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

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

The Mary Chapel

Our Lady of Support and Victory

The Mary Statue

The Statue…

Immediately after gaining back possession of their parish church in 1585, Catholic parishioners commissioned a statue of Mary. This statue is a remarkable example of a polychromed wooden sculpture in Mannerist style. The statue, which is surprisingly slender and elegant, has a particularly refined face, with cheeks covered in white make-up, as was the beauty ideal of the time.

Since 1689, the statue has been known as Our Lady of Support and Victory. An eponymous fraternity was founded in the same year, in gratitude for the Habsburg victories over Muslim Ottomans in Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. The statue’s sculpted base displays the spoils of victory: the weapon arsenal of the defeated enemy – standards with the crescent moon, trumpets and drums, cannon and cannon balls – and heads of eastern enemies cruelly impaled on spears.

… and Its Wardrobe

Throughout the year, the statue is generally displayed on the Mary altar. Our Lady of Support and Victory is clothed in an apron and short cloak, each in the fitting liturgical colours. Indeed, this statue makes use of an entire altar wardrobe consisting of cloaks in every liturgical colour. (The hand of Mary that carries the Child can be removed to simplify the dressing process.) The Christ child wears a small dress in matching tones. As such, the clothing lends colour to the intimate bond between mother and child.

During the octave of Our Lady of Support and Victory and on special Marian holidays (such as the Assumption of Mary (15 August)), the statue was taken off the altar, adorned and placed onto a decorative pedestal in the centre of the church, which would later be carried around in procession. To this end, she was dressed in a long cloak with train, and decked out with accessories: a bow in matching colour around the arm, a lace collar, a silver key and a bunch of grapes. The large procession cloaks date from the second half of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The eighteenth century saw lady’s dresses of damask converted into cloaks, such as the sky blue cloak donated by the noble couple Adam of Salm-Salm on the occasion of their wedding in 1761. At times, the Watteau pleats of the original garment can still be discerned.

Dressed by Ann Demeulemeester, Fashion Designer

The ‘fashion year’ 2001 prompted the design of a contemporary dress for Our Lady. This wasn’t exactly a revolutionary novelty: in Western European art, Mary had been depicted in contemporary dress for centuries. Thus, fashionable dress illustrated the enduring relevance of Jesus’ gospel!

As in many parish churches in the Southern Netherlands, the dressed Mary statue of St Andrew’s is a so-called Spanish Madonna. The broad apron and long cloak, resting on the head and fanning out onto the floor, were inspired by fashion at the Spanish court during the fourth quarter of the 16th century. This Spanish outfit with cloak and train, apron, crown and sceptre became a fixture in the dressing of Mary statues in Counter-Reformation countries. The imagery of Mary was defined  by the dress in vogue during the decades of ‘repairs’ after the Protestant Iconoclasm. This Spanish fashion withstood many subsequent trends: few if any Mary statues couldn’t be defined as 16th-century Spanish. Examples can be found in Halle, Scherpenheuvel, Gaverland, Kevelaar, but also throughout Spain, South America, etc.

Can such a ‘Spanish’ Madonna, with a traditional wardrobe that was fashionable in the period around 1600, still function sufficiently as a contemporary model for vigorous and healthy faith today? Can Mary’s rich personality truly be restricted to one specific design? And – who wouldn’t give a lover new clothes, from time to time? The same (style of) attire, worn for four hundred years, may express simplicity or poverty, and yet nothing beats the creativity of love. Thus, ‘the most poetic of the Antwerp Six (fashion designers)’ –Ann Demeulemeester – was asked to design a contemporary creation ‘for our beloved (lady)’, alias Our Lady, in 2001.

Even without using figurative elements, the designer aimed to express some of Mary’s virtues:

  • Life: You will conceive in your womb and bear a son. (Lk 1:31) This is subtly accentuated by the light-reflective sequins, which are visible below the transparent outer fabric.
  • Simplicity: I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (Lk 1:38)
  • Transparency: as Ann Demeulemeester stated, ‘This woman, Mary, represents what she is: no frills, no masquerade.

