Antwerp's St Andrew's Church, a revelation.
The Venerable Chapel
Full of light and warmth, the south side symbolizes God’s reviving and permeating love. As such, the south sides of Gothic church buildings often host devotions of Jesus’s sacrifice of love – like those of the Holy Cross, and of the Holy or Venerable (i.e. honourable) Sacrament. This traditional symbolism has been upheld in the Venerable Chapel as well. The chapel was only constructed after the reconstruction of choir and transept in 1666-1683. The fraternity of the Holy Sacrament, the so-called ‘Venerable Chapel’, which took the initiative to build the chapel, existed already at the time of the church’s consecration in 1529, and is still active today.
The Altar of the Holy Sacrament
Originally, the altar of the Holy Sacrament in the south aisle was decorated with a traditional Last Supper triptych (ca. 1589-1596). The triptych was painted by Ambrosius I Francken , a parishioner of St Andrew’s. Once the Venerable Chapel had been completed, a fashionable portico altar was constructed. Instead of adapting the old retable, the triptych was sold to the chapel wardens of the Holy Sacrament in the nearby church of St George, who settled for this cheaper and less fashionable painting in keeping with their financial situation. The artwork was confiscated in 1794 and finally ended up in the stock of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.
The newly finished Venerable Chapel was completed with a painting of the same subject by Pieter Ykens (1687). This painting was done on canvas, and measured to fit the new altar frame in its dimensions, form and composition. Oddly enough, the painting stresses the announcement of the betrayal, rather than the institution of the Eucharist. Perhaps an allusion to the believer’s integrity, necessary to receive communion?
Jesus and the disciples are gathered around the table. Jesus (far left) is conspicuously dressed in traditional red (originally imperial purple); therefore, and by exception, John (to Jesus’ left) is dressed in a blue tunic. The artist has painted John, with his head on Jesus’s shoulder, sitting up instead of lying close to the breast of Jesus, as stated in the Bible (Jn 13:23). When Jesus had dipped a morsel of bread in wine, he offered it to Judas with both hands, thus singling out his traitor: “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” (Jn 13:26a) Seated in the middle of the foreground in front of Jesus, the traitor is depicted with a (full) red purse (Jn 13:29) and dressed in his characteristic yellow coat. He looks up in astonishment, and underlines his sanctimonious question with a gesture: “Is it I, Master?” (Matt 26:25) The disciples look on in silence; tensions are high. Three floating angels are holding the cross, as a sign of things to come and, at the same time, as a triumphal sign of faith. A beam sprouts from a golden triangle containing the Hebrew tetragram for God – not as a source of light, but as a sign of divine Providence.
The construction of the altar has been attributed to Lodewijk Willemssens (after 1679 – before 1687). Sitting on a throne in the altar crowning, God the Father holds a sceptre in his right hand while leaning on a globe. After all, Jesus’s love was ‘begotten of the Father’ (according to the Creed), and this inexhaustible love is made tangible in the sign of broken bread, during the sacrament of the Eucharist. This Holy Sacrament is held up into the air by each of the figures seated at both ends of the altar crowning. The left figure triumphantly displays the consecrated host above the chalice, thus showing the sacrament as it is experienced during the Eucharist. The figure on the right shows us a large consecrated host as an object of veneration, held in a monstrance. From the Council of Trent (1545-1563) up until the 1960’s, the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was practiced on Sunday afternoons, and on the afternoons of other festive days.
Hidden behind the nineteenth-century tabernacle, the predella area displays a scene set in marble, depicting the first miracle of ‘Feeding the Multitude’. In ‘Feeding the Five Thousand’, featuring five loaves of bread and two fish, a young man kneels before Jesus and offers him a plate with two fish. The sculptor has chosen to adhere to John’s gospel narrative (Jn 6:1-15), in which two disciples come forward. Jesus tests the first disciple, Philip, with the question: How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat? (v. 5) The disciple Andrew, who has brought the young man to Jesus, is standing in the centre behind the seated Jesus. The grand gesture made by the church’s patron saint renders him even more conspicuous. This movement demonstrates either Andrew’s feelings of powerlessness – what are these (five barley loaves and two fish) for so many? (v. 9) – or Jesus’s order to distribute the loaves and fish (v. 11). Some of the disciples distribute the bread. The men who sat down (v. 11), among whom are mothers and children, take the bread and eat it. As this altar of the Holy Sacrament underlines the bread’s sacramental significance, the twelve baskets of leftovers that were collected afterwards have not been depicted here.
Four semi-elevated white reliefs with small angels stand out against the black marble frame provided by the two column bases. Each of these angels personifies one of the three theological virtues, here connected with the sacrament of the Eucharist. Exceptionally, the angels’ biblical order is respected, thus denying Love its traditional place of honour. Two of the angels have been given butterfly wings instead of bird feathers.
