Hippoliet Curle (now in Blair’s Museum Aberdeen Scotland). The queen is wearing mourning, the so-called deuil blanc: a black dress with a white ruff, a transparent veil, richly seamed with lace and a cap of the same kind. The chain below suggests a pectoral cross. She was also given a heavy crown. The white marble coat of arms below is also this of Mary Stuart as a widow. It shows the lion rampant of Scotland, the three lions passant of England and the lilies of France.

The English translation of the captions:

Beneath Mary Stuart’s portrait is her title:

Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and France, mother of King James of Great-Britain.”

Below this there is the small commemorative tablet of Mary Stuart:

In the year 1568 she took refuge in England, by taking up residence with her in-law Elisabeth, who reigned there. By the senate’s perfidy and the heretic’s envy she was beheaded for her religion after 19 years of imprisonment; she accepted martyrdom at the age of 45 in the year of our Lord 1587.”

On the large commemorative tablet the full account of the story of the ladies-in-waiting is told:

To the very good, great, and holy God.

Traveller, you see the memorial to two royal ladies from Britain.

Thanks to the protection of the catholic king [Philip II] they fled their native country because of the orthodox religion, and rest here in hope of resurrection.

In the first place (the memorial) to Barbara Moubray, daughter of baron John Mowbray, who, as a lady-in-waiting of the illustrious Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, was given in marriage to Gilbert Curle, who was the queen’s secretary for more than 20 years, and they lived peacefully together for 24 years. They had eight children, of whom six were given up to heaven. The two surviving sons received a distinguished education:

James joined the order of the Jesuits in Madrid, Spain.

Hippoliet, the youngest, wanted to enter into the service of Christ in the Franco-Belgian province of the order of the Jesuits.

The latter is desolate for his dear mother Barbara Curle, who exchanged the transient life for the eternal one on the 31st of July 1616 AD, at the age of 57.

Also (the memorial) to Elisabeth Curle, the aunt from the same noble line of the Curles, also lady-in-waiting to queen Mary, 8 years long faithful companion to her cousin, to whom in dying she gave the last kiss; for all times unmarried, most chaste in morals and most pious.

Hippoliet Curle, the son of her brother, has placed this memorial here from a thankful heart and a feeling for his family.

She [Elisabeth Curle] ended the last day of her life in 1620 AD, on the 29th of May at the age of 60.

May they rest in peace, Amen.”

Baroque art is easily associated with theatrical, gesticulating personages, and yet, more than any other artistic trend, it also shows persons expressing their feelings in a serene and subdued way. A strong example of this is the figure of Peter by Artus I Quellinus against the north east crossing pillar at the entrance to the choir. As his patron saint it was meant to decorate the funeral monument of Peter Saboth († 1658), high against the opposite crossing pillar (the first northern pillar of the central nave). There the statue was meant to be the first of a traditional series of apostle statues at the twelve pillars of the central nave. The statue was put there in 1663, when the transept had been finished. Because of lack of interest of other wealthy deceased parishioners Peter remained lonesome at the top of its plinth.

When in 1769 the new high altar was constructed in the enlarged sanctuary it was decided to bring the statue down and to let it form a couple with the new statue of Saint Paul by Jozef Gillis, so that they could flank the altar. Since the present altar, which covers the entire eastern wall, was put up in 1807-1809, these two apostles have been keeping watch at the entrance to the choir.

The cock at Peter’s feet reminds of Jesus’s prediction just before he was arrested:

Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny Me three times.” (Mth. 26:34)

Thus it happened. Immediately after the cock had crowed and after he had cursed that he did not know Jesus “Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken”, he repented “and began to weep bitterly”. The Latin chronogram on the plinth alludes to this Bible verse (Mth. 26:75): “Petro, reCorDantI VerbI, et aMare fLentI” (= 1658). Peter’s face shows the sorrow at the intense struggle with the twinges of remorse because of having denied his friend and master. To save oneself man dares drop even his best friends. Self-preservation vs. friendship: an eternal conflict. To stand up for this friendship and trust in Jesus Peter was eventually prepared to die on the cross himself. Hence the inverted cross next to him.

Underneath the rood loft there is the list of the parishioners killed in battle during the First World War (1914-1918). The soldiers who gave their lives for the freedom of their compatriots are honoured with a reference to the Bible book of those other freedom fighters, the Maccabees. Translation of the Dutch text: “They withstood the foes of their country and glorified their nation. I Macc. XIV 29” (Since there have often been wars in our country, … the brothers have put themselves in danger and resisted the enemies of their nation, so that their sanctuary and law might be maintained, and they have thus brought great glory to their nation. 1 Macc. 14:29).

