This book is as monumental and rich as the church that is its subject. In fact, rather than a study of a building, it is a wide-ranging narrative of the community that built it over a period of two centuries. The distinguished historian of Flemish art Jeffrey Muller devoted himself for much of his career to the study of this church, which stands largely intact as the sole remaining example of a Counter Reformation church in the artistic center of Antwerp: both the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century interior, as well as its archives. This unique circumstance enabled Muller to reconstruct the historical genesis and function of the space and its furnishings in full detail. The result of this extensive research is a very readable ‘biography’ of a building and its users, profusely illustrated with photos of artworks, ritual objects, documents, and insightful plans and tables. Two comprehensive appendices document the private chapels, and the brotherhoods with their foundation, membership, and location. The book features a useful index.
By way of the example of St. Jacob’s, Muller addresses the wider issue of the Counter Reformation as a process of societal transformation. The social, political and religious contexts do not just inform the interpretation of artworks but are fully integrated in Muller’s approach which “combines social history, art history, and the history of religion as one and the same thing” (p. 1). He conceives the church as a communal work of art, which “mediated a vast process of change during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (p. 2). Rather than filling gaps in knowledge, he aims to present a unifying synthesis and “to demonstrate how architecture, art, and material culture were formative to the institutions and to the whole process of Counter Reformation conversion” (p. 11).
Each of the eleven chapters is an important study in its own right. The first three chapters present a chronological history of construction and decoration of the church from the perspective of the parish. Muller’s scrutiny of account books reveals that in the early years after the Catholic restoration, not visual art, but the restoration of the soundscape was prioritized. He debunks the myth of a distinction between Calvinists and Catholics regarding the emphasis on the sermon and the resultant focus on the pulpit. Rood screens however, though mostly lost, were important features of the Counter Reformation, and instrumental in the introduction of the “antique style”. A crisis in funding around 1660 was resolved by launching an ambitious decorative program (based on deficit spending), serving in the context of fierce competition with other churches, especially those of the Jesuits, for the patronage of the elite. Muller is keen to observe that this often came at the expense of poor and middle-class parishioners. The magnificent new high altar retable by Artus Quellinus the Younger and others, donated in 1684 by the canon Henricus Hillewerve, was an instance of “self-validation” (by lack of a male heir), which rendered the exclusive privilege of burial in the choir to his family, while adding to the luster of the city.
Chapter 4 treats the new, post-Tridentine arrangements for the sacraments of baptism and penance. He observes that “competition […] spurred the development of elaborate ornament, and it is now evident that St Jacob’s competed successfully with other churches partly because the separate institutions within the parish church competed among themselves” (p. 179-80). He arrives at a lucid historical analysis of the place of confessionals within the contexts of a consumer-driven economy, rivalry among institutions, and a Church imposing social control, concluding that elaborate new confessionals were built “as line of defense against the […] Jansenists, who exactly at this moment attacked the Catholic Church from within for its proliferation of superficial, outward devotion and superfluous ornament” (p. 181).
The fifth and sixth chapters deal with the two “great chapels” devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and the Virgin Mary and contrast the way these spaces were decorated as a result of the different financial position of the institutions. While the first was more or less systematically cultivated into a unified whole, the latter is the cluttered result of compromise, as the wardens granted individual privileges in return for money. Chapter 7 focuses on the foundation of a chapter of canons as a solution to the financial crisis that threatened the existence of the church in 1656. Although such institutions were outdated by that time, this proved an effective means to tie wealthy families to the church, as it accelerated the process of their ennoblement. Chapter 8 on private chapels argues that the churchwardens guarded against fragmentation of the community’s sacred space by competing interests and “diverted potential conflicts into support for a new kind of visual unity and vision of the sacred” (p. 309). For instance, they maintained a uniform format for the privately owned ambulatory chapels. The ‘bric-a-brac’ character of the Rubens chapel was the result of interventions by the artist’s extended family after his death. Yet as Muller describes with gusto, in two of the other private chapels the mid-seventeenth-century retabels were respectfully updated in the early 1700s with exquisite sculptural adaptations.
Chapter 9 treats the church’s confraternities and the artworks and objects they used, as “each group projected its collective fervor onto a sacred object or place […] as the symbol held in common through which the confraternity defined its purpose and identity” (p. 398). Muller professes his ‘enlightened’ stance when he argues “that [Emperor] Joseph II was right” to recognize confraternities as resorts of entrenched interests and impediments to change. Muller finds that the foundation of confraternities was, in all but a few cases, orchestrated from above. Exactly their “reactive contingency” made confraternities flexible instruments of the system (p. 400). Importantly, however, he also points at the slow pace of this development, as most of the (eventually nineteen) confraternities were founded in the late seventeenth century, gradually replacing earlier confraternities e.g. at the Jesuits. In the confraternity of St. James, founded in 1672 under the threat of French invasion, Muller sees a “surrogate court of the king of Spain” meant to muster the civic guard to take up arms on its behalf. Two salient examples of confraternities’ political significance are put forward (St. Roch and St. John Nepomucenus), to posit that “religion symbolized in art generated political power” (p. 479).
Chapter 10 and 11 are thematic, dealing with the commemoration of the dead, and telling the history of the defense against Enlightenment and Revolution in the eighteenth century. With regard to funerary monuments, Muller observes that artists who decorated the church, such as Hendrik van Balen and Artus Quellinus, gained special recognition by receiving privileges that rich donors did not. In discussing the church’s vicissitudes in the later eighteenth century, Muller recognizes the paradox that when the state turned hostile to the institutions, support for them remained strong. The transformation of society by State and Church, he concludes, had thus been successful.
Muller masterfully controls the balancing act of writing a microhistory with wide implications, remaining firmly grounded in his impeccable command of the sources. The perspective of longue durée is well-suited for a study of the transformation of society through art. Muller repeatedly emphasizes his view of the Counter-Reformation as a process of “accommodation between purpose from within and impetus from above” (p. 10). He rightly points at the central executive role of churchwardens in the parish church, and he identifies “State, Church and Magistracy” as the all-encompassing power structures as part of which the churchwardens act as (privileged) agents. Entrenched as they were in civic, ecclesiastic and artistic networks (some were artists/artisans themselves), they were powerbrokers and pacemakers of processes catalyzed by art.
Great emphasis is put on what Muller terms a “politics of style” practiced by the churchwardens. The baroque ornamentation of the Gothic church is treated in architectural terms used by contemporaries, with reference to the “antique” and the writings of Vitruvius. These “principles”, Muller argues, served as political instruments to enforce conformity and continuity. However, this does not help to explain the particularities of the new and exuberant baroque style, which is connected to Italy but distinctly Flemish. Muller evinces a normative attitude towards baroque art, privileging a “unified character” in the decorations and ascribing it to the “coherent vision” of the churchwardens. It may be asked whether it is justified to impose the Italian model of integration of the arts – itself problematic – onto the Flemish situation. And while St. Jacob’s state of preservation is certainly unique, Muller’s book urges questions as to the situation in churches of the regular orders, in other (less affluent) parishes, and in cities other than Antwerp.
This is an extremely rewarding read for both specialists of Flemish art and architecture, historians of early modern Catholicism, and the general reader. It will be a crucial reference work and sets a very high standard for future studies on the art and culture of the Counter Reformation. By integrating all facets of the rich ecclesiastical art of the South Netherlands, this book shows how this religious culture was a vibrant social system which formed the very center of life.