Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
What better way to discover Antwerp than to follow in the footsteps of its greatest master, Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)! Admire his artwork, visit his house, meet his friends and discover the places he frequented during the Golden Age of the harbour city on the Scheldt River.
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For a specific section, click on these links:
- About Rubens & what makes the master stand out
- Rubens’ House
- The Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal)
- Saint James Church (Sint Jacobskerk)
- Snijders & Rockox House
- Saint Charles Borromeo Church (Sint Carolus Borromeuskerk)
- The Mayer Van den Bergh Museum
- The Plantin-Moretus Museum
- De Ruien
- The Vlaeykensgang
- Grote Markt
About Rubens & what makes the master stand out
Already a trained painter, in 1600, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) decided to travel to Italy to study treasures from classical Antiquity and contemporary Italian art. For 8 years, the Flemish painter travelled to Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Venice and Rome before coming back to his hometown of Antwerp to set up his workshop. The timing was right: after more than four decades of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621) brought hope and trade back to the estuary city on the Scheldt River.
The demand for illustrating theological teachings was high in the northernmost catholic city in Europe. Rubens’ experience in Italy helped him secure religious commissions, and his talented use of vibrant colours and dynamic figures that he honed in the peninsula sustained his success. Rubens later became one of the leading voices of the Catholic Counter-Reformation style. The demand for art work for private homes and civic buildings also allowed Rubens to establish the most significant workshop in the city.
Rubens’ style is dynamic defined by excellent observation skills, heroic figures, intense colours, and energetic brushwork. As a history painter, his last and most influential teacher, Otto van Veen who was well-known for his knowledge of symbols, helped Rubens become expert at allegories to provide commentaries in his artwork, using a hare for example to symbolises alertness, a cat for freedom or a dog for loyalty… The master was an avid learner, a keen book collector who knew scholars all over Europe, an amateur scientist, and a diplomat understanding half a dozen languages. He never stopped experimenting throughout his distinguished career.
Rubens became the founder of northern baroque painting and the most sought after and widely copied artist of the seventeenth century. His forte was to find the specific moment in a text when the psychological aspects climax, and to render it, portraying persuasive human interactions and heightened emotions.
Upon his return to Antwerp in 1608, Rubens became an official painter at the court of the Archduke Albert of Austria and the Infanta Isabella, joint sovereigns of the Seventeen Provinces of the Spanish Netherlands. He was a successful artist and quickly became the most coveted painter of Europe by kings, statesmen and diplomats. His workshop was prosperous, and in the diamond capital of the world, gemstones were regularly used in lieu of payment or deposit.
In 1610, Rubens and his wife, Isabella Brant (1591-1626), purchased a bourgeois property near De Meir in a pleasant neighbourhood of Antwerp to house family and atelier. Over the years, he converted the house into a palazzo, embodying his artistic ideals: he designed a semi-circular statue gallery, a large studio where he painted roughly 2,500 paintings, including most of his masterpieces, a portico and a pavilion in the garden inspired by the Roman Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance.
At the time, such a large artist’s house, with separate living quarters and a studio, which also served as a museum for his art collection, was unheard of in the Low Countries. The opulent decorations of the building were unrivalled in Antwerp.
The master, who portrayed himself as a gentleman with good social standing rather than as a painter, lived and worked there from 1611 until his death in 1640. The visit of the house is a fantastic dip into the master’s art collection and lifestyle, and his studio is one of the highlights.
Painters used to learn their trade by working hard in their master’s studio: grinding pigments, mounting canvases on wooden frames, cleaning palettes and brushes… while observing the master at work. Rubens’ studio attracted so many, that apprentices had to be turned down. Some of the time’s greatest worked for him: van Dyck, Jordaens, Brueghel…
When a big commission arose, Rubens produced the preparatory oil sketches, which were then executed on a large scale by his assistants. The master extensively retouched the most important elements of the scene, more specifically the figures and flesh parts. For the most important commissions, he would do the entire work himself. The loose brushstrokes of the exhibited and unfinished Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry gives a glimpse into how Rubens constructed his paintings.
Wherever you are in Antwerp, just look up to find the 123-meter-high tower marking the Cathedral of our Lady, a true piece of Gothic art with a fascinating history and four paintings by Rubens.
Built between 1352 and 1521, the stunning cathedral owes a lot to the many wealthy guilds that commissioned some of the finest artwork to ornate their chapels, built between pillars. Members of these corporations would come to the cathedral to pray their patron saint, always represented on paintings.
