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2004 - Rubens, no stranger to the world

March 6 - September 12, 2004

Saint Charles Borromeo's Church
Rubens, project manager

Table of content

1630 > The Jesuit church

April 1630. P.P. Rubens has just returned from London, where he started decorating the ceiling of Banqueting House, the feasting room of the palace of Whitehall. And then to think that all this was thanks to the ceiling paintings that he had designed ten years earlier for this Jesuit church. It was Sir George Chaworth, emissary of James I, who expressed great admiration for the series and had secured the London commission.

Rubens still remembers the laying of the first stone of the church on April 15, 1615. In the renewed Catholic revival of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits had conceived a plan for building a whole complex in Antwerp, with a modern church in the baroque style as its crown jewel, a first in Antwerp and entirely to Rubens’ taste. The plans for the three-aisled basilica church were drawn up by the Jesuit architects Pieter Huyssens and Francis de Aguilon, his good friend. He was also present at the solemn consecration of the church on September 12, 1621.

Now that he was in Antwerp, he could not resist visiting the church with the largest number of his paintings, forty-three, to be exact. Upon entering he is reminded of a heavenly banqueting hall: the central aisle is covered by a wooden barrel vault with gilt coffering supported by marble columns. He was not surprised that everyone thought of it as a ‘marble temple’.

All of his attention is drawn to the main altar, which he had designed and for which he had also painted two altarpieces. Today it contains his Miracles of St. Ignatius. In contrast to main altar of the Cathedral of Our Lady, this altar can be seen entirely. Because of their active apostleship outside the church, the Jesuits have no need for an enclosed choir with choir stalls.

The oak pulpit has been here since 1627. Anna and Elisabeth Haecx, two ‘spiritual daughters’, paid 3,000 guilders for it. Ten years ago, he had received the same amount for the two altarpieces for the main altar. In the side aisles are eight confessionals. The rest of the wall is decorated with large canvas paintings depicting scenes from the lives of the order’s founders. Nonetheless it is the ceiling paintings that he likes to look at most of all.

Today > The St. Carolus Borromeus Church

July 18, 1718. A large part of the church was destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning. Only the facade, the tower, the apse with the main altar and both side chapels were spared. But nothing remained of the nave and its costly marble columns. Worst of all was the loss of the thirty-nine ceiling paintings by Rubens.

Restoration was undertaken immediately, under the direction of Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit. He preserved the original plan of the church but used simple materials like sand- and bluestone in place of marble. The coffered ceiling was replaced by a wooden barrel vault with wooden transverse arches. The ceilings of the side aisles and tribunes were decorated with classicizing stucco-work instead of Rubens’ luxurious canvases.

The furniture was also entirely renewed. In this Jan Pieter I Van Baurscheit was assisted by Michiel van der Voort: a pulpit with the theme The Glorification of the Virgin; confessionals with angels and symbols of penitence; paneling with large oval medallions depicting the lives of the order’s founders, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis-Xavier; a processional entrance with representations of the three cardinal Christian virtues: Faith, Hope and Love; a choir loft; an organ. On November 19, 1719, only fifteen months after the disaster, the church was reopened.

On September 20, 1773, the Jesuit order was abolished by pope Clement XIV. All Jesuit possessions throughout the world were declared forfeit and sold, also in Antwerp. The  paintings by Rubens and other masters were claimed by Maria-Theresia for the imperial court in Vienna. They are now the master pieces in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. In 1803, the church became an independent parish church under the patronage of St. Carolus Borromeus. Despite the loss of much of its artistic decoration, this worship is still considered a textbook example of baroque ecclesiastical art in the Low Countries.

Theme > P.P. Rubens, project manager

No church in Antwerp is more closely associated with P.P. Rubens than the St. Carolus Borromeus Church. He had already been in touch with the Jesuits and had already received several commissions for Jesuit churches in Italy. Once back in Antwerp, Rubens joined the Sodality of Latinists, where he became friends with a number of priests and scholars. The Sodalities were associations of male lay-people founded by the Jesuits to reinforce the faith of men in all walks of life. Rubens gave form to his involvement by painting an Annunciation for the lower chapel of the Sodality building directly opposite the church. At that time the Antwerp Jesuits nurtured ambitious plans for their church in what was then the modern style. For Rubens this was an extraordinary chance to devote his talent and experience to the ideas of the Counter-Reformation. From the very beginning he was closely involved with the design of the church, particularly where the tower and facade were concerned. His contribution is most noticeable in the sculpted decoration of the facade and interior, with designs for the main altar, the stucco decorations in the apse, and the altar and ceiling decorations of the Lady Chapel.

