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2004 - Rubens, no stranger to the world

March 6 - September 12, 2004

Our Lady's Cathedral
Rubens, icon of Antwerp

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1621 > The Cathedral of Our Lady.

May 26, 1621. The chapter of the Cathedral of Our Lady asked P.P. Rubens to design a new main altar and today the contract with sculptors Robrecht and Jan de Nole is finally signed.

Rubens knows the cathedral well. Nine years ago he painted a triptych as an epitaph for Jan Moretus and Martina. It was commissioned by their son, his friend the printer and publisher Balthasar Moretus. Two years after that he painted his masterwork for the altar of the Arquebusiers: The Descent from the Cross. In recent years, no less than four influent families had called on him to design their epitaphs.

 Upon entering through the main portal, Rubens is immediately struck by the enormous dimensions of the building, as well as by the numerous altars that stand throughout the church. At each pillar there is a guild altar decorated with a painted altarpiece, sculptures and candlesticks, and surrounded by a wooden enclosure.

It took longer than expected for the cathedral to recover from the iconoclasms of 1566 and 1581. After all, the works are still in progress! The central aisle was only vaulted over in 1614, and shortly afterward the thirteen statues of the apostles were hung on the pillars. The statue of the Virgin on the first pillar on the right has only been there since last year.

On each side of the central aisle there are six altars, all of them in the renaissance style, even though the baroque is in full bloom. The first altar on the right is still under construction. The following altar, that of the Young Longbowmen, was erected in 1598 by the sculptors Robrecht and Jan de Nole after a design by Otto van Veen, Rubens’ master.

All the way to the right in the side aisle is the gothic pulpit from 1502. Rubens does not really care for the gothic. He also regretted the fact that a rood loft in the renaissance style was erected there in 1596, just after the iconoclasm. His main altar will not be highly visible. Nevertheless, it is a great honor to be able to carry out commissions for the largest gothic church in the Netherlands.

Today > The Cathedral of Our Lady

The Cathedral of Our Lady was completely emptied during                                            the French administration at the end of the 18th century. The masterpieces, like paintings by Rubens, Van Veen and other major masters, were taken to the Louvre in Paris by the French revolutionaries. Other works of art were chosen for the museum of the Antwerp Academy. This collection later formed the starting point for the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The rich assortment of furnishings – altars, rood screen, pulpit, confessionals, pillar statuary – vanished forever. Only the organ remained, for lack of a purchaser.

In 1802 the plundered cathedral was brought back into use. The church council acquired the most essential pieces of furniture from other churches. The pulpit and the splendid confessionals, for example, are from the St. Bernard’s Abbey in Hemiksem. During the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous new works of art were made in the dominant styles of the period: first neo-classicism and neo-baroque, and later neo-gothic. Compared with the situation before the French period, the cathedral now looks particularly bare.

In 1965 an ambitious restoration plan was set in motion. The nave was dealt with first, followed by the transept and the choir in 1986 and 1993, respectively. The restoration of the ambulatory and radiating chapels is still underway.

Theme > P.P. Rubens, icon of Antwerp

Rubens returned from Italy in 1608. Scarcely three years later the Antwerp public became acquainted with The Raising of the Cross in the St. Walburga Church. He was hailed the ‘Apelles of our time’. His reputation then was established, and in a few months time he would have to refuse  hundreds potential apprentices.

His works in the cathedral are representative of his entire oeuvre, from his first great Antwerp commission – the Raising of the Cross triptych – to one of his last designs –  the sculpted epitaph of Jan Gevaerts. Rubens received more than just prestigious official commissions from the chapter and the guilds; private patrons also sought him out for modest orders: his in-laws, Jan Brant and Clara de Moy, his friends Balthasar Moretus and Jan Gaspar, city almoner Alexander Goubau, the wealthy merchant Jan Michielsen.

