Saint Paul’s, the Antwerp Dominican church, a revelation
Surprising mural paintings and a puzzling inscription
The inscription on the central pilar of the northern aisle
The inscription, which by its form is rather 16th century, reads: “Lan 1644. Frère Paul Lelievre E Aydit Afaire Cest Eglize Chi”. Adapted to modern French it is read as: “L’an 1644, frère Paul Le Lièvre / a aidé à faire cette église-ci”. But in spite of the misleading style, the date cannot be anything but 1544, taking into account the building history. Apparently brother Le Lièvre wanted to act against the rules of his own order and immortalize his name. Because at that moment he did not know when exactly his stone would be put in position, he left open the last figure of the year. When the stone was hauled up to its position in 1544, the (illiterate?) building labourers put it upside down! The brother or someone else added the exact figure ‘4’, but did not exert himself to carve it upside down too. As a result this is the only character that can be read well from the floor! This illustrates how great history is built up with petty things. The black filling-up, which draws our attention even more, was applied later.
Grisaille mural paintings
When during the 1996-1997 restoration works the confessionals were removed, two grisaille mural paintings that form a graceful Mannerist frame of a funeral monument were found on the wall of the Southern aisle. They were dated “1570” and “1577”. It is a pity, but there was no other solution: the joyous angel, the little bird and the bird’s head have been hidden behind the panelling again. Also the text of Our Father that the Calvinists painted on the wall of the Northern aisle has been painted over again.
Probably the peculiar grisaille mural painting on the west wall of the Southern aisle dates back to the same period: Christ as the mystic winepress. Like grapes that are pressed into wine, so Jesus was pressed as it were by his suffering. In fact it is a combination of a few data from the passion, including the scourging and the Ecce Homo. In a small Renaissance temple Christ is standing naked against a column, with crossed hands. In His right hand he is holding the reed as a sceptre, and in his left the scourge(?). From his heart a jet of blood gushes into a chalice (the chalice of the passion): a reference to the Eucharist, which with “the blood of Christ” is a source of grace, coming from Jesus’s wounds of the cross. The whole representation goes back to an engraving by Albrecht Dürer dated 1509.
The wooden Christ, originating from the Calvary on Falconplein [Falcon Square] (probably Cornelis De Smedt, 1790) and the white marble statues of Our Lady and John the Evengelist, originating from the demolished choir screen (Peter I Verbruggen, 1654-1655) together constitute the Calvary where now the deceased members of the parish are commemorated by their crosses.
Painting “the Works of Mercy”
(after Frans II Francken)
This immense canvas (16.17ft x 8.37ft) shows a striking resemblance, both in composition and figuration, with the smaller, picturesque painting by Frans II Francken in Saint Andrew’s Church (ca. 1600). This painting has been against the west wall of the church, next to the entrance of Veemarkt / Zwartzustersstraat since at least 1748. It used to be above the stalls of the neighbouring Blacksisters, who committed themselves especially to the poor sick and who had contributed to the construction of the church. The painting wanted to stimulate the beholder to active charity and so to generous gifts. Still it is not the sisters who are represented here but the almoners, who on behalf of the civil and ecclesiastical community were responsible for charity and so for all (seven) good deeds.
Clad in the dignity of their office, with tabards and typical hats, they act here as masters of the Table of the Holy Spirit in the parishes.
The idea of charity has a profoundly religious base: “whoever remains in love remains in God” (1 John 4:16). This is experienced even more radically from Jesus’s identification with the poor and needy: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me” (Mth. 25:40.45). Jesus Himself fills this in concretely with the ‘works of mercy’:
“I was hungry and you gave Me food,
I was thirsty and you gave Me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed Me,
I was naked and you clothed Me,
I was ill and you cared for Me,
I was in prison and you visited Me.” (Mth. 25:34-36)
- ‘To feed the hungry’ is represented in the foreground by the common distribution of bread, which in those days was one of the most important activities to support the needy. Especially single women with children, elderly and disabled people could be helped there. A courteous almoner hands out bread, while a second one, who is older, keeps his hand on the pot with bread tokens that he will distribute soon, to prevent them from being stolen for the time being. Such tokens could be exchanged for a loaf of bread. The almoners’ servant, in the corner down left, has to keep order during the distribution and, if needed, he has to keep away unlawful beggars with his stick. The crippled man in his little cart, in the centre of the foreground, who moves on with hand crutches, wears a beggar’s sign on his sleeve. Judging from the pilgrim’s badges on his hat the bearded man was born a pilgrim… or a hypocrite.
- On the left the thirsty are quenched. A servant comes running in with a bowl of water to bring round a busty woman who has fainted with thirst. Jugs are passed round; a man enjoys it to the full. In the front there is a cask of wine or water.
In the background on the left three other works of mercy are being staged in what has the shape of small theatres:
- In a Renaissance space an almoner gives clothes to a half-naked man. Another half-naked beggar patiently waits his turn and a third one comes running in.
- In a Renaissance-like tempietto a priest visits a mortally ill man to administer the last rites. On the steps the wife is praying.
- In a brick house an almoner shelters two travellers, who can be identified as pilgrims. The smoking chimney indicates that they will be welcomed hospitably.
- On the right in the background a religious visits prisoners who are locked up in a round brick tower and look out through a barred window.
- The last work of mercy, ‘to bury the dead’, is not in the Bible however, but the Church added it in times of the plague, which also favoured numerology. A funeral procession is on its way to the churchyard in the background to grant the deceased his or her last resting place. Some ten religious or altar servers in rochets walk in front of the coffin, carried by four Alexian Brothers. Then a civilian (who has taken his hat off) and his wife follow solemnly.
The silhouette of the towers in the background has given rise to many a speculation, but it is certain they are not from Antwerp.