Today, many Japanese tourists flock to the cathedral to also admire the paintings by Rubens that they find very moving because of a novel written in 1872: ‘A Dog of Flanders’. The classic children’s story has inspired numerous animes and has become hugely popular in Japan: set in Antwerp, it follows the hardships of Nello, a poor orphan boy, and Patrasche, an abandoned dog. In front of the cathedral, the dramatic ending has been sculpted by Batist Vermeulen showing lifeless body of the boy and dog, frozen to death on Christmas morning in front of Rubens’ tryptic, after being able to admire it.
The Raising of the Cross
The 4.6-meter-high triptych with its large side panels stands to the left of the choir. Rubens painted this work of art upon his return from Italy, where he was influenced by the classic masters. The diagonal composition and the movement are typical for Ruben’s style. The emotions and pain from the suffering Christ with his tensed body and closed hands nailed to the cross are palpable. The church for which the painting was commissioned got destroyed, but the painting was saved by Napoleon who took it to France.
The Descent from the Cross
This masterpiece was designed for this very cathedral and painted by Rubens between 1612 and 1614. Commissioned by the prosperous guild of the arquebusiers, their saint patron Christopher is represented on the back of this large triptych in oil on wood. On each of the three panels, the Christ is carried in different ways:
- On the left panel, pregnant Virgin Mary carries the Christ.
- On the main panel, the Christ is taken and carried from the cross with great care, his head bent towards the pale and grieving Virgin Mary.
- In the panel on the right, the Presentation of Jesus at the temple is depicted in a stunning light in which the Virgin Mary hands Him over to the high priest Simeon.
Napoleon also took this painting to Paris to exhibit it in the Louvre, and France returned it to its original place after his defeat.
The Resurrection of Christ
Rubens painted this much smaller work between 1611 and 1612, following the passing of Jan Moretus of the Plantin Moretus printing company. The patron saints of respectively Jan Moretus and Martina Plantin, John the Baptist and Saint Martina, are represented on the side panels of this triptych that hangs by their tomb.
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary
Commissioned for the Cathedral of Our Lady, the roughly five-meter-high and three-meter-wide painting hangs right above the altar in the main nave. Rubens finished this incredible work of art in 1626, partially onsite.
Notice the woman with a red dress and a refined face, holding a prominent place in the lower section of the painting: Rubens gave the traits of his late wife, Isabella Brant, who died of the plague in 1626 to the Virgin Mary. In the upper part of the painting, the Virgin Mary takes the most prominent place as she ascends into the divine light surrounded by angels.
Rubens was raised a Catholic. He used to walk to Saint James Church, only a few hundred yards from his house, daily.
Modestly started as a primitive pilgrim’s cottage outside the then city walls in 1314 to support pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, the many wealthy citizens from the area contributed to turning it into a beautiful Gothic church with a baroque interior. Luckily, the French Revolutionaries who plundered the Antwerp churches at the end of the 18th century, left Saint James Church untouched: its priest took the oath of hate, agreeing with French revolutionary ideas and saving the church. The Saint James Church is the only church of Antwerp with an undamaged interior, that has hardly changed since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Suffering from gout since 1623, Rubens instructed his second spouse, Helena Fourment: he wanted to be buried in his parish church, with a specific painting, Mary surrounded by Saints, and a marble statue of Mary that belonged to him to be shown in his burial chapel. Rubens died of gout in 1640 in his home at 62, and his wishes were executed.
Rubens’ teacher Otto Van Veen had not only been of great influence to the master, but he also introduced him in intellectual circles. One of his most important connections was Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), mayor of Antwerp, wealthy lawyer and art collector. He became a close friend of Rubens and contributed to his breakthrough by providing the great baroque master with important commissions.
Hosted in the patron’s mansion, the Snijders and Rockox House showcases artworks by the great triads of the seventeenth-century history painters in the Southern Netherlands: Rubens of course, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), Rubens’ most famous and talented assistant who became Rubens’ first serious rival in Antwerp, and Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) who assisted the master for his huge undertakings. Artwork by Rockox’ neighbour, Frans Snijders, known for his still lives and hunting scenes is also exhibited. A contemporary of Rubens, he also collaborated with the master on several paintings.
In 1618, Rubens was involved in the design and decoration of Antwerp’s Jesuit church, the present-day church of Saint Charles Borromeo. Standing on the Hendrik Conscience square in front of the baroque church, the artist’s Italian influences stand out.
At the height of the Counter Reformation, Rubens designed the richly decorated chapel and its impressive marble high altar. He also painted 39 ceiling paintings for this church, together with his most talented student Anthony van Dyck. Sadly, the paintings were destroyed in a fire in 1718.
