Antwerp's St Andrew's Church, a revelation.
The ancient high altar: St. Andrew in the place of honour
The Renaissance painting Calvary, by Huybrecht Marchys, originally adorned the main altar and probably disappeared during the Protestant Iconoclasm. After the Calvinist rule a campaign of restoration followed; as such, a new altar was constructed by carpenter Otmaer Van Ommen in 1594. The churchwardens preferred the grand retable with predella to be painted by Otto Van Veen – who was better known by his Latinized name ‘Venius’, and was considered to be the authoritative painter of the day. The agreement was concluded during the very same year in the house of Jacques Jonghelinck, the royal mint master (Warden of the Mint) and a renowned silversmith. While initially a sketch and a colourful, detailed modello were created, the actual project was only completed in 1597-1599, in the artist’s studio in current Otto Veniusstraat. By that time, P.P. Rubens was still an apprentice to Van Veen; when Rubens became a freemaster-painter, Van Veen took him on as a mate. Inspired, perhaps, by the patron saint of ‘his’ Order of the Golden Fleece, King Philip II paid a sixth of the project’s total cost – two hundred guilders. In gratitude (“uit gratuiteyt”), the churchwardens awarded Van Veen an extra payment of sixty guilders.
Both horizontal parts of the predella depict the calling of Andrew, the patron saint. The violet colour of Jesus’s garb refers to the imperial purple, and alludes to Jesus’s divine nature.
The first and best-known version of the story of the calling (Matt 4:18-20 = Mk 1:16-18): “Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother … were fishermen. … Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Both brothers are fascinated by ‘him’ – that engaging man – as can be seen in the emotional drama of their gaze.
Here, Van Veen adheres to the second version of the calling of Andrew, as found in the gospel according to John (1:35-40). In the hilly, wooded landscape in the background, John the Baptist preaches to an attentive crowd gathered around him in a circle. John appears half naked, dressed only in a coarse garment of camel hair. “John was standing with two of his disciples.” As Jesus passes by, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’; “The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus” (v. 37). As in the first part of the predella, Andrew wears a green garment. The (unnamed) second disciple is John, the ‘beloved disciple’. “Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?”” (v. 38). The movements of the disciples’ hands suggest a conversation. “And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying.” (v. 38-39)
The martyrdom of St Andrew
While the posture and gestures of some of the painting’s figures might suggest that this scene depicts ‘the crucifixion of Andrew’ – as the painting has often mistakenly been called – this image in fact depicts Andrew’s death, precisely at the time when he was to be released from the cross. The image originated from the Legenda Aurea, by the Dominican monk Jacobus de Varagine (1228-1298). In the Greek town of Patras, Maximilla had been willingly converted to Christianity by Andrew.
Wife to the Roman proconsul Ageas, a cruel and pagan man, Maximilla began to distance herself from Ageas, both literally and spiritually. In consequence, and completely oblivious to any criticism, her husband had Andrew crucified. While tied to the cross, Andrew kept on preaching tirelessly to the growing crowd for two more days. Alarmed by the massive protest against his unjust ruling, the proconsul decreed that the disciple should be released from the cross.
- Left in the foreground (iconographically to the right), Maximilla is seated close to the cross. Filled with sadness about Andrew’s suffering, she looks directly at the viewer, while she wipes away her tears with a piece of cloth in her left hand. Two children lean against her, as does one of the two women in conversation, who has her arm around Maximilla’s waist in an effort to comfort her.
- The crowd that has come to listen to Andrew preaching from the cross gather around both cross and executioners, and cry their support to the latter , who are freeing Andrew from the cross.
- In the foreground (ichnographically to the left), proconsul Ageas is seated on a grey horse. His extended right arm does not allude to his initial command, to crucify Andrew, but instead refers to his second command, to undo Andrew’s martyrdom. The standard with the Roman eagle emphasizes Ageas’s authority.
- Instead of erecting the cross, the soldiers and executioners carry out the proconsul’s new command. Raising his lance, the armoured soldier to the left is about to cut loose the rope at Andrew’s right hand, as does the executioner in blue loincloth with the ropes at the saint’s left foot. A soldier and two servants hope to pull down the cross.
- About to succumb yet looking forward to his full encounter with God, Andrew lifts his eyes to heaven. High on the cross, raised above the human mass, the saint already appears to partake in his mediating role between God and humanity. As legend has it, Andrew answers that God is expecting him, and then dies, surrounded by heavenly light – just before the soldiers cut the ropes.
- Heavenly light, a sign of divine assistance, surrounds the white incarnate of Andrew’s body. The anticipation of heavenly joy seemingly makes Andrew forget the pain of martyrdom. The martyr’s delight and surrender in seeing the heavenly light is in stark contrast to the bystanders below, who have been overly preoccupied with earthly torture.
- Three angels, one with a palm and two with a laurel wreath (a laurel crown and a red-and-white flower garland), symbolically offer Andrew the heavenly reward. Thwarting the soldier in armour carrying the lance, a fourth angel even ensures that Andrew won’t be denied the honour of martyrdom! The saint’s exaltation in heavenly glory was a typical motif of the Counter-Reformation, which strongly promoted the cult of saints. By emphasizing how the saints suffered to bear witness of their faith, these were put forward as vigorous examples of ‘good works’, the importance of which was denied by Lutherans and Calvinists. As such, the cross – that instrument of torture occupying almost two thirds of the entire painting – here appears as a trophy prefiguring victory.
