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By Sarah Läseke
Today, as in the Middle Ages, the Cathedral of Antwerp is situated in the centre of the city among narrow cobbled streets and crooked houses. Built between the fourteenth and sixteenth century, Antwerp Cathedral (also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady) is the largest Gothic church in the Low Countries. The foundation of the cathedral was laid in the tenth century. Between the tenth and the twelfth century, this small chapel was rebuilt into a Romanesque church. This church was comprised of five aisles, to which two were added at a later date. Between 1350 and 1520, this church was rebuilt into the splendid Gothic building that is now Antwerp Cathedral. In 1553, it was damaged largely by a fire. After extensive restoration, the church was granted the status of Cathedral in 1559. Between 1566 and 1581, the iconoclasm that coincided with the rise of Protestantism further damaged the church, as it was plundered several times in the following years, and its interior was destroyed. After Antwerp’s return to Catholicism, it was restored in the Baroque style, and Peter Paul Rubens provided paintings to redecorate the now bare walls of the cathedral. Two centuries later, during the unrest throughout Europe caused by the French Revolution, the church suffered further. Once again, it was restored and redesigned, this time in the style of the Neo-Gothic.
Today, Antwerp Cathedral’s interior testifies to its tumultuous past. It is a combination of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Neo-Gothic styles. Its art ranges from medieval wall paintings to Baroque masterpieces by Rubens and nineteenth-century paintings.
Although the Cathedral has changed a lot since its foundations were laid in the 15th century, its medieval origins are still visible.
15th century wall paintings
In the Middle Ages, the church interiors were painted in bright colours. Rare examples of this can be found near the entrance to the sacristy, on the South side of the church dating back to the beginning of the 15th century. Having been hidden under layers of later wall decorations, these medieval wall paintings were revealed in the twentieth century. Some of them were discovered only twenty years ago, such as a fragment of the depiction of the Man of Sorrows.
Statue “Madonna with Child”
Near the Mary chapel on the North side of the cathedral one can find a fourteenth-century statue of Mary and Jesus. This statue is attributed to the anonymous “Master of the Maasland Marble Madonnas”, who worked in the Belgian city of Liège around 1350. Mary’s gracious attitude, the flowing folds of her gown and the serene expression on her face reflect the courtly culture of the fourteenth century.
The Cathedral is one of the highlights of the Netherlandish Gothic style, with intricate stone lacework and high spires. It is worth paying special attention to the medieval ribbed vaults in the aisles. They support the high Gothic windows, and they confer grace and the sensation of immeasurable height to the church.
Bronze effigy of Isabella of Bourbon
One of few works of art that survived the iconoclasts is a bronze effigy of Isabella de Bourbon, which dates back to 1478. Isabella de Bourbon was the mother of Mary of Burgundy, a central figure in medieval history. The grave monument was originally situated in the nearby Church of Saint Michael, and it was moved to the Cathedral in 1803. Although most of the 24 bronze statues or “mourners” that originally accompanied the statue were destroyed by the Calvinists in the sixteenth century – ten of them survived and can now be viewed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – the statue of the praying Isabella accompanied by her pet dog is still intact.
Official visitor’s leaflet “De Kathedraal”