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2004 - Rubens, no stranger to the world

March 6 - September 12, 2004

Saint James's Church:
Rubens, family man

Table of content

1637 > The St. James’ Church

March 1, 1637. Rubens’ youngest child, Peter Paul, is going to be baptized today. The family has agreed to meet at the main entrance of their parish church, St. James’. The gothic church, the first stone of which was laid in 1491, is not finished. The vaulting of the central aisle and transept has only been in place for ten years, and that of the choir is still in progress. The completion of the ambulatory, however, has met with considerable delay. Of the nine radiating chapels planned, only three have been consecrated. When the parish organized a collection for the completion of the works of the ambulatory, Rubens gave only 12 guilders, by way of protest. For him, the gothic style is a bit barbaric and out of date. If he is going to open his purse, it is only because he lives in the parish.

The furnishing of the interior, by contrast, answers to the classical language of forms promoted by Rubens himself. The choir is closed off by a simple early baroque rood screen with a central passage, which is flanked by two altars. Most of the side chapels along the nave have baroque marble enclosures and brass balustrades. When Guillaume Pluymaeckers replaced the wooden enclosure of the Venerable Chapel with brass balustrades in 1621-23, Rubens was one of the subscribers, along with such personalities as burgomaster Van de Werve, Cornelis Lantschot and the painter Anthony van Dyck. The St. Anna Chapel is an exception, with its high wooden enclosure adorned with scrollwork, grotesques and three caryatids in the manner of Floris, the so-called Antwerp renaissance style of the mid-16th century.

The pillars of the central nave are to be adorned with statues of the apostles. The sculptor Andries Colijns de Nole is already busy with the first one, a St. Paul. Next year, it will be hung on the first pillar on the right. Guilds and corporations provide baroque altars for their chapels, and well-to-families decorate the pillars and walls with baroque epitaphs. In this way, the gothic church still manages to acquire a baroque aspect.

Today > The St. James’ Church

The St. James’ Church counts as one of the richest baroque churches in the Netherlands. In contrast to most of the other churches, the St. James’ Church was not plundered during the French period. J.B. Mortelmans, curate of Our Lady, swore an oath of loyalty to the French Republic. As a reward he was named pastor of St. James’. His  collaboration was not appreciated by his parishioners, but because of it the interior of the church was not violated.

Many visitors will nevertheless be surprised at how much the present-day interior differs from what Rubens would have seen. The Lady Chapel and the Venerable Chapel only reached their present extent in the years 1664-65. Most of the radiating chapels in the ambulatory also date from after Rubens’ death, including his own burial chapel.

The early baroque choir screen made way for a luxurious baroque exemplar by Sebastiaan de Neve in 1669, while the organ in the choir by J.B. Forceville was only installed in 1727. Of the twenty-three altars present in the St. James’ Church today, Rubens only knew two: the altar of the Three Kings, with a triptych by Hendrik van Balen (1606), and the altar of St. Hubert, with a triptych by Ambrosius Francken (1608). All the others date from the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. The oak choir stall by Octaaf Herry, Artus I Quellin and his nephew Artus II Quellin (1658-70), the baroque pulpit by Lodewijk Willemsens (1675), the monumental main altar by Artus II Quellin and Willem Kerrickx (1685), which depicts the glorification of St. James, and the many private monuments with masterpieces of baroque sculpture were not yet present in Rubens’ time.

The architect Blomme began restoration work on the church in the early 20th century. In 1963 the full-scale restoration began. It is still in progress today. Recently, a wall painting was revealed in the chapel of St. Job which depicts violin players, among other things. In the chapel of St. Roche, a monumental Last Judgment was discovered.

Theme > P.P. Rubens, family man

The story of Rubens’ family is closely interwoven with that of the St. James’ Church. Rubens’ parents, Jan Rubens and Maria Pijpelinckx, married there on November 29, 1538. As a boy of thirteen, Rubens attended there the marriage of his sister Blandina to Simeon du Parcq. However his first marriage, to Isabella Brant, took place in St. Michael’s Abbey on October 13, 1609. While searching for an appropriate living space with an atelier, the young couple stayed with Isabella’s father, Jan Brant, in the Kloosterstraat. Rubens’ two oldest children were thus baptized in the nearby St. Andrew’s Church. At the end of 1610, Rubens purchased a large house with a garden on the Wapper. The family would not be able to move in before 1616. Hence, Rubens’ third child, Nicolaas, was the first to be baptized, in the St. James’ Church.

