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

Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation

No convent church without a choir

A proper high altar

The high altar, engraving after a drawing by Peter II Verbruggen, ca. 1670 © Museum Plantin-Moretus/Prentenkabinet Antwerpen

History

‘“Saint Dominic’s vision” by Rubens, ca. 1618-’20.

The eye catcher of the entire church, but originally only of the choir, is the triumphant high altar (1670), which closes off the apse like a gigantic screen.

On the former high altar “Saint Dominic’s vision” by Rubens figured, which can be dated stylistically ca. 1618-1620. Dominic is said to have had a vision in which he saw himself and his friend Francis of Assisi protect the sinful world against the wrath of Jesus. In line with the three worst sins man can be tempted by – pride, lust and greed – Jesus shoots as many lightnings. Upon this Mary tries to calm Him down. She proposes two loyal servants to Him, who can convert the world: Saint Dominic and Saint Francis. By this altarpiece the attention of the Dominicans in the choir stalls was permanently drawn to their mission: to follow the footsteps of the founder of their order by mediating the Saviour’s divine mercy for humanity.

The marble portico altar

St. Paul’s – the marble portico altar

The Dominican and former prior Marius Ambrosius Capello, bishop of Antwerp, wanted to bequeath to his convent an unforgettable present: the marble portico altar, up high in the sanctuary. The then prime cost of 80,000 guilders is the equivalent of no less than 3.8 million Euros today. The colossus, designed by Ambrosius’ private  chaplain Frans Van Sterbeeck, was executed by father and son Peter Verbruggen, and consecrated by the Maecenas-bishop in 1670.

Gigantic marble pillars, with a diameter of about 63.5 cm (= 2 ft) and a weight of about 4,500 kg carry an immense broken fronton with two curling shells.

In the central niche Paul, the apostle, is honoured with his title ‘doctor gentium’, the teacher of the gentiles. With a sword and a book in his hand he shows that he is prepared to die a martyr for the preaching of the word of God: Jesus’ gospel. The two open books by his side may refer to the books of the Old Testament, which he no longer regards as God’s final word, but only as a prelude to the New Testament. With an almost imploring gesture he looks at his audience sternly. Above the niche four small angels come flying in to offer him the attributes of divine reward for martyrdom: a laurel wreath and a palm.

The Dominican and former prior Marius Ambrosius Capello, bishop of Antwerp, wanted to bequeath to his convent an unforgettable present: the marble portico altar, up high in the sanctuary. The then prime cost of 80,000 guilders is the equivalent of no less than 3.8 million Euros today. The colossus, designed by Ambrosius’ private  chaplain Frans Van Sterbeeck, was executed by father and son Peter Verbruggen, and consecrated by the Maecenas-bishop in 1670.

Gigantic marble pillars, with a diameter of about 63.5 cm (= 2 ft) and a weight of about 4,500 kg carry an immense broken fronton with two curling shells.

In the central niche Paul, the apostle, is honoured with his title ‘doctor gentium’, the teacher of the gentiles. With a sword and a book in his hand he shows that he is prepared to die a martyr for the preaching of the word of God: Jesus’ gospel. The two open books by his side may refer to the books of the Old Testament, which he no longer regards as God’s final word, but only as a prelude to the New Testament. With an almost imploring gesture he looks at his audience sternly. Above the niche four small angels come flying in to offer him the attributes of divine reward for martyrdom: a laurel wreath and a palm.

The white marble busts of the four Western Church Fathers enliven the black marble altar base, because they are symbolic of the theological brainwork that wants to connect faith with reason. From left to right: Jerome, the penitent, with the trumpet of the Last Judgment; Ambrose of Milan with the beehive of (honey-sweet) eloquence; in the centre pope Gregory with the allegoric dove of the Holy Spirit, which inspires at teaching; Augustine with the flaming heart. They share ‘the honour of the altars’ with Saint Thomas Aquinas, the famous Dominican theologian and ‘Doctor of the Church’ since 1567, on the extreme right.

