Rubens as an architect
When Rubens returned from Italy in 1608, at the age of 31, he came back with a case full of sketches and a head full of ideas. He purchased a plot of land with a house near his grandfather’s home (Meir 54) and converted it into his own Palazzetto. Take an hour to visit the Rubens House and to breathe in the atmosphere in the master’s house before setting off to explore his city.
Rubens’s palazzetto on Wapper was not yet complete when the artist was commissioned to work on the Baroque Jesuit church some distance away, at Hendrik Conscienceplein.
Beneath the church tower
On your way to Hendrik Conscienceplein, we would suggest you make a brief stop at another church: St James’s Church (St Jacobskerk) in Lange Nieuwstraat. This robust building dooms up rather unexpectedly among the houses, but its interior strikes a perfect harmony between Gothic and Baroque: the elegant Middle Ages and the flamboyant style of the 17th century go hand-in-hand here. This was Rubens’s parish church. It is clear from the pomp and ceremony of the altars and chapels that this church had quite a few other wealthy parishioners. Rubens would be buried here, as would the rest of his family. The painting above the tomb is by the master himself.
The St Carolus Borromeus Church at Hendrik Conscienceplein is the epitome of Italian grandeur. With his knowledge of Italian architecture, Rubens undoubtedly contributed ideas for the façade, but his greatest achievements here are to be seen in the interior. Rubens designed the richly decorated chapel and its impressive marble high altar. Sadly, all that remains of the master’s 39 ceiling paintings are the sketches that are preserved in the church. The paintings themselves perished in a huge fire in 1718. The high altar merits particular attention: behind the enormous painting – it measures 4.0 x 5.35 metres – other works are concealed. An ingenious pulley system is used to rotate the works at fixed intervals. The visible painting is detached and stored away vertically, after which the pulley raises and installs the new one. This unique spectacle has been going on for 400 years! Another feature that deserves attention on the exterior of this remarkable church is the tower, based on a design by Rubens. You will need to go round the block in order to admire it in all its glory.
Do you have 15 minutes to spare before lunch? Behind the façade adjoining the St Carolus Borromeus Church lies a public secret: the Nottebohm Room, part of the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library. The Nottebohm Room is one of the most beautiful and oldest libraries in Belgium. Besides its one and a half million books, this atmospheric room contains a celestial and terrestrial globe, each one 68 cm in diameter, made by Willem Jansz. Blaeu, a contemporary of Rubens. Access to the Nottebohm Room is restricted, but do try to arrange to look inside, since it is a very fine interior indeed.
Time for lunch, at the Hendrik Conscienceplein with its glorious Italian ambience. Especially in the summer months you might easily think that you have arrived in the warm climes of southern Europe. Relax in one of the outdoor cafes and imagine yourself in the company of Rubens, who used to come to this very spot 400 years ago to look at his work.
After lunch we shall pay a brief visit to a good friend. Nicolaas Rockox was the burgomaster of Antwerp and the single person who was in a position to keep Rubens in Antwerp for good. After Rubens returned from Italy in 1608, when his mother was on her deathbed, Rockox secured several major commissions for him. For instance, it was thanks to the burgomaster that he painted one of his best-known works, the Raising of the Cross. Rubens was a frequent visitor to the burgomaster’s home. So if you enter the Rockox House, you will be literally treading in the master’s footsteps. But that is not the only reason to include it in your tour. The house also gives an authentic picture of the lives of 17th-century patricians. Rockox was an art connoisseur and collector, and his house is full of items he collected, including works by Anthony van Dyck, Frans Snyders, and of course Rubens.
On your way to the next sight, you must be sure to stop off at the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal). Here you can admire four world-famous works by Rubens, who indeed painted the Raising of the Cross in this very space.