The main goal of the Brotherhood of Faithful Souls, which was founded in 1709, was to pray for the deceased, so that also these souls in purgatory would eventually be admitted into heavenly bliss forever. Beseeching God’s mercy for someone else is a form of solidarity beyond the limits of death. The Brotherhood itself has not found eternal life, but the imploration that God’s love may fully penetrate the hearts of the deceased still regularly sounds in the Saint Andrew’s Church community after a Sunday service and on All Soul’s Day.

As it was becoming for a brotherhood of standing in those days, the Brotherhood had a monumental membership roll or catalogue made, possibly designed by Pieter Scheemaeckers. It is quite exceptional that such a catalogue became a real monument like this, surrounded by a three-dimensional representation of purgatory.

According to Catholic faith each man is free and consequently he is responsible for his acts. This is why after death everybody is asked to give account. Those who seek God’s good in their lives, will also find this after death. Those who do not seek this, isolate themselves from God and will find themselves in a painfully senseless, hellish situation. For many people this fundamental choice between good and evil is not that explicit, not only because they cannot choose, but also because they are hindered by for instance a poor education, human weakness, difficult circumstances, social trends, ignorance or misshapen conscience. At the end of their lives many are not really capable of making a decisive choice between good (God) and ‘dia-bolic’ (devilish) evil. Thus it is not clear what their final destination should be: heaven or hell. The ultimate choice still has to ripen. This purifying reflection needs time and patience.

This is painful, especially when you know that for some the heavenly feast has already begun. Because of the painful character, in Dutch this waiting period is called ‘vagevuur’ [purifying fire]. This word was borrowed from the working method of goldsmiths, who use fire to purify precious metal, i.e. to separate it from unclean ore. The way gold ore, which is stuck to impurities of the face of the earth, has to be refined by the fire of the forge so as to reach a higher carat purity, also man whose moral calibre is a mixture of virtue and impurity has to refine his own imperfections in a painful transition. So there is cause for hope because heavenly bliss is within reach.

In the purgatory scene as many men as women are victims of the flames: three. Frontally against the pillar four figures are engulfed in a sea of flames, while on the sides one man and one woman, as a three-dimensional image, are pulled up out of the depths of fire towards heaven by an angel. The yearning to be released from this suffering is impetuously tangible. This deliverance from purgatory can be effectuated by one’s own good deeds in the past and by the prayers of solidary survivors now. To this prayer by members of the Brotherhood is alluded by the trophies of the rosary, the cross and the books of prayer on both sides, as well as by the small prayer books ‘casually’(!) on top of the frame.

The original concept was one of austere polychromy in imitation of the richer, fashionable, marble memorials. The wooden sculpture group has been painted white or light grey as an imitation of stone, contrasting with the brown of the actual index board, the cross and the coal of the fire. Initially only gilt was used to put some accents; now especially the flames painted red catch the eye. In 2004, thirty years after it had been dismantled, the whole was restored by the section Conservation / Restoration of the Antwerp High School, and put back.

In 1891 monumental black and white marble holy-water fonts were attached to the walls at both side entrances so as to allow visitors to cross themselves with holy-water when coming in or going out. The reed mace and other white marble plants stand out against the black marble frame and are, as it were, growing from the holy-water. This is a symbol for the faithful who are revitalised thanks to Jesus, from within whom “Rivers of living water will flow” (John 7:38). The font in the northern transept, which was originally the washbasin at the refectory in Saint Michael’s Abbey, was the model for its counterpart in the southern transept.

To both holy-water fonts a theme has been added. In the southern transept it has been transformed into a monument for the baptised, and the one in the northern transept into a memorial for the deceased.

In the course of a baby’s baptism the birth announcement card is hung on a colourful ribbon here.

A child is far more than just a little thing, there is a miracle within, incredibly great.

A child is far more than an angel’s counterweight.
I don’t know what it is but all I can say:
a child of man is not just
the work of man.”
Toon Hermans, Niet van mensenhanden, from the volume Ik heb het leven lief (translation F.V.)

The white pebbles refer to children’s innocence and to baptism. The baptised are reminded of Jesus’s baptism:
 “I have baptised you with water, but Jesus will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” Mk 1:8

Here people regularly come to pray for their deceased. The grey stones from the river Scheldt refer to death, but Christian hope is given to the deceased (and to the living as well): figuratively by the white marble reed stems and the real small plant, textually by one of the last verses from the Bible:
 “I will give water from the well of everlasting life free to anybody who is thirsty.”  Apoc. 21:5-6

The poem that wants to inspire among the little crosses of the deceased is this:

The leaves are falling, falling as from far, as if far gardens in the skies were dying; They fall, with gradual and lingering descending
And in the night the earth, a heavy ball, into a starless solitude must fall.
We all do fall.
My own hand no less  than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness, holds all this falling in His hands to bless.”
From: Rainer Maria Rilke, Das Buch der Bilder