I wasn’t decorating some meaningless statue; she was a woman, I made her beautiful. When I came down from the ladder, I was satisfied and thought: Right, this is my gift to her.’

St Andrew’s Church: The Statue of Mary, c. 1585, Dressed by Ann Demeulemeester, 2001

And there’s more. The collar of white pigeon feathers had been the designer’s signature for ten years. Within this Marian context, these feathers could be understood as references to the traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit. The feathers covering Mary’s shoulder, however, appear stronger and less naïve than the allegorical flying pigeon depicted on the altar behind the statue. These illustrate the Biblical promise: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Lk 1:35) Further, the fan-shaped position of the pigeon feathers parallels the fan-shaped aura of the gilded bundle of light emanating from the allegorical pigeon on the altar.

Mary’s new dress was met with rejection by some traditional believers. Yet others considered Mary’s new outfit to be not only original, surprising and bold, but also stylish and actual. As for the response by the faithful and others in later times – who knows? One hopes that the Mary’s statue will be given a new dress in another 400 years. The significance of this Lady, indeed, remains important during contemporary times.

The church houses a second, smaller devotional statue of Mary. Our Lady of Peace had been venerated in the former abbey church of St Michael of the Norbertines since 1653. The Lady was thought to maintain the Peace of Westphalia (1648) to which the people had long been looking forward. In 1705, a fraternity was established for this devotion. The statue and the first of the new fraternity’s golden book were transferred to the church of St Andrew in 1812. The fraternity was re-established during the Marian year 1854; later on, the church choir ‘The Peace Singers’ (‘De Vredezangers’) was named after the statue.

The Altar

One of the first eight altars that were consecrated in 1530 was devoted to Mary. After Calvinists had demolished the transept in 1581, Catholics erected a Mary altar in the northern nave during the restoration (after 1585). The Gothic Mary chapel was only built by 1678-1683, when the first two choir bays had been constructed. This separate devotional space reflected the special attention of the Counter-Reformation for the figure of Mary.

Although the current Late Baroque altar (1729) truly appears to be made of marble, it actually consists of – cheaper – painted wood. It is unclear why Willem Ignatius Kerricx is named as its designer-sculptor. The altar actually functions as an architectonic frame for the devotional Mary statue. Jesus’s mother, on a pedestal shaped like the crescent moon, is standing on a globe that is being seized by a satanic, undulating serpent. Across the globe, the caption serves as a chronogram indicating the date of the inauguration: DIVa sIt nobIs perpetUa VIrgo MarIa patroCInIo et VICtorIae’ (May the blessed, perpetual Virgin Mary grant us protection and victory). Added together, all capital letters with a Roman value (500 1 5 . 1 . 1 . 5 . 5 1 . 1000 1 . 100 1 1 . 5 1 100 1) ‘spell out’ the date: ‘1729’.

The dove, allegory of the Holy Spirit, connotes God’s choosing of Mary. Above the statue’s head, a few angels are holding a crown, sun and moon. The crown offered to Mary symbolizes the rewards of her faithfulness (Rev 2:10), and signifies that Mary partakes in the glory of God. The two anthropomorphic celestial bodies, sun and moon, embody a symbolic title from the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

  • A sun: ‘Bright as the sun’ (Song of Solomon 6:10)
  • A crescent moon: ‘Fair as the moon’ (Song of Solomon 6:10)

Closer to ground level, in the side wall of the inner column bases, Marian symbols abound; from the ‘gateway to heaven’ (Gn 28:17) to the left, to the ‘ivory tower’ (Song of Solomon 7:4) or ‘tower of David’ (Song of Solomon 4:4) to the right.