- Christian Faith is represented by the cross, which is decorated with a large host for the ‘Body of Christ’ and a chalice for the ‘Blood of Christ’. The censer could be interpreted as an attribute of Devotion or Religiosity.
- Side panel: grapes, grain and maize are the ingredients of Eucharistic bread and wine.
- With an anchor as its attribute, Hope keeps looking at the heavens, thanks to Jesus’s presence in the Eucharist.
- Love is symbolized by the little angel with a burning heart and accompanied by a peace dove, which carries an olive branch in its beak. Indeed, the sacrament of the Eucharist is meaningless when it isn’t preceded by being ‘reconciled to your brother’ (see Matt 5:24). Note the angel’s delicate butterfly wing.
- Side panel: the composition with grapes, grain and maize functions as the counterpart of the left side panel.
- An angel carries the book with the seven seals (Rev 5:1) upon which the papal tiara rests. At the same time, the angel holds both keys of ‘the kingdom of heaven’, symbols of the Church’s teaching authority with regards to the Bible.
The tabernacle was made by the brothers Wattlé in 1881. On its massive door, a chalice with a host encircled by an aureole indicates that, consecrated hosts are being kept here as a tangible presence of Christ. Guards of honour are displayed on both sides: Old Testament prefigurations of Christian, and more particularly Catholic points of faith. From left to right:
- Moses holds his (miraculous) shepherd’s staff (Exod 4:2.17). Lifting his eyes to the heavens, and his left hand to shield them, he illustrates the account of his calling at the burning bush: Abscondit Moyses / faciem suam; / non enim audebat / aspicere / contra Deum. / Exod. III:6 (Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.) To Catholic believers, this was familiar territory: at the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, believers habitually kept their eyes modestly closed. Only occasionally they would look up at the consecrated host, set in a monstrance displayed upon an exposition throne on top of the tabernacle.
- Melchizedek offers two loaves of bread: Melchisedech / rex Salem, / proferens panem / et vinum / erat enim sacerdos / Dei Altissimi. / Gen XIV:18 (And Melchizedek king of Salem [= Jerusalem] brought out bread and wine [for Abraham]; he was priest of God Most High.) Having blessed Abraham, Melchizedek is considered to be a priest of higher rank than Aaron. Hence, the Messiah is called ‘a priest … after the order of Melchiz′edek’. (Ps 110:4) The priestly offer of love fulfilled by Jesus is perpetually repeated during the Eucharist, in the form of bread.
- Originally, Aaron carried his traditional attribute, a censer. The caption reads as follows: Separatusque est Aäron / ut ministraret in / Sancto sanctorum, / ipse et filii ejus in / sempiternum, et adoleret / incensum Domino. / I Paralip. XXIII, 13 (Aaron was set apart to consecrate the most holy things, that he and his sons for ever should burn incense before the Lord, and minister to him and pronounce blessings in his name for ever.) Aaron symbolises the Catholic priest honouring the Holy Sacrament during Benediction with a ritual censing.
- The prophet Elijah is accompanied by a raven holding a loaf of bread in its beak; for some time, indeed, Elijah was given bread by ravens (1 Kgs 17:1-6). Text: Et ecce Dominus transit. / Et spiritus grandis et / fortis subvertens montes. / Quod cum audisset / Elias, operuit / vultum suum pallio. / III Reg XIX, 11 en 13 (And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord. … And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle. I Kgs 19:11-13). This is the gesture Elijah is about to make. During Benediction, spiritual help is transformed into a tactile presence in the form of bread, and the faithful close their eyes in awe.
The Painted Predella Panels
Most likely, the beautiful pair of small, horizontal panels by Frans Francken the Younger (ca. 1640) set against the chapel’s choir wall, were in fact the former altar’s predella pieces. Abram Blessed by Melchizedek (Gen 14:11-24) and The Bread from Heaven (Ex 16:4-35) are common Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharistic meal, during which Jesus offers himself as the living bread.
The Altar Wall
It is unclear why the statues of both St Johns have been placed here, or whether they may have been added here later on. Both statues were sculpted in High Baroque style and are, incidentally, of equally high quality. As a matter of fact, St John the Evangelist (to the left) did illustrate the Last Supper and the significance of Jesus as ‘living bread’ to an extent unparalleled by any other gospel writer. Meanwhile, St John the Baptist (to the right) proclaimed Jesus to be the ‘Lamb of God’ (Jn 1:29.36), the title with which Jesus is addressed during communion.
The fully carved doors left and right in the altar wall may have come from elsewhere. These doors attest to the Late Baroque love of theatrics. The chapel’s devotion is definitely reflected in the doors’ theme: Jesus’ sacrifice of love until his suffering and death. An angel on the left carries the crown of thorns; originally, the angel also carried three nails, but these have broken off. The cross with a large host on top refers to the Corpus Christi (the body of Christ), as the host is referred to during the distribution of communion. While grapes are being pressed into a chalice above, a weeping angel on the right carries the Veil of Veronica. At the bottom, horns of plenty lie among grain and grapes.
The Communion Rail
After the French Revolutionary Rule, a communion rail in white marble was transported here from the Carmelite monastery in Meir. In 1893, the rail was rebuilt and given a frame of black marble. Allusions to the Eucharist follow in rapid succession from left to right. Large horizontal panels alternate with small vertical pillars. From left to right:
- As popular religion would have it, the pelican ripped open its own breast during a famine to feed its chicks with its own entrails, thus symbolising Jesus, who gave himself until death.
- The two stone tables signify the Old Covenant between God and the Jewish people, which had to make place for the New Covenant in Christ Jesus.
- Together, two angels haul on their shoulders a huge bunch of grapes on a stalk: the miraculous bunch of grapes from Canaan. For the Jews, this symbolized the finding of the promised land; Augustine interpreted this as Jesus hanging from the wooden cross;
- Hosts in a basket. These represent, amongst others the ‘omen of manna, placed before the Lord’ (Exod 16:33).
The panels of the doors have disappeared.
- grapes (as counterpart to the hosts);
- a large crown above the Arc of the Covenant underlines the latter’s dignity. The contents of the chest are shown in front of it: the two stone tables and a flowering branch. For the Jews, the stone tables are the sign of the covenant between God and themselves, ‘the chosen people’. In the old Tantum Ergo, the ultimate Eucharistic song of praise, the ‘ancient forms’ of the old, legal covenant are departed from, and ‘newer rites of grace prevail’ – the New Covenant of love is made tangible in the sacrament of the Eucharist. More accurately expressed, Christians see the old sign as fulfilled by the New Covenant. The snipped branch is Aaron’s staff, placed in the arc by divine command where it miraculously began to yield blossoms (Num 17:8). This is seen as a typological prefiguration of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus;
- (vertical) three loaves of shewbread from the temple;
- the Lamb of God stands on the Book (of Revelation) that is closed with seven seals. The Lamb eats out of the hand of the angel on the right. A lovely scene indeed!
The Stained Glass Windows
At first sight, the two large stained glass windows by the studio of Stalins-Janssens (1897) in the south wall bear little connection to the Holy Sacrament. And yet, with thorough observation and reflection, connections to both forms of Jesus’s Eucharistic presence can be found. The left window shows Jesus in agony on the Mount of Olives. An angel holds up a chalice to Him – His blood – thus expressing Jesus’s supplication ‘Let this cup pass from me’ (Matt 26:39.42).
The other window shows a peaceful Christmas scene: Jesus lying in a manger. But the straw of the crib is made up of actual stalks of grain, an old allusion to Jesus as the bread of life (Jn 6:35) and as the bread which came down from heaven (Jn 6:41). The name of Jesus’s birthplace, Bethlehem, literally means ‘house of bread’.
The same allusion can be found in the painting The Birth or Mary and Joseph at the Manger by Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (1607-1678), who was also churchwarden of St Andrew’s and contributed financially to the building of the transept. His son, Jan Erasmus Quellinus (1634-1715), is accredited with the painting The Supper at Emmaus. The story depicted, in which two disciples recognize the resurrected Jesus at the breaking of the bread, is a New Testament allusion to the Eucharist. The disciple’s astonishment is depicted with great realism: one of them leaps up, the other spreads his arms and hands in a broad gesture. Their home is a true Baroque palace, complete with a fountain niche and a sofa with a motive of masks. A servant brings a warm dish (with a ventilation cover).
Inspired by the Holy Sacrament devotion, a lay community was founded in this chapel in 1676: the Brotherhood of the Solemn Fortnightly Anointing, a group of laymen who, at regular intervals, brought communion to the sick in procession. Their patron saint was Charles Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan (16th century) who took communion to the sick and to plague sufferers. The anonymous painting St Charles Borromeo, which now hangs in the tabard room, originally hung between the chapel’s windows.
The red velvet procession banner of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, with a monstrance in relief golden embroidery, was made by the studio of Louis Van Mooch (1865).
The chapel wardens’ pew is set against the south wall, with a table of names integrated in the panelling: ‘cataloge / der cappel / meesters // [die] / sedert het jaer / 1589 / gedient / hebben’ (catalogue of the chapel wardens who served since the year 1589).
The two sculpted angels in the offertory-box’s crown rattle their purses, hoping that you may do likewise.