CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Fading highlights? The “reunion” exhibition of 16th and 17th-century altarpieces in the Antwerp cathedral

Ria Fabri

In collaboration with the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, the Antwerp cathedral organized a unique exhibition of “highlights” and “twilights” from the Antwerp School. These paintings, altarpieces from guilds and crafts, were executed by Pieter Paul Rubens, Quinten Massijs, Frans Floris or Frans Francken, Artus Wolfort, Hendrik van Balen, and others. The twilights were kept in the museum depot and required fairly expensive restoration. The exhibition of these works ties in with the disclosure of the museum collection, which has recently been promoted in Belgium. However, raising the funds for the restoration of those twilights was a less obvious item on the agenda. Reuniting panels separated for centuries contributed to the re-evaluation of the twilights.

The reunion of the highlights and twilights in their original context casts new light on the perception of the altarpieces. Interestingly, the highlights did not always shine as brightly as expected, and in fact sometimes even seemed to fade a little. In many cases, the twilights were very well suited to the original sacred atmosphere, and even gained a certain magic when confronted with the highlights. In addition, we must remember that the wings of the triptychs were closed for about 300 days a year, compelling us to reconsider our understanding and appreciation of the middle panel and the wings from a new angle. The public reacted positively to the confrontation of highlights and twilights, and even want the paintings to remain in their original context for a long time.

Key questions are:
• What is the impact of exhibiting highlights and twilights in situ?
• Does the actual disclosure of museum collections draw new attention to twilights?
• Does reuniting dispersed triptychs foster appreciation of them?
• Can the study of the exterior wings lead to a new approach in the perception of the altarpieces?

Isaak van Nickelen (1632/33-1703), Interior of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal in Antwerp, 1668 Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum


About Ria Fabri

Ria Fabri received her Ph.D. in art history from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in 1991. She is currently curator of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal in Antwerp and a member of the special academic staff in the department of history of Antwerp University. She has also worked in the Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis in Brussels. Fabri curated 17th-century Antwerp cabinet paintings in Brussels; 17th-century cabinets in Leuven; The garden of Nicolaas Rockox and The library of Nicolaas Rockox in Antwerp; and Reunie. From Q. Metsijs to P.P.Rubens. Masterpieces from the Royal Museum reunited in the cathedral in the Antwerp cathedral. She has published on historical, typological and iconographical aspects of 17th-century Antwerp cabinets, emblematic cabinet paintings, “perspectives” in cabinet paintings, the Antwerp Jesuit church, the gardens of N. Rockox and the Moretus family, as well as the function and use of triptychs. She is working on projects, such as the reunion of 16th and 17th-century altarpieces in the Antwerp cathedral, the circulation of knowledge in the ancien régime, and Rubens and the Antwerp Jesuit church.