Throughout the centuries, Rubens’ oeuvre has continued to excite. The return of his paintings from France after the fall of Napoleon was a real triumph: ‘Finally, after twenty years we will once again see the masterpieces that made Antwerp famous’. Rubens became a national symbol for the young Belgian state. In 1840, the 200th anniversary of his death was celebrated with great fanfare, which included the dedication of the statue in the Groenplaats. At the foot of the statue, which stands with its back to the cathedral, is the design for The Descent from the Cross, the panel that graces the great church behind him.

The fame of the Descent from the Cross extends across national boundaries. In Japan the triptych is known everywhere thanks to A dog of Flanders, the book published in 1872 by the English writer Ouida (the pseudonym of Marie-Louise de la Ramée). As required reading in English literature classes in Japan, the story has become immensely popular. The impoverished street urchin Nello survives in Antwerp with his dog Patrache by delivering milk from door to door. His ultimate dream is to follow in Rubens’ footsteps as a painter, but, poor as he is, he hasn’t a chance. On hristmas Eve his dream is partially fulfilled when he is finally able to admire Rubens’ Descent from the Cross in the cathedral. He hears Christ say to him: ‘Today you will be  with Me in paradise’, after which he freezes to death at the side of his faithful dog. More than a century later, this heart-breaking tale was incorporated into a Suske & Wiske cartoon, The Threatening Thingamajig, and adapted for various animation films. By this alone the fame of The Descent from the Cross has grown worldwide.

P.P. Rubens > The Raising of the Cross

When opened the work depicts the raising of the cross, which runs across all three panels. The viewer stands at the foot of Calvary and his or her the gaze is drawn toward the dying Christ by the diagonal composition.  We are forced to decide ourselves, in a manner of saying: either we stand on the side of the Roman commander on the right wing, or we stand on the side of Christ’s and friends on the left. When the wings are closed, saints Amandus and Walburga appear on the left, and saints Eligius and Catherine on the right: the four patron saints of the former St. Walburga Church, where the triptych was originally hung.

The council of the St. Walburga Church commissioned the

triptych for its main altar in 1609. The negotiations were handled by Cornelis van der Geest, who probably also contributed a considerable amount to the agreed-upon price of 2,600 guilders. For Rubens, this altarpiece was his first great public commission after his return from Italy. The triptych, which was quite well-received, was the first monumental Raising of the Cross in the Low Countries.

The present installation differs considerably from its original situation in the St. Walburga Church. The view of the interior by Anton Günther Gheringh from 1661 shows a niche with a representation of God the Father atop the wooden portico altar. A gilt pelican with its young, a favorite symbol of Christ, who gave his own life for the salvation of the world, is enthroned on the triangular pediment. The niche is flanked by two large angels in colorful robes. One of these angels is preserved in the Flint Institute of Art in Michigan. Below the triptych, Rubens had also added three small predellas: in the center, Christ on the Cross; on the left, Angels taking the Body of St. Catherine; and on the right, The Miracle of St. Walburga.

This arrangement came to an end in 1733, when the church council commissioned a new altar from Willem Ignatius Kerrickx.

The triptych was removed and transferred to Paris in 1794. After 1815 it was returned to Antwerp and was assigned to the Cathedral of Our Lady, where it forms a pendant to The Descent from the Cross.

P.P. Rubens > The Resurrection of Christ

Plantin Martina, daughter of the famous printer Christopher Plantin, commissioned Rubens to paint an epitaph in memory of her husband Jan Moretus, who died in 1610. The epitaph was erected in the ambulatory opposite the present-day chapel of Our Lady of Peace. Otmaer van Ommen provided the panel and the richly ornamented frame. Balthasar Moretus, son of the couple and friend of Rubens, paid Rubens the sum of 600 guilders in 1612.

The theme of the resurrection was already in 16th century popular as a subject for an epitaph painting. Christ’s victory over death offered the hopeful prospect of life after death. On the wings, the patron saints of the donors are represented, Martina on the right and St. John the Baptist on the left. When the altarpiece is closed, we see two angels ready to open the bronze doors of a Roman sarcophagus, and above the cornice is an oval portrait of Jan Moretus.