Rubens would turn out to be a real project manager, because the Antwerp Jesuits wanted to involve all of the available space in their brand new church for proclaiming the faith. According to the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, a work of art had to address all of the viewer’s senses so that he or she would be completely absorbed in the scene depicted. As a consummate master of baroque theatricality, Rubens was just the right man for translating this vision into canvas and panel.

The building was still under construction when Rubens signed contracts for two altarpieces for the main altar (1617-18), a Return from Egypt for the altar of the St. Joseph’s Chapel (ca 1620) and an Assumption of the Virgin for the Lady Chapel (ca 1625). His own consecration occurred in 1620 with the contract for the thirty-nine ceiling paintings needed to decorate the side aisles and tribunes, the largest religious commission he would ever receive.

From 1608 until his death in 1640, Rubens would deliver a considerable number of religious paintings to Antwerp churches and cloisters: to the Cathedral of Our Lady, the St. James’ Church, the St. Willibrord’s Church, and the cloisters of the Augustinians, Dominicans, Jesuits, Capuchins, Minorites, Shod Carmelites, and Norbertines. More than anyone else, he can thus be considered the artistic promoter of the Counter-Reformation in Antwerp.

P.P. Rubens designs > The main altar

The first thing one notices on entering the church is the main altar. The portico altar consists of white, black and red marble. Two angels under the cornice hold up a monogram of Mary. In the niche sits a crowned Madonna with the infant Jesus on her knees. Above the niche hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit.

  1. P. Rubens himself designed the marble altar even before the church was finished. There are various designs by his hand, all dating to around 1620: a sketch for one of the on the cornice (Kupferstichkabinet, Berlin) and an oil sketch for the altar crowning with the statue of the Madonna (Rubenshuis, Antwerp). We do not know exactly which sculptor carried out Rubens’ designs, but it was most likely Hans van Mildert.

Rubens was also asked to paint the altarpieces for the main altar. To present the ideas of the Counter-Reformation with more clarity, the Jesuit decided to commission not one but four altarpieces, and to show them in alternance according to the liturgical calendar. Rubens received 3,000 guilders for two paintings: The Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola and The Miracles of St. Francis-Xavier. When the paintings were ordered, the two founders of the Jesuit order had not yet been canonized. They were therefore depicted as miracle-workers, a sign of their holiness.

Rubens made two oil sketches in preparation for the two altarpieces. These sketches are nearly a meter in height and until the 18th century hung on both sides of the choir throughout the year.

Later, Gerard Seghers was called on to paint The Raising of the Cross (1624), and Cornelis Schut for The Coronation of the Virgin (ca 1640). These two canvases are still in place. The two masterpieces by Rubens, along with the two sketches, were purchased for the imperial collection in Vienna by the empress Maria-Theresia when the Jesuit order was abolished in 1773.

Copy after P.P. Rubens > The Assumption of Mary

This altarpiece depicts the Assumption of the Virgin. On the left, several apostles roll away the stone before the tomb. Four women determine that there is nothing left but her shroud, which according to the Golden Legend of the middle ages was filled with roses. On the right, the remaining apostles look on with surprise as Mary is carried to heaven by a multitude of angels. Altar and painting form a unified whole. In the decorations of the crowning Mary is awaited in heaven by God the Father, who, in the past, handed her a golden crown.

The Lady Chapel was built between 1622 and 1625. Shortly afterward the construction was begun of an altar in black jasper and white marble, probably by the atelier of Colyns de Nole and possibly after a design by Rubens. In 1627 the work was completed. Rubens was called on to paint the altarpiece. This painting is probably related to the 1620 contract for the thirty-nine ceiling paintings. In it, Rubens given a choice: he could either leave all of the oil sketches for the ceiling paintings with the Jesuits, or he could deliver another finished painting for one of the side altars. Rubens apparently opted for the latter.

Stylistically, The Assumption cannot be situated in Rubens’ work from the years 1625-27. Everything indicates that this work had already existed for quite some time before it reached its destination. Rubens had painted a similar subject years before for the Antwerp cathedral. The sketches had already been presented to the cathedral chapter on April 22, 1611. Because of prolonged financial difficulties, however, the commission was canceled. This may have prompted Rubens to give the work to the Jesuits for their new Lady Chapel.

In 1776, the altarpiece was purchased for 14,000 guilders on behalf of empress Maria-Theresia and transported to Vienna. In the beginning of the 19th century it was replaced by The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Jean Joseph Delin, but at the request of the parishioners the original was copied in 1925 by Adolphe Hoffmann, so that the altar was once again complete.

