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The Elevation of the Cross (1610)

The elevation of the crossThe ELEVATION OF THE CROSS was painted in 1610 for the high altar in the St. Walburga Church, a church which doesn't exist anymore now. The painting can now be seen in the Northern transept of the Cathedral of Antwerp. In the original St.Walburga church the painting decorated the high altar that was constructed after the church had been renovated in the years 1499-1509.


It is most probable that Rubens painted the Elevation of the Cross in the church itself, instead of in his workshop.

The size of the altarpiece is enormous. The contrareformationists in the Spanish Netherlands certainly wanted to draw attention to the fact that the catholic religion with its focus on the Eucharist was the only acceptable religion. Therefore, the people attending mass had to be overwhelmed by this. The theme was unusual. The 'Elevation of the Cross' was never displayed on fresco's and paintings before the end of the 16th century. The radiantly white body of the crucified Jesus, the shadows of the muscles of the executioners, and the overall wealth and detail of the clothes and armors show all at once everything that Rubens learned in Italy. North of the Alps, this painting was the manifesto of a new style, the Baroque.

The Descent from the Cross (1612-1614)

The Descent from the Cross In 1611 the Guild of Arquebusiers ordered this painting for its altar in the Our Lady's Cathedral. In is now to be seen in the Southern transept. The central panel was finished in September 1612, the side-panels in the spring of 1614. In the second half of the 16th century the decoration of a lot of churches of the Low Countries had been demolished by the Iconoclasts. Therefore, during the Contrareformation new decorations were installed, mostly in Baroque style.

This is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Rubens. Apart from the magnificent artistic way the suffering of Christ has been portrayed the painting also has a hidden iconografic message. The three main panels are in fact portraits of Saint Christopher. This saint was the patron of the guild of Arquebusiers. When they requested Rubens to paint their patron Saint, he knew that this could get him in trouble with the authorities of the Contrareformation. Since only scenes from the life of Christ could be shown in the restored catholic churches, Rubens hid the name in the scenes. The signification of the name Christopher is 'he who carries Christ'. This is exactly what one sees in the painting. The central panel shows Saint John (with the red dress) carrying the body of Christ which makes him ' Christopher'. Likewise, in the left panel Mary is visiting her niece Elisabeth and she is pregnant, therefore she is 'carrying Christ = Christopher'. On the right side panel one can see holy Simon offering the new born child to God in the temple, thus carrying the baby Jesus (=Christopher).

The Assumption of the Holy Virgin (1625)

The Assumption of the Virgin This painting is displayed on the high altar of the Cathedral and can be seen immediately when entering the church. It was commissioned in 1619 but finished in 1625, already after the death of Canon Del Rio who ordered the painting. Rubens hesitated between whether he should paint the 'Coronation of Mary' or the 'Assumption of Mary'.

The latter was chosen because it was more in line with the name of the Cathedral (Our Lady ascended to heaven) and with the catholic tradition. Compared to the two other paintings mentioned above, this one is less dramatic. It shows, however, how Rubens had become a master of color composition in his later years.


The resurrection of Christ (1612).

In one of the side-chapels of the choir of the cathedral is a fourth Rubens painting, 'The resurrection of Christ which the master painted in 1612 to decorate the tomb of Jan Moretus and his wife Martina Plantin. It is very similar in style to the 'Elevation of the Cross'.

(all illustrations by kind permission of 'De Kerkfabriek OLV Kathedraal')

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