The district known as ‘Het Eilandje’: ‘The Little Island’
We go further towards the city’s north district. We have already noted that Rubens was also an architect. He had a highly individual vision of architecture, working on numerous architectural projects within the then city walls. Indeed, when plans were made for the expansion of the city, Rubens was eager to play a role. Some of his ideas came from Genoa; he displayed them in detail in his print collection ‘Palazzi di Genova’. But the economic decline that followed the closure of the Scheldt led to the cancellation of the expansion plans. Still, although the plans were not executed in the 16th or 17th century, they were carried out many years later in the same place. The district that we are discussing here, the Eilandje, has enjoyed a great revival in recent years. Its residential, recreational and commercial functions are all integrated harmoniously. The most eye-catching sight, without a doubt, is the Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS. If you have time you may want to visit its diverse exhibitions, but we would advise you above all to climb right up to the top for a superb view of the city, the Scheldt River, and the marina.
From this high vantage point you will also see the splendid Red Star Line Museum, which overlooks the Scheldt. From here two million people departed to seek their fortunes in the United States, pursuing their dreams. The museum that documents the migrants who left at the end of the 19th century does not lie on the Rubens route, but it is certainly worth a visit for anyone staying for an extended period or returning.
From north to south
Further to the north we find another great urban project. Park Spoor Noord is a landscape park in which the development of Antwerp and the re-use of its empty spaces are very conspicuous. A celebrated team of Italian architects converted the disused railway yards into a green oasis with space for sport and recreation. Perhaps the architects shared Peter Paul Rubens’s vision, with its Italian origins. A present-day Rubens would certainly have encouraged this project.
For dinner we head away from the north towards the city’s southern district. The Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) is closed for a face lift until 2019, but we have come here for the numerous restaurants in one of Antwerp’s trendiest neighbourhoods. If you walk to Vlaamse Kaai you will find the water gate, a monument built after a design by Rubens and once an entrance to the city. Enjoy the atmosphere and the wide range of choices. And enjoy the city.
If you can manage one more stop, we invite you to go for an after-dinner walk – under the water. From St Pietersvliet you descend into St Anna’s pedestrian tunnel and walk for 572 metres. Then you emerge on the other side of the Scheldt, with the skyline of Rubens’s city stretched out before you. Is this not the perfect way to end your tour?
We hope to see you again in Antwerp!
Stops along this route
- Rubens House - Wapper 9-11 – Open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and on New Year’s Day, 1 May, Ascension Day, 1 November, 25 December. - www.rubenshuis.be - €8/6 - Combiticket Rubens House and Museum Mayer van den Bergh costs €10.
- St Jacobskerk – Lange Nieuwstraat 73/75 – Open every day from 2 to 5 p.m. Closed from 1 Nov. to 31 March. - www.sintjacobantwerpen.be - €4.
- St Carolus Borromeuskerk - Hendrik Conscienceplein – Open from Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12.30 and from 2 to 5 p.m. On Sundays and public holidays open only for services. - www.mkaweb.be – admission free of charge.
- Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library / Notebohm Room – Korte Nieuwstraat - www.consciencebibliotheek.be.
- Rockox House – Keizerstraat 10-12 - www.rockoxhuis.be – Open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Closed on Mondays, 1 and 2 Jan., Ascension Day, 25 and 26 Dec. - €8/6.
- Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal – Handschoenmarkt – Open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays and public holidays from 1 to 4 p.m. – www.dekathedraal.be - €6/4.
- MAS - Hanzestedenplaats 1 – expo: Open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and on New Year’s Day, 1 May, Ascension Day, 1 November, 25 December – Walking boulevard and panorama: Tuesday to Sunday from 9.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. / midnight. - www.mas.be - expo: €10/8 - boulevard and panorama: free of charge.
- Red Star Line Museum - Montevideostraat 3 - Open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and on New Year’s Day, 1 May, Ascension Day, 1 November, 25 December - www.redstarline.be - €8/6.
- Park Spoor Noord - Ellermanstraat.
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Text: Rubens House