( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Byzantium—Venice—Antwerp, these are the centers around which the modern world has revolved, for we must include its commercial with its social progress, and with those interests which develop with society. Indeed, the development of the arts has always run concurrently with commerce. One could wish to add that the converse were equally true.
Antwerp—the city on the wharf—became famous at the beginning of the sixteenth century under the reign of the enterprising Charles V. "Antwerp was then truly a leading city in al-most all things, but in commerce it headed all the cities of the world," says an old chronicler. Bruges, the great banking center,., yielded her position, and the Hanseatic merchants removed to the banks of the Scheldt. "I was astonished, and wondered much when I beheld Antwerp," wrote an envoy of the Italian Republic, "for I saw Venice outdone."
In what direction Venice was outdone is not recorded. Not in her architecture, at least; scarcely in her painting. We can not concede a Tintoretto for a Rubens. Yet, as Antwerp was the home of Matsys, of Rubens, Van Dyck, and the Tethers, the home also of Christopher Plantin, the great printer, her glory is not to be sought in trade alone. She is still remembered as a mother of art and letters, while her mercantile preeminence belongs to a buried past.
It must, however, be confest that the for-tunes of Antwerp as a city, prospering in its connection with the Hanseatic League, were any-thing but advantageous to the student of architectural history. Alterations and buildings were the order of the day, and so lavish were the means devoted to the work that scarcely a vestige of architecture in the remains is of earlier date than the fourteenth century.
The grandly dimensioned churches raised in every parish afford ample evidence of the zeal and skill with which the work of reconstruction was prosecuted, and as specimens of the style of their day can not fail to elicit our admiration by the nobility of their proportions, so that in the monuments the wealthy burghers of Antwerp have left us we have perhaps no reason to regret their zeal. At the same time, one is tempted to wish that they had spared the works of earlier date by raising their new ones on fresh ground, instead of such wholesale demolition of the labors of preceding generations.
Notre Dame at Antwerp, the most spacious church in the Netherlands, originated in a chapel built for a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin. This chapel was reconstructed in 1124, when the canons of St. Michel, having ceded their church to the Praemonstratensians, removed hither. Two centuries later, the canons of St. Michel, animated by the prevailing spirit, determined on rebuilding their church on a more magnificent scale, and they commenced the work in 1352 by laying the foundations for a new choir. But slow proggress was made with this great undertaking, more than two centuries and a half elapsing before the church assumed that form with which we are familiar today. In 1520, the chapter, dissatisfied with its choir, started upon the erection of a new one, the first stone of which was laid in the following year by the Emperor Charles IT., accompanied by King Christian II. of Denmark and a numerous retinue.
The new plan included a crypt, partly above ground, probably like that we see in St. Paul's in the same town, and the work was progressing when, in 1533, a disastrous fire did such damage to the western parts of the church that the project of enlargement was suspended, and the funds destined for its employment were applied to restoring the damaged portions. Had the design been realized, the eastern limb of the church would have been doubled in size.
As regards its dimensions, Notre Dame at Antwerp is one of the most remarkable churches in Europe, being nearly 400 feet long by 170 feet in width across the nave, which, inclusive of that covered by the western towers, has seven bays, and three aisles on either side. This multiplication of aisles gives a vast intricacy and picturesqueness to the cross views of the interior; but there is a poverty of detail, and a want of harmony among the parts and of subordination and proportion, sadly destructive of true architectural effect; so that, notwithstanding its size, it looks much smaller internally than many of the French cathedrals of far less dimensions. If there had been ten bays in the nave instead of only seven, and the central division had been at least ten feet wider, which could easily have been spared from the outermost aisles, the apparent size of the church would have been much greater. The outermost south aisle is wider than the nave, and equal in breadth to the two inner aisles; the northernmost aisle is not quite so broad.
The transepts have no aisles, but they are continued beyond the line of the nave aisles, so that they are more than usually elongated. The two inner aisles of the nave open into the transepts, but the outer ones, which, it should be re-marked, are continuous, and not divided into a series of chapels, are walled up at their eastern extremities.