- In the background to the right, a round small temple can be seen, with a statue of the idol worshipped there. Left in the background, a gatehouse is topped by two Roman cuirasses with lances. Below right, a small dog frolics happily.
You can study the modello in detail via this link.
By the 17th century, the painting was already in need of attention. A vertical crack through the centre of the painting was glued in 1642. Following the main altar’s transfer to the choir in 1664, a second restoration was performed by Erasmus Quellinus. Until after 1807, this painting set the patron saint Andrew in a place of honour on the main altar. This changed when the former main altar made way for the (current) marble Baroque altar, which put the Assumption of Mary at the heart of the church. The painting’s main panel and its three predella panels were moved to a side wall of the choir. The new painting frame was secured in 1844; unfortunately, it was not put around, but rather on the main panel, with the result that almost 20 centimetres (8 inches) of painting on each side were lost. Thus, parts of the governor, the Roman eagle, and even the upper tips of the well-known St Andrew’s Cross, were hidden from view.
The main panel may have undergone a thorough restoration earlier, during the transfer within the church building fifteen years before (1829). All in all, it is clear that the main altarpiece suffered from these operations: compared with the predella panels, a lot of the original pictorial quality was lost (wealth of colour, detailing, reflection of the light, agility and representation of nude).
In 2006, the drastic overpainting was revealed even further when the churchwardens acquired the modello (h 73 x w 56 cm; 29 x 22 in.) – a downsized version of the painting that was presented to the client for approval. In this modello, one could count about ten pleats in the governor’s protective cloak (not four, as in the painting); and instead of only light and dark hues of pink, the modello displayed a much richer palette, due to the focused light reflection on each pleat. The two bare-chested executioners under the cross did not originally appear as brown ‘lumps’, but showed their shiny, muscular backs. The daubing painter further provided another solution for his clumsy naked portrait of the child on the mother’s lap in the foreground: the child was given a waistcoat! The modello revealed a more sparkling original altarpiece than the painting that had been passed off in art publications for a Van Veen up until that time.
At the time, the preparatory sketch – the phase before the modello – was still part of a potential collection transfer, from a private Antwerp collection to an Antwerp museum collection. From the perspective of art history, the ensemble would have been exceptional: design, modello and final result of one and the same major assignment. Alas: a cunning buyer acquired the design sketch for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. An old copy on canvas still exists in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Besançon (France).
Inspiration for Rubens
As is well-known, for a number of his compositions Rubens was indebted to his master Van Veen. Indeed, less than fifteen years after the completion of this altarpiece, its most important components could be found in The Raising of the Cross (1609-1610), presently in the Cathedral of Our Lady: the raised cross with naked man in the centre, a Roman commander upon his horse (iconographically to the left) and the faithful women sitting on the ground (ichnographically to the right), in triangular disposition. Less well-known, however, is the fact that a number of figures in Rubens’s famous Raising of the Cross were also profoundly inspired by this work by his master-teacher: the (originally) naked child with the mourning women in the foreground; the almost imploring gesture of the Roman commander on horseback, with the Roman standards behind him; the posture of the soldiers below and beside the cross; the frolicking dog in the foreground.
Decades later, around 1638, Rubens elaborated the theme of Andrew’s martyrdom for the Flemish foundation in Madrid; and once again, the composition of this work was inspired by his old master’s painting.
Theatrics: High Baroque statue of St Andrew
While planning the choir extension by the end of the 17th century, a separate space for a High Baroque altar was designed by Hendrik Frans Verbrugghen, born and bred in St Andrew’s parish. This new altar space included a monumental statue of the patron saint. The statue would ‘interrupt’ the wall of an elliptical apse. Behind the statue, a round cupola construction crowned with a small lantern cupola would create an indirect, ‘heavenly’ lighting of the marble statue. Although five design sketches still remain (Print Room Antwerp and Print Room Brussels), the design was never actually executed. The most detailed design sketches show Andrew, leaning against his cross. The martyr has risen from his sepulchral tomb and is full of longing for God. His posture speaks volumes: his body raised, his arms spread wide, his hands receptively open. The angel at his side carries a palm– the martyr’s attribute – and holds a laurel wreath above his head. As if by heavenly carriage, the clouds guide Andrew to heaven, helped by the small angel who seems to be stowing the cross upwards. The framed tempietto-space with added daylight reminds one of a theatre stage, thus giving the theme of the exaltation of St Andrew the character of a performance. While ‘the saint’s exaltation’ was a beloved theme of High Baroque Counter-Reformation, the desired theatrical effect only rarely inspired such monumental framing.
During the choir’s expansion in 1769, the construction of a Baroque main altar was debated. Finally, the main altar with the painting by Van Veen was set up in the apse, flanked by the statue of St Peter by Artus Quellinus I and by the new statue of Paul, by Jozef Gillis.