P.P. Rubens designs > The ceiling decorations of the Lady Chapel

The Lady Chapel was built as a burial chapel for the family Houtappel-Boot. Construction of the chapel was begun in November 1622. It would take until 1635 before a contract was signed for the decoration of the interior with Andries and Robrecht Colyns de Nole.

The barrel vault of the chapel’s ceiling is entirely decorated with Marian symbols in gilt stone relief. That Rubens designed it is firmly established. The preparatory drawing for it is still preserved in the Albertina in Vienna. It is clear from this drawing that Rubens made use of a ruler and compass to divide the sheet into equal parts. The sculptor has followed the drawing faithfully, but the angels are rather heavy in comparison to the refined drawing.

The ceiling is divided into various fields and spandrels, each of which contains a symbol of Mary surrounded by playful cherubs and garlands of fruit. In the centre the monogram of Mary shines forth from a radiant sun, flanked by the moon and a star. According to the highly popular Litany of Loreto, Mary is ‘radiant as the sun’, ‘beautiful as the moon’ and ‘Star of the Sea’. Just above the communion rail is the Ark of the Covenant, in which the tablets of the law were kept: Mary is considered to be the bearer of the New Covenant, Jesus. On the opposite side a Jewish sacrificial altar can be seen, flanked by two trumpeting angels. In the four spandrels between the frames, cherubs hold four more Marian symbols: a lily branch, a crown of roses, a costly vase and a spotless mirror.

In 1923, and again during the most recent restoration in 1982-83, a new layer of gold leaf was applied to the reliefs.

Copy after P.P. Rubens > The Return of the Holy Family

The small chapel at the end of the southern side aisle is dedicated to St. Joseph. The small marble portico altar was donated by Nicolaas Rockox shortly after the consecration of the church. The sculptor was probably Andries Colyns de Nole (1598-1638), who was responsible for the carved parts of the altarpiece. It was evident that for the painting Rockox would call upon his friend P.P. Rubens, from whom he had already commissioned more than one work.

The Return from Egypt was chosen as the subject because it is one of the few scenes in which St. Joseph comes to the foreground. It takes place after their exile in Egypt. The danger had passed and the family could return to Nazareth. Jesus is already a couple of years old and walks between his mother and his foster father, Joseph. The symbolic dove representing the Holy Spirit hovers over the child and God the Father appears above with a globe in his hand. In this way the dual nature of Jesus is represented: as the son of God in the Holy Trinity on the vertical axis, and as human child in the earthly trinity of Mary, Joseph and Child on the horizontal axis.

In 1777, when the Jesuit order was abolished, the painting was sold for 1,350 guilders. After a number of peregrinations it ended up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1872. In the meantime, a copy by Marc-Antonio Garibaldo (1620-1678), which differs somewhat from the original, was placed on the altar.

In 2017, after 220 years of absence, this work is coming back “home”.


P.P. Rubens, entrepreneur > The 39 ceiling paintings

The Jesuits also wanted to use the ceilings of the aisles and galleries for the proclamation of their faith. For Rubens this was an extraordinary chance to produce a unique series of thirty-nine ceiling paintings.

The agreement was concluded on March 29, 1620. Rubens had to make the designs himself, but he could have them executed by his atelier. According to the time spirit, the idea was more important than the fact that it was painted by the master’s own hand. Anthony van Dyck was mentioned as the most important assistant in the execution of Rubens’ designs. Everything was to be completed before the consecration of the church a year and a half later. Rubens received 7,000 guilders for the entire commission.

The solemn dedication of the church by bishop Johannes Malderus on September 12, 1621, was a joyous triumph for the patrons and artists, designer and executors.

Here, influenced by Rubens, the Jesuits opted not for Roman cupola or vault paintings, but for the Venetian style of painted canvases placed flat against the ceiling. Rubens’ admiration for Tintoretto and Veronese clearly had an impact here. The ingenious use of ‘di sotto in sù’ perspective (low-angle view) gives the viewer the impression of actually being present at scenes that are taking place above his or her head at that moment, as if in a vision.

Less than one hundred years after the dedication of the series of ceiling paintings, the church went up in flames. Fortunately there are many documents that can give us an idea of their richness and variety. Two preparatory drawings and seventeen preliminary studies in grisaille have been preserved and are now in art collections throughout the world. Twenty-two of the final oil sketches presented to the Jesuits for approval still remain. The entire series Is also known through numerous copies and descriptions.