The choir consists of three bays, but has only one aisle on either side. This is continued round the apse, and five pentagonal chapels radiate from it. Three chapels flank the north aisle of the choir, the first two opening, as does the north transept, into one large chapel of the same breadth as the southernmost aisle of the nave. . The facade is flanked by towers equal in width to the two inner aisles of the nave. The northern one has alone been completed, and altho it may seem to a severe judgment to possess some of the defects of the late Flemish style, it is rivaled for beauty of outline only by the flamboyant steeples of Chartres and Vienna. As might be expected from its late age—it was not finished until 1530—this northwestern spire of Notre Dame at Antwerp exhibits some extravagances in design and detail, but the mode in which the octagonal lantern of openwork bisects the faces of the solid square portion with its alternate angles, thus breaking the outline without any harsh or disagreeable transition, is very masterly, while the bold pinnacles, with their flying buttresses, which group around it, produce a most pleasing variety, the whole serving to indicate the appearance the steeple of Ma-lines would have presented had it been completed acording to the original design.
If size were any real test of beauty, the interior or Notre Dame at Antwerp ought to be one of the finest in Belgium. Unfortunately, altho it was begun at a time when the pointed style had reached the full maturity of perfection, a colder and more unimpressive design than is here carried out it would be difficult to find. Still, notwithstanding the long period that elapsed between its commencement and completion, there is a congruity about the whole building which is eminently pleasing, and to some extent redeems the defects in its details and proportions, while the views afforded in various directions by the triple aisles on either side of the nave are undeniably picturesque.
The high altarpiece, placed on the chord of the apse, is a noble and sumptuous example of early Renaissance taste and workmanship, but like the staliwork, its dimensions are such as to diminish the scale of the choir, the five arches opening to the procession path being completely obscured by it. Of the numerous creations of Rubens' pencil none perhaps more thoroughly declares to us his comprehension of religious decorative art than the "Assumption" which fills the arched compartment in the lower portion of this altarpiece. It was finished in 1625, and, of twenty repetitions of the subject, is the only example still preserved at the place it was intended by the painter to occupy. In spirit we are reminded of Titian's "Assumption" in the cathedral at Verona, but Rubens' proves perhaps a higher conception of the subject. The work is seen a considerable way off, and every outline is bathed in light, so that the Virgin is elevated to dazzling glory with a power of accession scarcely, if ever, attained by any master.
In the celebrated "Descent from the Cross," which hangs in the south transept, the boldness of the composition, the energy in the characters, the striking attitudes and grouping, the glowing, vigorous coloring, are astonishing proofs of Rubens' power. The circumstances which gave rise to this wondrous effort of art are interesting. It is said that Rubens, in laying the foundations of his villa near Antwerp, had unwittingly infringed on some ground belonging to the Company of Gunsmiths (arquebusiers). A law suit was threatened, and Rubens prepared to de-fend it, but, being assured by one of the greatest lawyers of the city that the right lay with his opponents, he immediately drew back, and offered to paint a picture by way of recompense. The offer was accepted, and the company required a representation of its patron saint, St. Christopher, to be placed in its chapel in the cathedral, which at that time Notre Dame was.
Rubens, with his usual liberality and magnificence, presented to his adversaries, not merely a single representation of the saint, but an elaborate illustration of his name—The Christ-bearer. The arquebusiers were at first disappointed not to have their saint represented in the usual manner, and Rubens was obliged to enter into an explanation of his work. Thus, without knowing it, they had received in exchange for a few feet of land a treasure which neither money nor lands can now purchase. The painting was executed by Rubens soon after his seven years; residence in Italy, and while the impression made by the work of Titian and Paul Veronese were yet fresh in his mind. The great master appeared in the fulness of his glory in this work—it is one of the few which exhibits in combination all that nature had given him of warmth and imagination—with all that he acquired of knowledge, judgment and method, and in which he may be considered fully to have overcome the difficulties of a subject which becomes painful, and al-most repulsive, when it ceases to be sublime.