Rubens liked to begin his day by attending mass. But whether he went to his parish church or to one of the numerous cloister churches in the area is not known. He had no time for the office of church warden. His name rarely appears in the church registers, nor was he a member of any of the chapels or brotherhoods. But the St. James’ Church served as the backdrop for many important events in his family life.

The second marriage of P.P. Rubens, to Helena Fourment, took place in this church on December 6, 1630. Their five hildren were all baptized here. Rubens did not hide the fact that he felt most at ease as a married man, surrounded by a beloved wife and children. Rubens’ last bit of happiness was the news that Helena Fourment was pregnant for the fifth time. His youngest child, Constantia Albertina, would only see daylight eight months after his death.

His two adult sons from his first marriage, Albert and Nicolaas, and his young widow, Helena Fourment, joined their efforts to build a final resting place worthy of the head of the family. The relationship between Rubens’ eldest sons and Helena Fourment, who was about the same age, proved to be excellent. Albert and Nicolaas married shortly after the death of their father. Rubens’ first grandchildren were born in 1641 and named after his two wives: the one Isabella Helena, the other Helena Francisca.

Until the middle of the 18th century, Rubens’ family would honor his memory in the burial chapel. In 1755 his great-grandson, Jan Baptist van Parijs, had the altarpiece and the gravestone embellished.

Rubens > His marriages and children

Rubens’ first marriage, to Isabella Brant, was blessed in the St. Michael’s Abbey on October 13, 1609. Rubens was greatly affected by her death in 1626. Four years later he found happiness again: at the age of fifty-three, he married the sixteen-year-old Helena Fourment. She was the daughter of his old friend and neighbor, the tapestry merchant Daniel Fourment. The marriage took place on December 6, 1630, in the St. James’ Church, not in the wedding chapel, which was only built in 1670, but in the church itself. Two days before the future husband and wife had appeared before the notary Toussein Guyot to seal the marriage contract. In it is specified how much money each party would bring to the marriage. Via the descendants of Rubens’ granddaughter Clara Petronilla, the document ended up in the cultural heritage centre ‘Gaasbeek Castle’, which had been property of a Rubens’ descendant. The document is permanently displayed there.

The five children from Rubens’ second marriage were all baptized in the present-day baptismal font. The marble basin with its impressive brass cover date from 1626. The baptistery is a marble-clad room covered with a cupola and located on the south of the tower. The furnishings, executed according to designs by the architect Jan Kaulman, date from 1804.

Peter Paul, his one but last child, became a priest. Rubens’ youngest child was only born eight months after his death. She later became a nun in the abbey of Ter Kameren.

P.P. Rubens (°28-05-1577 †30-05-1640)
Isabella Brant (°1591 †20-06-1626)
∞ 13-10-1609-1626

1 Clara Serena °21-03-1611, St.-Andrieskerk †1623

2 Albert °05-05-1614, St.-Andrieskerk †1657

3 Nicolaas °23-03-1618, St.-Jacobskerk †1655

P.P. Rubens (°28-05-1577 †30-05-1640)
Helena Fourment (°01-04-1614 †15/07/1673)
∞ 06-12-1630

4 Clara Johanna °18-01-1632, St.-Jacobskerk †1689

5 Frans °12-07-1633, St.-Jacobskerk †1678

6 Isabella Helena °03-05-1635, St.-Jacobskerk †1652

7 Peter Paul °01-03-1637, St.-Jacobskerk †1684

8 Constantia Albertina °03-02-1641, St.-Jacobskerk †1709

P.P. Rubens > His testament and funeral

Rubens died on Wednesday, May 30, 1640, three days after his last testament was drawn by the notary Toussein Guyot. Via the descendants of Rubens’ granddaughter Clara Petronilla, the document ended up in the archives of the cultural heritage center ‘Gaasbeek Castle’, which had been property of a Rubens’ descendant. Rubens made the following burial arrangements for himself and his second wife: ‘they have chosen to have their sepulchre in the parish church of St. James in this city, in the place there that best suits the survivor, leaving the execution thereof to the discretion of said survivor and the executors of this will and guardians of their minor children to be named below’.

