This summer, Museum Mayer van den Bergh is opening wide the doors to the 17th century. A unique exhibition of architectural paintings leads visitors into the sacred interiors of churches from the 17th century. Together with an accompanying app for a self-guided tour of the city, the exhibition offers a captivating journey to explore Antwerp as it was in the age of Rubens.
A church is a house of worship, a place of devotion and quiet meditation, but above all it is a meeting place. For centuries, churchgoers have been visiting their places of worship not just for the liturgy but also for social purposes, for networking. They celebrate or mourn public events, do business, play, dance, beg or gossip, all witnessed by the architectural painter, who functioned as a sort of forerunner to the modern photographer.
Portrait of a church
During the 16th century, the Catholic Church saw some of the greatest upheavals in its history. When the Iconoclastic Fury took Antwerp by storm in 1566, the city’s churches were stripped of their former opulence. Protestantism was on the rise and Calvin forbade statues of saints in the church. The Calvinist interpretation of the Bible rejected any graven images that portrayed God, replacing churches’ religious art with symbolic and moralistic depictions. Religious instability followed and there was a massive exodus of artists from the city.
The meeting of Hendrik van Steenwijck and Hans Vredeman de Vries in Aachen resulted in the emergence of a new genre: architectural painting, known as ‘perspectives’. The return of a number of artists to Antwerp marked the beginning of Antwerp architectural painting, a genre that reached its high point under the auspices of the ‘Antwerp School’. This new painting style gained many passionate adherents, who painted thousands of church interiors and, to a lesser extent, some secular interiors as well. The paintings tended to be small and highly ornamental, which is one reason why they were such a popular genre during the 17th century and were considered collectibles.
There is no better way to view 17th-century church life than through the eyes of a painter of church interiors. Thanks to deeper knowledge about drawing and painting in perspective, the church interiors of this period were depicted in a strikingly realistic manner.
Museum Mayer van den Bergh has gathered forty paintings and around a dozen drawings and prints for the exhibition, under the direction of its curator, Dr Claire Baisier. Some of the works on display are from national and international public collections, including the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna), the Fondation Custodia (Paris), the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), the Szépművészeti Múzeum (Budapest) and the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam). Divine Interiors also features pieces from various private collections that never have been exhibited before.
Unlike the interior paintings of the better-known Dutch School, works by the masters of the Antwerp School – such as Vredeman De Vries and Van Steenwijck as well as father and son Neeffs and Abel Grimmer – never have been shown together before.
Two interior views of Antwerp Cathedral by Hendrik I van Steenwijck are without a doubt among the exhibition’s top pieces. The earliest piece dates from the late 16th century and was recently rediscovered. A second and somewhat later version of this work from 1593 (Szépművészetimuseum Budapest) incorporates figures by Jan I Brueghel. Both perspectives show the cathedral immediately after Calvinist rule, when the church was in the midst of a restoration. These and other works from the exhibition therefore offer a treasure trove of documentary information in addition to their aesthetic value. The same applies to Antwerp’s Church of Saint Charles Boromeus. The bulk of this baroque church’s wealth and opulence was lost in the fire of 1718, including its ceiling paintings by Rubens. Works by Sebastiaan Vrancx and Wilhelm Schubert von Ehrenberg give the viewer san idea of the riches that this church housed, prior to the disastrous fire.
The extent to which various artists collaborated can also be seen in these works, such as a 1616 view of the cathedral by Bartholomeus van Bassen with figures painted by Sebastiaan Vrancx. The beautifully rendered figures in a splendid perspective view of the chancel are a testament to the well-known collaborations between Antwerp artists specialising in a wide array of genres. Thanks to their clothing, activities, ceremonies and attributes, the figures in all the paintings also contribute to our knowledge of daily life during the period, an aspect that is discussed in more detail in the exhibition catalogue.
Not all the masters whose Antwerp church interiors are shown in this collection were actually from Antwerp. Several essential pieces on display were the creations of Willem Von Ehrenberg and Anton Gunther Ghering, both German immigrants. Their baroque perspectives very accurately depict the 17th-century interiors of several Antwerp churches, including the Church of Saint Charles Borromeus and the Saint Walburga Church.
New work by graindelavoix for Divine Interiors summer exhibition
Internationally renowned music ensemble graindelavoix is recording a new album for the exhibition, featuring vocal music that has never been recorded before, including Orazio Vecchi, Duarte Lobo, Georges de la Hèle and Guillelmus Messaus. The music was released in the 16th century by fabled Antwerp printers Plantin and Phalesius, though the pieces have never been recorded or performed. The new CD by graindelavoix can be heard for the first time at the exhibition, where it plays an essential role in visitors’ museum experience. The polyphony of the music creates a synesthetic experience, sound and psychoacoustics merging in the presence of paintings of Antwerp church interiors from circa 1600. The CD is included with the exhibition catalogue.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-colour catalogue compiled by international specialists. The book examines not only the origins and function of the genre but also how it developed differently in the North and South. It pays unprecedented attention to the daily life revealed in the paintings, as well as the music that contributed to the total experience. Contributors include Dr Claire Baisier, Dr Ursula Härting, Dr Thomas Fusenig, Dr Ulrich Heinen, Bernard M. Vermet, Dr Joost Vander Auwera, Maarten Bassens and Björn Schmelzer (graindelavoix).
Tour 17th-century Antwerp with an app
The exhibition extends beyond the museum walls, taking visitors into the city itself. A specially designed app guides them on a tour that includes the Cathedral of Our Lady, the Church of Saint Charles Boromeus, Saint Paul’s Church and Saint James’ Church. The churches as they exist today are put in virtual perspective with their 17th-century images. The visitor stands where the architectural painter once did and compares the modern appearance with the view that the master painted in the same spot 400 years ago. Inventive 3D reconstructions transport visitors back to the 17th century.