At the front side of the outer column bases, lilies can be found: the Marian symbol for purity. In the altar wall, medallions represent Joachim and Joseph, Mary’s father and husband, respectively. Representations of both men can also be found in the communion rails. Between a pair of putti holding a laurel wreath, an angel trumpets Mary’s praise in the altar crowning. Originally, a palm branch in the angel’s other hand used to complete the symbolism of victory. Waving the palm branches of their martyrdom, Saint Barbara with a tower (to the left) and Catherine of Alexandria with a wheel (to the right) underline the heavenly joy that the angel is sounding so triumphantly. These female martyrs are venerated together in this chapel – possibly, as is often the case elsewhere, as an allegory of contemplative and active life.

Help for Castaways

Stained glass window of Our Lady’s Chapel (Henri Dobbelaere, 1866)

It comes as no surprise that, in the port city of Antwerp, Our Lady of Support was called on for assistance in maritime emergencies. Consider the left stained glass window (by Henri Dobbelaere, 1866), where Mary represents the ‘Support’ that the castaways of a full-rigged ship in a storm are hoping for. Note how terrified the small figures behind the railing of the three-master ship look; one extends his arms and calls out to Mary in heaven. To the left, the lighthouse announces that the end of this ordeal is near.

The ship in the stained glass window is flying the flag of the shipping company Cateaux-Wattel & Co, which laid the foundations for the first commercial relations between Antwerp and Australia. The company owners, the couple Jean François Cateaux and Julie Wattel (+ 1848), lived close by the church, in the street called Oever. Widower Cateaux, who commissioned the stained glass window in 1866, had managed to build a reputation as a prominent businessman, and had been appointed chairman of the Antwerp Chamber of Commerce several times. Dissolving his shipping company that same year, Cateaux intended this prayer to Mary primarily as an acknowledgment of past successes. As the hymn Ave Maris Stella (Hail Star of the Sea) invokes Mary as ‘gate of heaven’ and asks her to ‘prepare a safe way’, the successful ship-owner may have had his own death in mind, which would follow two years later.

The figure of Mary fulfils a second iconographical function. Mother Mary with Child, upper centre, typifies Love, while the angels, respectively with cross (to the left) and anchor (to the right) symbolize Faith and Hope: So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:13) As ‘greatest’ of the three, Love is given pride of place in the centre. Indeed, what could be more beautiful to travellers than these three theological virtues– and don’t all of us travel during this earthly life?

The (original) warm colours and theme fascinated Vincent van Gogh in 1886; he considered this ‘painted window’ to be ’superb’ and devoted half a page to it in his diary letters. The stained glass window survived the explosion at the Corvilain factory on 6 September 1889 as the only one of the windows on the church’s north side, because the Mary chapel was partly hidden behind the houses. But in 1945, at the impact of the V bombs on neighbouring Vrijdagmarkt, the window was largely shattered. While the restoration by Oscar Calders (1964) did retain the correct drawing, its pale colours bore no relation to the attraction that the original colours held for Van Gogh.

Heavenly Praise

The right stained glass window, St Andrew’s oldest neo-Gothic window (by Jan Frans Pluys, 1855), did not survive the 1889 devastation. At the occasion of his silver jubilee as warden of the Mary chapel three years later, Jules Meeus had a new stained glass window made by the studio Stalins-Janssens: Mediatrix (Mary the Mediator), flanked by saints Ferdinand and Julius, the patron saints of his father and himself. The chimneys of gin distilleries and sugar refineries owned by the Meeus family dominated the city, and this commissioner was eager to have this sight displayed in a cityscape of Antwerp with its port installations. Unfortunately, this precise scene can’t be seen in the stained glass panel anymore.

The wall covering in the chapel wardens’ bench (1756) contains a catalogue listing all those who ever had the pleasure to take a place in this bench, thereby illustrating how people kept  committing themselves  to good causes throughout generations, beginning with (painter) Lucas de Wael in 1642. The tradition continues until today.

The balustrade (1772), also in Rococo style, was designed by Engelbert Baets, the architect who designed the tower as well.