The figures of Christ, saint Martina and the two angels go back to sculptures from classical antiquity. Rubens borrowed the motif of the bronze doors from a funerary altar from the first century after Christ, which he had seen in Italy. There, two Victories stand ready to open the gates of Hades. Hades (called Pluto by the Romans) was according to Greek mythology the divine ruler of the underworld. With Rubens, however, the doors do not give access to the realm of Hades, but to the eternal life of Christ.

The central panel was removed from the church and taken to Paris in 1794, while the wings were entrusted to the Moretus family. The central panel came back to Antwerp in 1816. The reassembled components of the triptych were placed in a new epitaph altar in the chapel of Our Lady of Peace in 1820. The portrait of Jan Moretus, which was sold at auction in 1794, was replaced by a replica by Willem Herreyns.

The back of a chasuble belonging to the Venerable Chapel is decorated with a 17th-century medallion based on the central panel. The decorated strips with ‘the risen Christ very  artfully drawn with the needle after Rubens’ were acquired by the Venerable Chapel in 1721 so that they might use them in a new chasuble.

P.P. Rubens > The Descent from the Cross

For their altar in the main church, the armed guild of the Arquebusiers commissioned a triptych from Rubens. That their guild house bordered his property on the Wapper certainly has been a contributing factor as will the recently completed Raising of the Cross in St. Walburga Church. The signing of the contract between Rubens and the guild took place on September 7, in the presence of the dean of the guild, Nicolaas Rockox, burgomaster of Antwerp and renowned connoisseur. Rockox is in fact depicted on the right panel, just behind Simeon. On July 22, 1614, the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, the completed triptych was dedicated in solemn state. Nevertheless, Rubens would not receive the entire 2,400 guilders agreed upon until the end of 1621.

The Arquebusiers had in mind a representation of their patron saint, Christopher. At the synod of the bishopric of Antwerp in 1610, however, it was determined that only scenes from the life of Christ or the New Testament could be depicted on a central panel. The legend of St. Christopher was thus relegated to the exterior side of the wings.

As ‘Christophorus’ literally means ‘Christ-bearer’, three scenes were chosen in which Christ is being carried, first in the womb of his mother in The Visitation, later in the arms of the blind Simeon in The Presentation in the Temple and centrally in The Descent from the Cross. The second theme is light. According to legend Christopher was searching for the mightiest ruler in the world when a hermit acquainted him with God. The blind Simeon did not wish to die before having seen the Light of the World. In the central panel it is Christ, though dead, who illuminates the dark scene, an effect heightened by the white of the winding sheet.

Rubens also used elements from Italy in this triptych. The figure of Christopher was inspired by the Hercules Farnese and on the right panel the coffered ceiling of the temple recalls the basilica of Maxentius on the Forum Romanum in Rome.

During the French administration the painting was removed from the church and transferred to Paris, where it was one of the showpieces of the Louvre. In 1815 it returned to the Cathedral of Our Lady. It was assigned a permanent place in the fourth bay of the southern transept, a few meters away from the place where it was originally hung.

P.P. Rubens > The Assumption of the Virgin

The panel on the altar depicts Mary’s ascent into heaven. Below the women confirm that only the shroud, filled with roses, remains in the tomb, as is told in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea, a collection of stories about the saints by Jacobus de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa. To the left and right, the apostles look on with surprise as Mary, in the upper half of the painting, is transported to heaven by a multitude of angels. At that time, altar and painting formed a whole. Mary is awaited for by her son Jesus, who extends her a crown from a niche in the decoration crowning the altarpiece.

Rubens had presented two sketches for a new painting for the high altar to the chapter of the cathedral on April 22, 1611. The altarpiece was already nearing completion when the order was canceled due to the prolonged financial difficulties of the sponsor, Joannes del Rio. Years later, Rubens decided to give this work to the Jesuits for their new Lady Chapel.