According to the customs of the time, Rubens was buried on the evening of his death. His body was temporarily placed in the family crypt of his father-in-law Daniel Fourment, in the northern ambulatory. The bier, covered with a black velvet pall and surrounded by sixty torches, was set up above the tomb and decorated with the artist’s hatchment.

On Saturday, June 2, 1640, at 11 o’ clock, the funeral ceremony took place. Many people lined the way between the Wapper and the St. James’ Church. The bells tolled. Sixty orphans bearing torches walked before the bier, accompanied by members of the most prominent monastic orders: Augustinians, Dominicans, Jesuits, Capuchins, Carmelites, Minorites, Franciscans, and the begardes. Behind them followed representatives of the chapter of the cathedral and of the city magistracy. The funeral procession was led by Rubens’ two oldest children, Albert and Nicolaas, followed by family, friends, members of the Guild of St. Luke and fellow Romanists.

The choir and altars were draped in black velvet, and crosses in red satin. The requiem mass was sung by the choir of the Cathedral of Our Lady. The service was followed by a meal in honour of the deceased, which took place at his home and cost 273 guilders. The almoners of the city received 500 guilders with which to buy bread for the poor.

For six weeks, the catafalque remained over the tomb, lit six torches. Each day a chaplain performed a mass for the salvation of his soul. The family paid for a total of 800 masses, to be held in seven Antwerp cloisters, the parish of Elewijt (near his country house, Het Steen), and the cloister of the Augustinian nuns in Mechelen.

Five years later, in 1645, it was finally possible to transfer Rubens’ body to the crypt under the newly completed chapel. This time the transfer of his material remains took place discreetly, without pomp or circumstance.

P.P. Rubens > His burial chapel and altar

In 1636 the church council began collecting funds to defray costs for the completion of the choir and ambulatory, with its seven radiating chapels. Wealthy families were given the chance to pay for the construction of a chapel. Rubens, however, was not particularly interested in having a gothic chapel and did not take up the invitation. In 1640, just before his death, he finally agreed to be buried there. In order to show their respect for their deceased husband and father, Helena Fourment and Rubens’ sons from his first marriage chose the central chapel along the church’s axis, just behind the choir. At that moment only three chapels in the ambulatory had already been completed.

The contract for the construction of the chapel drawn up on March 14, 1642, offered master mason Antoon Maicx and stone mason Jacques des Enffans little freedom, given that the existing radiating chapels were to serve as a model.

Shortly after the chapel was finished in 1645, Cornelis van Mildert began building Rubens’ altar. The simple baroque portico altar in white, black and red marble was completed in 1650. Jan Baptist de Broechoven de Bergeyck, the second   husband of Helena Fourment, donated the altar-table .

According to Helena Fourment, Rubens had expressed the wish that his painting of the Madonna with Saints and the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows adorn the burial chapel. Due to the painting’s unusual format – almost square – this request was not simple. The altarpiece is flanked by two slender red marble columns. The unusually high ornamentation crowning the altar consists of a broken pediment and a niche that breaks through the cornice. The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows was probably sculpted by Lucas Faydherbe (1617-1697), who until shortly before Rubens’ death had worked in the master’s atelier. However, other arguments suggest that the work can be attributed to Hiëronymus Duquesnoy (1602-1654).

The altar-table was added in 1755 at the initiative of Rubens’ great-grandson Jan Baptist van Parijs. The white marble tomb in rococo style is the work of Hendrik Danco. The predella is decorated with a rocaille medallion with the arms of P.P. Rubens and a white marble plaque with the inscription:

Widow Helena Fourment and children have dedicated this chapel, this altar and this painting to the worship of the Mother of God And have had it erected In the memory of Rubens.

Above the altar hangs a 19th-century hatchment bearing Rubens’ arms and the date of his death.

P.P. Rubens > Madonna with Saints

A few days before his death, Rubens expressed the wish that this painting adorn his grave although it was not originally meant for this purpose. Nothing is known concerning the patron of this very late work, nor why it was never delivered.

Nothing in the scene depicted relates to burial or mourning. The composition is based on the iconographical type of the ‘sacra conversatione’ – the Madonna conversing with other saints – an invention of the Italian renaissance. Mary, with the Child on her arm, is the most important figure in the composition, toward whom all the others turn. Mary shows the Child, whose face resemble that of Frans Rubens, the oldest son of Rubens and Helena Fourment, to the saints surrounding her. We recognize St. George, Mary Magdalene and St. Jerome, who points to the Bible and raises his right hand instructively. The kneeling man in bishop’s clothing and the figures behind him cannot be identified with any certainty. They probably have some connection to the original destination of the painting. The kneeling man may be the donor.