Despite his many apprentices, Rubens sometimes enlisted the assistance of other accomplished painters to complement him, such as his friend Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) whose art Rubens respected greatly (despite his contemporaries considering him a coarse painter).
Son of a wealthy German businessman trading in spices and pharmaceutical products, and a woman of means from Antwerp, Henriëtte van den Bergh, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1857-1901) had an eye for beauty and forgotten artists and contributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s current fame. After Fritz’s accidental death at 43, his mother realised his dream to open the breath-taking art collection he had assembled to the public. A room is dedicated to the Brueghel family. One of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s best-known works, Dulle Griet (also known as Mad Meg) is exhibited in this excellent museum.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum
Studying at the Latin school of Antwerp, the young Peter Paul became lifelong friend with Balthasar Moretus, the grandson of world’s first industrial printer, Christophe Plantin. He commissioned many portraits to the master that are exhibited at the Plantin Moretus Museum, along with world’s oldest printing press, the Biblia Regia by Plantin and one of the few remaining Gutenberg Bible. Their collaboration continued over about 25 years, also on book illustrations and magnificent title pages full of complex allegories. The master’s earliest sketchbook is also displayed at the Plantin-Moretus Museum.
Stepping back in Rubens’ times
During Rubens’ days, Antwerp was dominated by water just like Delft, Amsterdam and Bruges. Since the 10th century, water has been flowing through Antwerp: natural streams were turned into moats that became waterways as the city expanded… and that quickly turned into open sewers, known as De Ruien. Inhabitants used to dump their garbage and excrements into De Ruien, as well as blood from bloodletting and dead animals. The stench was horrendous, especially at low tide!
Still, it is only in 1530 that brewers who used to collect water for their beers from this open-air sewage dug a canal for clean fresh water. During Rubens’ days, the city pushed its inhabitants to cover De Ruien that flowed in front of their houses, with only little success: the master who could not escape the foul odours used to go horseback riding regularly at the edge of the city for some fresh air!
It is only in 1882 that De Ruien were completely closed: the will of Emperor Napoleon, so shocked by the stench, combined to an epidemic caused by water quality that hit Antwerp in 1866, pushed inhabitants to eventually act.
Today, out of the initial 16 kilometres of underground waterways, only a few kilometres remain unfilled such as the 1.5 that are open to the public. Walking these tunnels (don’t worry, they have been separated from the sewage system) gives another dimension to a visit of Antwerp, passing by escape routes of Jesuit priests, smuggling networks and WWII party grounds.
The Handelsbeurs was built in 1532 as a trading fair. This place must have been paramount to Ruben’s workshop as he needed precious stones to create his pigments and most specifically Lapis Lazuli for his expensive blue. Always with an eye on the time and the wind direction in the harbour, merchants negotiated with God as their witness: the roof was added only during a much later renovation. In 1872, architect Joseph Schawe completely revamped this beautiful building: notice its arches, its 96 unique pillars, and the floral decoration forerunner of the Art Nouveau style.
Behind its meter-wide entrance, the secret world of medieval Antwerp unravels. The narrow alley with its quiet courtyards and brick buildings transports visitors back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Shoemakers, who had to sound the alarm bell of the cathedral, used to live in that very small street. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, Rubens probably never walked that alley but it gives a glimpse of what Antwerp looked like back then.
End your discovery of Antwerp in the footsteps of Rubens at the majestic Grote Markt with its typical sixteenth and seventeenth century guildhalls, 1576 UNESCO World Heritage city hall and central statue of Brabo. If the latter was inaugurated more than 200 years after the death of the master, Rubens could not ignore the legend of Brabo: once upon a time, the giant Antigoon used to demand an extortionate toll from all passing ships. If he was not paid, he would cut off the hands of the sailors and throw them in the river. One day, the mythical Roman soldier Silvius Brabo fought the giant, killed him and cut off his hand that he threw into the river. This legend may explain the name Antwerp: in Dutch, “handwerpen” means hand throwing and is very close to Antwerpen, the Dutch name of the city.
With the French Revolution, the guilds lost the ownership of their houses that now belong to the city of Antwerp for most of them, and that are occupied by vibrant restaurants, lively bars and cosy coffee shops where you will be able to enjoy a De Koninck local brew to reflect back on the city of Rubens.
- To stay in style in the heart of the city, Hotel Rubens Grote Markt is ideally located!
- To ease your trip, Visit Antwerp proposes an Antwerp City Card that includes all of the attractions described in this article, as well as public transport.
- The Antwerp Museum App is a free app that helps you get the most of the participating museums.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
For more highlights of Antwerp & Belgium, click on the images below: