The Cathedral of Our Lady and the St. Paul’s, St. James’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Charles Borromeo churches are Antwerp’s five remaining monumental churches. These great monuments give an idea of the once immense historic and artistic wealth of the city in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, taking into account that, sadly enough, other outstanding churches have since disappeared. Four of these lost ones are under discussion here, expertly served by Valérie Herremans from the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen (KMSKA), an authority in the field of sculpture and altarpieces. The reader is given a detailed guided tour of the in- and outside of these religious institutions, their exceptional collections with works by Rubens and his contemporaries that were their pride in the Ancien Régime. Under the turbulent Austrian and French regimes Antwerp churches and abbeys were stripped of their property. Some paintings were reinstalled in their original locations but in most cases the sites for which they were made no longer existed.
In a clear introduction the author sketches the history of the Rubens collections, now in Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Important masterpieces like the Rockox Triptych (1613-1615), The Last Communion of St. Francis of Assisi (1619), The Coup de Lance (1619-1620), The Adoration of the Magi (1624) amongst others, came from abolished and expropriated churches. Their Rubens paintings are now the highlights of the museum collection.
The book is dedicated to four former Antwerp minsters: the Church of the Friars Minor Recollects, the Abbey church of St. Michael’s, the Church of the Calced Carmelites and the Church of the Discalced Carmelites. A short history of each monument is given, followed by a description of the building. The interior of each church is discussed in detail and illustrated with the visual sources available: plans, maps and some rare contemporary interior paintings and engravings. Particularly interesting is the survey of the works of art that once adorned these minsters. Herremans realized a painstaking reconstruction of its contents, based on meticulous archival work. The author also demonstrates the spiritual and cultural context in which some major Rubens paintings originated. The accompanying reconstruction drawings by Joris Snaet show the façade of each building, with cutout openings revealing the interior concerned. They are masterly done and executed in pen and watercolor.
The most lavishly decorated amongst the lost churches was undoubtedly the Church of the Friars Minor Recollects. This Franciscan church was founded in the mid-fifteenth century, situated on the present site of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. It housed important paintings by Antwerp masters like Cornelis Schut, Pieter van Lint, Pieter Thys and Philip Fruytiers as well as Anthony van Dyck’s famous altarpiece of The Lamentation of Christ (1635). Thanks to the patronage of the wealthy Nicolaas Rockox, burgomaster of Antwerp, Rubens received important commissions for this church. Next to The Coup de Lance for the high altar he executed the Rockox Triptych, the central panel showing Christ Appearing to his Apostles and on the wings the donor portraits of Rockox and his wife.
The works of art in the once prosperous Abbey Church of St. Michael’s are similarly well described and illustrated, paintings as well as sculptural ensembles. A reconstruction of their original settings was possible thanks to some surviving paintings and prints of its interior. As a memorial to his mother Rubens donated in 1610 The Virgin and Child with St Gregory and other Saints, an altarpiece that had been rejected by the Oratorian Fathers in Rome, for the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in the north transept. Rubens also supplied The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1624), the famous altarpiece for the high altar. It carried a magnificent architectural marble frame most probably also designed by him as oil sketches by the master have survived. As in the Franciscan Church no visual sources are known of the interior of the Church of the Calced Carmelites. For its detailed reconstruction the author relied on written testimonies. This church housed Rubens’s moving Holy Trinity (c. 1620?), showing Christ’s dead body in an impressive foreshortening.
The last chapter is devoted to the Church of the Discalced Carmelites, once situated near Rubens’s house. Luckily the Antwerp painter Sebastiaen Vrancx left a detailed interior painting of this church. Unlike in the former minsters it was not a work by Rubens that was the center of attention but an altarpiece by Gerard Seghers with The Marriage of the Virgin (before 1651). For this religious institution Rubens realized two works that were however not prominently displayed: the altarpieces for two small altars, one with the rare theme of St. Theresa of Avila interceding for Bernardino de Mendoza in Purgatory (c.1630-35) and the other showing The Education of Mary, (c. 1630-35).
This book is the second volume in the series Rubens Unveiled, published as part of the Rubens Research Project of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp in association with the Centrum Rubenianum and the Rubenianum (City of Antwerp). With this publication the author has made an outstanding and useful contribution to the field of Antwerp religious baroque painting, studied in its historical context.