At the request of the chapter, Rubens delivered two projects for a completely new high altar on February 16, 1618. Robrecht and Jan de Nole made a model based on these drawings, which only three years later resulted in a contract. The laying of the first stone by archduchess Isabella took place on May 2, 1624. At her request, the altar was expanded on each side by the addition of a third column.

Rubens painted the altarpiece in the years 1625-26. In homage to his wife, Isabella Brant, who died of the plague on June 20, 1626, he gave her facial features to one of the holy women around the tomb, central to the composition. It would take until 1632 before the main altar could be admired in all its glory.

Although the altar disappeared in 1798 at the auction of the church’s possessions by the French revolutionaries, we still have some idea of its original appearance thanks to an engraving by Adriaan Lommelin. The panel was removed from the church in 1794 and transported to Paris. It was back to the Cathedral of Our Lady in 1816. The present-day altar was built by Jan Blom in 1822-27 in a neo-classical style, and makes use of the red marble columns and white marble predella from the main altar of the St. Walburga Church, which had since been demolished.

P.P. Rubens designs > Epitaphs

Wealthy citizens had the right – at a price – to be buried in the church. Their tombstones were for the most part preserved, but the epitaphs have disappeared during the plundering of the churches under French administration. Until the end of the 18th century there were five such monumental epitaphs by Rubens distributed throughout the cathedral. The epitaph of the Plantin-Moretus family is certainly the most famous.

he epitaph of Hendrik de Moy and Clara van Gulich, grandparents of Isabella Brant, hung on a pillar near the Chapel of Our Lady. The couple had three daughters: Clara, Catharina and Maria. Clara de Moy married Jan Brant and Maria de Moy married Rubens’ brother Philip. Rubens’ in-laws asked him to design this epitaph around 1611. The black marble epitaph was adorned with life-size statues in white marble: a seated Madonna with Child flanked by saints Catherine and John the Evangelist. The whole disappeared during the French period.

Around 1618, Rubens painted an epitaph triptych for the merchant Jan Michielsen († 1617) and his wife Maria Maes († 1633). The epitaph stood near the fourth pillar of the first side aisle. The central panel depicted Christ on the Straw. The patron saints of the donors, a Madonna with Child and St. John the Evangelist, are depicted on the interior of the wings; on the exterior is Christus Salvator Mundi (= Christ, savior of the world) and a second Madonna with child. The triptych was taken from the church and transported to Paris in 1794. After 1815 it was returned to Antwerp and assigned to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. A copy of the central panel was made in 1830 for the epitaph of Arnold François de Pret and Marie Petronille Moretus, located under the south tower.

Rubens designs > More epitaphs

In the southern ambulatory, between the present-day St. Barbara and Missionary chapels, stood the epitaph of the Goubau family. The painting by Rubens depicted the kneeling donors, city almoner Alexander Goubau and his wife Anna Anthony, in adoration of the Madonna and Child. The painting was placed in a marble epitaph with the coats of arms of the couple above. The epitaph was removed from the church in 1794, transported to Paris, and is now in the                                              Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours.

The last work of art that Rubens made for the cathedral was the epitaph of Jan Gevaerts (1553-1613), doctor in law, historian, diplomat, and city secretary of Turnhout. This epitaph was located in the chapel of the shoemakers, the present-day St. Barbara Chapel. After the death of his wife, Jan Gevaerts became a priest and canon of the Cathedral of Our Lady. His son Jan Gaspar Gevartius commissioned the epitaph from his friend Rubens around 1637 and drafted its Latin inscription. The sculptures of Peace and Justice – two virtues that Jan Gevaerts practiced – flanked the text, and his bust was placed above in a niche. The epitaph disappeared during the French administration, but its appearance is preserved in an engraving by Adriaan Lommelin after a drawing by Erasmus II Quellin.