The memorial of chapel warden Jan de Briever, the statue Mater Dolorosa by Lodewijk Willemssens (1666), demonstrates how Mary, ‘blessed among women’, also suffered deeply. Yet not only a mother can suffer’, but so could a husband and a father, such as Jan de Briever.

The return of the family of Jesus to Nazareth
painting for the funeral monument of the de Wael sisters

Around 1649, the sisters Catharina and Barbara de Wael had a painting installed near their (future) grave in the church’s northern transept. The painting was a true reproduction of the altarpiece made by Peter Paul Rubens for the St Joseph chapel in the Jesuit church (the current church of St Charles Borromeo). This way, the unmarried sisters attested to their spiritual and active commitment to the Jesuits as ‘spiritual daughters’. Even the painting’s history bears a curious likeness to its original counterpart: as a result of consecutive restorations, the allegorical white dove of God’s Holy Spirit has ‘dissolved’ into the clouds, just as it did in Rubens’ painting!

The sisters’ grave was next to their parents’, painter and art dealer Jan de Wael and Geertruyt de Jode. These had already been immortalized in a painted funeral monument triptych, which is currently here, in its original place, on loan by the Cathedral of Our Lady. The triptych’s central panel, The Lamentation, was replaced by a painting with an identical theme; the triptych’s outer parts represent the patron saints. The parents’ portraits (ca. 1633) are excellent copies of the double portrait by Anthony van Dyck (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), here adapted to assume a posture of prayer. In fact, van Dyck was housed at the Genuese art gallery of the couple’s sons, Lucas and Cornelis, for quite some time. Incidentally, Lucas de Wael was noted as the first member in the catalogue of the Chapel of Our Lady, in 1642. This, then, almost amounts to a family reunion!

The Upper Door Part:
Our Lady of Support and Victory

Above the chapel’s former sacristy door there is a grisaille – more specifically, a relief in trompe-l’oeil (by Hendrik Goovaert, before 1720). Such an upper door part or dessus-de-porte was considered fashionable in the eighteenth century bourgeois salons . A putto with an hourglass on its forehead slashes a scythe above a tomb, where another putto is grieving, while a third seeks to comfort him by showing him an anchor, a sign of hope for eternal life. This real hope is announced by a fourth putto, who sounds the trumpet triumphantly. Hanging from this trumpet, a banner proudly displays a climbing lion. In the upper right corner, Mary appears with the child as a promise of eternal salvation.

The funeral monument for Parish Priest Petrus Visschers

Between the two stained glass windows there is the funeral monument of parish priest Petrus Visschers (+ 1861), including a Lamentation (anonymous, 17th century). In this funerary context, the pieta represents Jesus’s words on the cross: ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) – in other words: ‘mission accomplished’. These words allude to Jesus’s commitment up until the very end, and, at the same time, to the prospect of resurrection and eternal life with God. Thus, the pieta functions as a recognition of the fulfilment of the departed person’s life.


For unknown reasons, this confessional was attributed to Lodewijk Willemssens (1630-1702). Each of the three back panels contains a medallion with bas-relief. In the centre, the allegorical  dove of the Holy Spirit serves as an inspiration to repent. Emanating from God the Father (on the entablature), this allegorical dove reminds both confessors and confessants that, here, sins are being forgiven by Divine authority. This goal of reconciliation is depicted here by two angels seemingly kissing each other on the cheek. Repentant penitents serve as models to be emulated.

To the left, we note the distinctive, folksy figure of Peter, with recognisable physiognomy, the rooster crowing almost accusingly right in his face, and both keys to the kingdom of heaven. To the right, Mary Magdalene cries bitter tears. She is dressed in a hair shirt, a scourge and a thorn branch lying next to her. In the lower back panel, Jesus’s cross and her jar of ointment can be seen. The two life-size angels flanking the confessor’s cubicle are identified on their banderoles: to the left, Compunctio (Repentance), with his arms crossed across his chest, to the right, Paenitentia (Penitence), with Jesus’s cross and crown of thorns against her right forearm.