The commissioner could not resist immortalizing himself in this monument, although in a relatively modest way. There are also a few biographical references of his, referring to his religious development: as a baptized Christian, as a religious with three vows, as an enthroned bishop.

Marius looks in through the bars of the prison

Nearly invisible details on Gregory’s cope allude to Capello’s baptismal name, because two tableaus in ‘embroidery’ refer to Saint Marius, a Persian who came to Rome in the third or fourth century. Just like the honourable Quirinus he was concerned about the Christian prisoners. Marius looks into the prison through the barred window (scene on the left). Afterwards Marius sought contact with Christians, attracted by their singing of psalms. Out of fear for the police they open the door for him only hesitatingly (scene on the right). The same ‘embroidered medallion’ is to be seen on the cope the white marble bishop Capello is wearing on his tomb in Our Lady’s Cathedral (Artus II Quellinus, after 1676).

For fear of the police, the Christians only cautiously open the door for Marius

Because Capello received the name Ambrosius as a monastic name when entering the order, after the Dominican beatified Ambrosius Sansedonius, Ambrose of Milan was also his patron saint. This was a rewarding occasion to eternalize Capello’s portrait as the Church Father’s face.

Between the statue of Saint Paul and the altar painting bishop Capello’s coat of arms is prominently present.

Stimulated by the example of the Jesuits nearby (the present Charles Borromeo’s Church), the Dominicans also provided their Baroque portico altar with a system that allowed them to change altarpieces, albeit with only two paintings. These were put at both sides of a long vertical axle, with their backs against each other. Besides the Rubens mentioned The Martyrdom of St Paul by Theodoor Boeyermans (ca. 1670) could be admired. In 1794 both paintings were requisitioned by the French occupiers and transferred to Paris. In 1811 Napoleon gave them to regional museums. After the Battle of Waterloo this was a nice alibi for the French not to consider them as part of the collection of paintings the Louvre had to repatriate. This explains why Rubens’ Saint Dominic is now the eye-catcher of the Lyon Musée des Beaux Arts, and Boeyermans’ Saint Paul is in Aix-en-Provence, now in Ste Marie Madeleine Church.

In substitution for these masterpieces Cornelis Cels painted The descent from the cross, which is however quite academically cool, in 1807. Could the mechanism to change paintings be reinstalled  to include a second painting, a more contemporary creation? But then this new painting will also have to measure 5.55m x 3.72m (= 18ft 2½in x 12ft 2½in)!

The martyrdom of Saint Paul, Theodore Boeyermans, ca. 1670

Around 1670for the second painting, The martyrdom of Saint Paul, Theodoor Boeyermans was completely inspired by Rubens, who had treated this theme for the Rood Klooster near Brussels. Paul is partly kneeling  on a hill, his eyes upward to Heaven, awaiting the fatal gash that will make his head roll. At Paul’s request Plautilla is coming to blindfold him, following the Legenda Aurea by Dominican De Voragine. The lookers-on on the hill flank, soldiers and Christians, help to constitute the diagonal (upward) axle leading to the spot of the execution. Angels already bring the laurel wreath and the palm of Paul’s Heavenly victory.

St Paul’s – stained glass windows high choir

The white marble antependium (Jan Baptist de Cuyper, 1845) contains an extraordinary representation of Eucharistic Christ: Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist.

In the 17th century stained-glass artist Abraham Van Diepenbeeck got the commission to represent the story of patron saint Paul in the ten windows at either sides of the choir.

The four stained-glass windows we can now see behind the high altar (H. Leenen, 1967) are a reminder of saints that were popular in the former parish church, Saint Walpurgis: Saint Eloy, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Amandus and Saint Walpugis.

The scientific justification of the data concerning the sanctuary of the Antwerp Saint Paul’s church can be foundHERE.
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