Rubens’ ceiling paintings (1620-21) > The tribunes

The two long series of bays in the upper tribunes were used as a linear progression of the history of Christian salvation. Scenes from the Old and New Testament alternated with each other, beginning in front, on the left, with The Fall of the Rebel Angels and ending at the rear of the church, on the right, with The Coronation of the Virgin.

It was a medieval habit to use scenes from the Old Testament as prefigurations of events from the life of Christ. The progressive Jesuits chose this rather outdated typological approach for its didactic value, because the upper galleries were used for the Sunday schools they organized for the poor children of the city.

The fall of the rebel angels, the beginning of the catastrophe, is compensated by the birth of Christ. As the queen of Sheba greeted Solomon, so the three kings worship the Christ-child. David’s battle is a prefiguration of Christ’s temptation by Lucifer. The meeting of Abraham with the priest-king Melchizedek, who offers him bread, is a favourite prefiguration of the eucharist. The last subject, Moses in Prayer between Aaron and Hur, is only comparable to The Coronation of the Virgin on the opposite side in terms of composition.

In the tribunes, canvases of approximately 300 x 240 cm alternated between rectangular and octagonal format.

Northern tribune (beginning in front)

1 The Fall of the Rebel Angels

2 The Birth of Christ, with the Adoration of the Shepherds

3 Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

4 The Adoration of the Magi

5 David and Goliath

6 the temptation of Christ

7 Abraham nd Melchizedek

8 The Last Supper

9 Moses in Prayer between Aaron and Hur


The fact that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son was seen as a prefiguration of the death on the cross of God’s only son, Christ. Just as Joseph was freed from an Egyptian prison, so Christ arose from the dead. Christ taken up into heaven is compared with Elias, who ascended into heaven in his chariot of fire. In terms of composition, the last subject, The Coronation of the Virgin, is comparable to Moses in Prayer between Aaron and Hur on the opposite side.

Southern tribune (beginning in front)

10 The Raising of the Cross

11 The Sacrifice of Abraham

12 The Resurrection of Christ

13 The Triumph of Joseph in Egypt

14 The Ascension of Christ

15 The Translation of Elias

16 The Assumption of the Virgin

17 Esther and Ashuerus

18 The Coronation of the Virgin

P.P. Rubens’ ceiling paintings (1620-21) > Side aisles

The ceilings of the side aisles were reserved for the saints, because as people of flesh and blood they were nearer to the world of human beings. The monograms of Mary and that of Christ, IHS, indicate the entrances to the Lady Chapel and the St. Ignatius Chapel, respectively. In honour of the archdukes Albrecht and Isabella-Clara-Eugenia, their patron saints Albert, Clara and Elizabeth were represented at the entrance, under the choir loft. St. Eugenia is found in the southern series. The four Greek fathers of the church on the north side and the four Latin fathers on the south side stand for the universal church before separation from the Orthodox and the Protestants. To maintain equilibrium, they alternate with eight female saints from the first centuries of Christianity. On the lower-level canvases of approximately 300 x 240 cm alternated between rectangular and octagonal format.

Northern side aisle (beginning in front)

19 St. Athanasius struggling against Arius

20 St. Anna with Mary

21 St. Basil

22 St. Mary Magdalene

23 The Name of Jesus

24 St. Cecilia

25 St. Gregory of Nazianze striking the Devil

26 St. Catherine

27 St. John Chrysostome

the choir loft (from left to right)

St. Claire of Assisi

St. Albert the Great

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Southern side aisle (beginning in front)

28 St. Jerome

29 The Martyrdom of St. Lucy

30 St. Augustine

31 The Flight of St. Barbara

32 The Name of Mary

33 St. Margaret

34 St. Ambrose

35 St. Eugenia

36 St. Gregory the Great in Adoration of the Virgin

P.P. Rubens > Designer-architect

Rubens’ actual share in the creation of the Jesuit church is difficult to determine. Whether or not the tower and the facade can be completely attributed to him is not certain. However, number of drawings offer proof that he at least made an important contribution to the sculptural decoration both inside and outside.

The design for the most important element on the facade – the cartouche with the monogram of Christ, IHS, surrounded by numerous cherubs – is now to be found in the British Museum in London. For the trumpet-blowing angels in the spandrels above the portal there are two drawings (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York). Although no other drawings are known, it is possible that other decorative elements were also designed by Rubens.

In the church archives there are also a few other drawings that are attributed to P.P. Rubens, including one for the shield in the vault of the apse, the ceiling of the central aisle, and the panelling and door of the sacristy.