The Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp, a revelation.
The high altar
City architect Jan Blom constructed the impressive Neo-classicist high altar in 1822-1824. For this he could make use of the red veined pillars and the white marble predella coming from the late Baroque high altar of the demolished Saint Walburga’s Church from 1734-1737. The famous sculptor, Willem Ignatius Kerricx, was also one of the church wardens of this church.
The theme of the predella, The Raising of the Bronze Snake, had been chosen in harmony with the altar piece above: The Raising of Jesus’s Cross (by Rubens). In the desert the sinful Jewish people were punished with a plague of lethal poisonous serpents. With his staff Moses indicates the bronze snake that must be looked up at in order to stay alive (Num. 21:4-9): a prefiguration of Christ, raised on the cross, to whom entire mankind can look up to find salvation. Those who, as the priest did in former times, look at the victims in close up, will not remained unmoved: as if they were film stills, you can see deadly agony and despair expressed in marble. When observing the full scene one notices how stretched out arms and longing looks succeed in transforming the dry story into a bustling scene filled with panic. The severe look of Moses pointing out the direction is impressive: the deeply chiselled features create sharp shadows, which enforce his leading and calming role. The cathedral also possesses the two marble medallions, Saint Walburga and Saint Eligius, which decorated Kerricx’s altar in Saint Walburga’s Church (cp. The exterior wings of The Raising of the Cross).
The large canvas by Abraham Matthijssens (1633) on the reverse of the high altar shows the moment that precedes Mary’s Assumption on the front: Mary’s deathbed, surrounded by the apostles and the three legendary women who will lay her out.
On the Classicist frieze by Mathias van Bree (1823) underneath, three grisaille paintings show scenes from the life of Mother Mary before giving birth to Jesus: The Annunciation, Her Wedding with Joseph and Her Visit to Elizabeth. The extremely successful trompe l’oeil has offered the illusion of low-relief to many a visitor!
Underneath we can admire some of those wonderful examples of Flemish Baroque sculpture: three white marble reliefs coming from the coopers’ altar.