By emphasizing the role of Mary, an important point of conflict between Catholics and Protestants, the work connects with Counter-Reformation iconography. The presence of St. Jerome is significant in this respect: he was one of the most zealous defenders of the divinity of Mary’s motherhood and the virgin birth.

The painting was taken from the church by the French in 1794, but was given back to the city of Antwerp in 1801. It was exhibited in the Academy until 1815, when it was returned to the church. In 1803 Jean-Joseph Delin made a copy of  it for the Rubens Chapel.

P.P. Rubens > His tombstone

The white marble tombstone was added to the entrance of the burial chapel by Hendrik Danco in 1755 on the initiative of Jan Baptist van Parijs, the painter’s great-grandson, grandson of his daughter Clara Johanna. The chiselled Latin inscription was written by Gaspar Gevartius on the death of his friend P.P. Rubens, but the family did not use it right away. The inscription was only carved a century later, and reads as follows:

To the glory of our gracious and almighty God
Sir P.P. Rubens
son of Jan, alderman of this city
Lord of Steen
who excelled among the talented
by virtue of his knowledge of history and all the noble arts
and thereby acquired the name of
of his time as of all ages
and who secured a place in the hearts of kings
and princes
elevated to the rank of secretary to
the Privy Council
by Philip IV king of Spain and India
in the year 1639 sent
to Charles, king of Great Britain
and laid the foundations of the peace presently concluded
between the two princes
he died in the year of our lord 1640, 30 May
at the age of 64 years.
May he rest in peace

P.P. Rubens > The family in the burial chapel

Albert (1614-1657), the oldest son of P.P. Rubens and Isabella Brant, was likewise buried in the crypt, together with his wife Clara del Monte. Their elaborate epitaph hangs on the right wall of the chapel between two stained glass windows. The monument of black jasper, alabaster and red marble is by Cornelis van Mildert.

Clara Johanna (1632-1689) and Frans (1633-1678), children of P.P. Rubens and Helena Fourment, were also laid to rest in the crypt. It became a real family tomb. Clara lies together with her husband Filips van Parijs, their son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Frans is buried with his wife Suzanna Charles, their son Alexander Charles Rubens and his wife Catharina van Parijs. Both of their tombstones flank the tombstone of their father at the entrance to the chapel. They were added in 1755 on the initiative of canon Jan Baptist van Parijs, grandson of Clara Johanna.

Under the stained-glass windows hang the hatchments of the three children of Nicolaas Rubens: his two sons with their wives and his daughter. All five are likewise buried in their grandfather’s crypt.

P.P. Rubens Chapel > View of the crypt

Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, deceased family members were regularly laid to rest in the crypt. After an edict of Joseph II dated June 26, 1784, burials in churches were forbidden with few exceptions, and the tomb of Rubens remained closed. The first visitors to the tomb occurred in 1833. An official visit organized by the church council took place in October 1855 in the presence of various notables, the clergy and a few artists. Both panels offer a view of the crypt under the Rubens Chapel as it looked then.

When the crypt was opened, only one coffin appears to have been found intact. Although 42 coffins were placed there over the centuries, the remains of only 16 were left in 1855. The crypt was opened again on the 1974 restoration works. At that time too it was not possible to identify the remains of Rubens and Helena Fourment among the numerous intermingled skeletons. DNA-research might be able to offer a definitive answer.

P.P. Rubens Chapel >The Rubens chalice

The so-called Rubens chalice was given to the St. James’ church by the descendants of P.P. Rubens in 1757. According                 to the inscription on the base (‘ad usum fundationum sacelli rubeniani’), the chalice was to be used exclusively  for masses performed for the souls of deceased family members. The chalice was only used in the Rubens Chapel.

This gilt silver chalice consists of a high base with a double curve, a baluster stem with a vase-shaped knop between two slender rings, and a cylindrical bowl with a slightly flared lip. Its pure form is typical for chalices from the middle of the 18th century. There are three hallmarks on the base: a crowned hand, the mark of the city of Antwerp; a crowned number 57 for the year 1757; and an illegible maker’s mark.