Peter Paul Reubens was a successful artist whose house in Antwerp was a fine building filled with art. I had supposed that most artists struggled to survive financially and emotionally, like Van Gogh. But Reubens was so in demand that he had his own cohort of assistants to help him with his paintings. What I particularly appreciated were the eyes in his portraits. They were so realistic.
The subjects of course were nearly always religious, featuring events and characters from the Bible. Reubens was one of those painters whose paintings expressed movement and a dynamic in composition that earlier styles lacked. His portrayal of Jesus being lifted up on the cross was a good example. A strong diagonal scene showed muscular men struggling with the weight of the cross. There were examples of the paintings of the elder Bruegel and Van Dyke to enjoy as well.
Antwerp was a fine city to visit in April. The weather was kind, though cool. We enjoyed the architecture of the main square, the Grote Markt, with its enigmatic statue of a young Roman man throwing a severed hand into the distance, it being a representation of the legend of the killing of the giant (troll?) that dominated the river. Churches were everywhere, and worth visiting for the artwork. There was a particularly interesting presentation of the prophets proclaiming the coming Messiah and a depiction of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus in St Paul’s church garden. It was the inspiration of the Dominicans to help teach the Gospel to the local inhabitants.
Amongst the other attractions was the food :- Belgian Beer, Chocolate, waffles and frites with mayonnaise! We did visit some of the many museums as well. The MAS is situated in the harbour area and looks like a pile of red storage boxes. It has several different collections including on the top two floors, artefacts from around the world on the theme of life and death and the human relationship with the gods. Of the Abrahamic faiths, the one depicting Judaism was by far the most impressive. An unusual experience was the Maidens’ Museum. It had been an orphanage for girls, and there seemed to be quite a number of them in the past.
Arriving and departing by train meant that we could appreciate the magnificence of the station. It now has several levels rather like a sandwich cake, with train platforms on alternate levels. But the old station architecture was massive, a wonderful combination of stone and gold. Just across the street was the centre of the diamond trade, for which Antwerp is famous.
As a cultural experience it was inspiring, disturbing and entertaining. Still redolent of Catholicism, but with consumerism very evident. Full of art and life and a strange language combination of Dutch and French and English. A city to enjoy, and we did.