Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation
Our Lady’s Chapel
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary
The devotional statue of Mary and the pillar throne
(Willem I Kerricx, 1688)
The polychrome wooden statue of the Virgin Mary was made in Malines in the second half of the 16th century. It can no longer be retrieved whether this statue was venerated already before the Iconoclast Fury or only after the Dominicans had returned in 1585. Enveloped in a magnificent cloak the statue of the Virgin Mary is carried in a procession every year on the first Sunday of October, the one closest to 7th October, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. On this occasion also the river Scheldt is blessed, because as the traditional saying goes:
“Antwerp has the river Scheldt to thank for everything
And the river Scheldt has God to thank for Antwerp”.
After the 1679 fire the statue was given a worthy framing. Willem I Kerricx made a white marble pillar throne in late Baroque style, against the northern main pillar and signed and dated it (1688).
Angels of different sizes respectfully flock around the Virgin’s statue. The console carrying the statue has the traditional form of a globe, on which only the tracings of meridians and circles of latitude can be seen. After all, thanks to Mary Jesus is the saviour of all human beings, wherever on Earth they may be. Mother and Child have been given a kind of halo in the form of a large wreath of eighty-six gilded roses.
To stimulate confidence in the Rosary Prayer the two bas reliefs that flank the devotional statue bear witness of a miraculous event, which father Peter Vloers, prefect of the Brotherhood of the Rosary, mentions in the devotional booklet Wonderbaere Mirakelen vanden H. Roosen-Crans [Marvellous Miracles of the Holy Rosary] (1658). The umpteenth version of the popular medieval Theophilus or devil’s legend has been adapted to an Antwerp lady and the Antwerp Dominicans as her mediators. An old lady would do anything to be young and attractive again and (in the left medallion) is prepared to sell her soul to the devil for this. In exchange for this favour of extra earthly lust she will have to keep the devil company in hell for ever after her death.
The first scene, on the left, has been set in a wealthy middle class interior. The elegant, Christian woman is seated at a desk, behind which there is a fashionable gentleman, who can be recognized as the devil by the horns that stick out through his Louis XIV allonge wig. The lady hands over the bond she has just signed to the grinning and self-satisfied gent.
A second devilish character, in the shape of a lion with a writhing snakelike tail, in the doorway triumphantly menaces the woman with its rising claw, while with its tongue it eagerly licks its lips when looking at its prey. Such a sinister event cannot bear broad daylight: hence two nocturnal animals, symbolizing everything that shuns the light of day: an owl and a bat. The caption says
“Sy gheeft haer handt-schrift hier [Here she gives her manuscript]
aen ‘t helsche monster-dier”. [to the hellish monstrous animal]
In the right medallion, thanks to praying the rosary, the woman is given back her devilish contract in a church that is meant to represent Saint Paul’s, where this scene took place ‘historically’ in 1578. Out of remorse the woman has just made her confession, not knowing she has just confided in the devil. The true identity of the Dominican confessor can be seen from his horns, pointed devil’s ears and the devil’s tail. Weeping and drying her tears with a handkerchief, the lady tells her unfortunate story to a real Dominican, prior Henricus Van de Putte. He advises her to pray the rosary. The woman converts and becomes a member of the Brotherhood of the Rosary. When the prior wants to enforce her devotion by celebrating mass at Our Lady’s altar, the miraculous salvation takes place during the Consecration of the host. From Heaven a putto comes flying in who has succeeded in taking the contract concerned from the jaws of the flying devilish monster. The caption says:
“Den Roosen-Crans dwongh duyvels kracht [The Rosary forced devilish power]
Dat hy haer handt-schrift wederbracht.” [to return her manuscript]
By the gradual transition from the architectural background in sunken relief, to the personages in half-relief in front Kerricx has created a true three-dimensional space. The quality of the sculpting is highly due to the refined forms. By their elegant poses and gestures the figures obtain a natural character. Rarely has an artist been able to conjure such sophisticated details out of marble, rarely has a marble relief been so plastically narrative. Is the altar boy, who looks merely like a toddler, not cute? On the steps leading to the altar he is ringing the bells. He is exquisitely clothed and curls of hair come out from underneath the large slipping wig. Incredibly realistic is the way the lacework of the clothes has been rendered, the miniature Eucharistic tools and the rosary with small prayer beads in the woman’s hands. Even an inconspicuous detail as the wreath of true to nature roses on the cross on the chasuble contributes to the story. Between the two medallions the story is summarized:
“Soo wie wilt syn bevrydt van lyf- en ziels gevaeren,
die sal dit Mari-Beldt met groote eer bewaeren,
een vrouw die lyf-en ziel-den duyvel had’ verkocht,
haer hand’-schrift voor dit beldt wierd wederom gebrocht.”
[who wants to be freed of body and soul’s dangers]
[he will honour this Mary statue,]
[a woman who had sold body and soul to the devil]
[was given back her bond in front of this statue]
The terra cotta modelli of these two medallions are kept in Saint James’ Church.
The footrest round the pillar has been decorated with five little painted panels (anonymous, 18th century), which encourage to call upon Mary’s relief by praying the rosary. From left to right:
- In three emergencies Mary comes to help: for a man who is drowning, at an attempted murder and when a house is on fire.
- In the hour of his death a sinner is menaced by devilish temptations, symbolized by hellish animals: two dangerous dogs, a snake and a bat. A Dominican hands him the traditional funeral candle and advises the rosary, which makes the dying person convert. In this way the scene represents the second part of the Hail Mary: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.”
- Our Lady offers the rosary to Dominic. The silhouettes of the towers above the city match those of Our Lady’s Cathedral and of Saint James’ Church.
- Our Lady encourages the beseeching souls in purgatory.
- Our Lady protects a child from being possessed by the devil. The exorcised demon flies away. In front is vain and power mad Lady Luxuria, who, well dressed and adorned with a sceptre, a crown and a string of pearls, is trying to seduce the child. The quiver of Cupid, her accomplice, is lying in the bottom right corner.