Jan Fabre’s glorious triptych shines new light on the baroque in Antwerp


Replacing – and modernising – three altarpieces by three Flemish masters, the new work by the contemporary artist is part of a year-long celebration of historical decorative excess

Shimmering insects

The latest creation by contemporary artist Jan Fabre continues an artistic thread that binds the church, economy and culture in Antwerp. Fabre has created three new altarpieces for the Sint-Augustinus church – now the home of early music and event centre Amuz – that celebrate the city’s historical richness.

Replacing original large-scale altar paintings by Flemish masters Jordaens, Van Dyck and Rubens – now housed in the city’s Fine Arts Museum – Fabre’s three works retell the allegorical stories of the originals while nodding to the church’s new function. They form an integral part of Antwerp Baroque, an urban art festival dedicated to the epitome of Catholic decorative excess.

The 17th-century deconsecrated church in Kammenstraat is one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in a city that adopted Europe’s most decadent style as an outward sign of its wealth and position as a leading world trading centre. In commissioning three of Antwerp’s elite painters, the Augustine monastic community was adorning its church with High Baroque art to evoke the chapter’s spirituality.

Fabre’s use of jewelled beetle wing cases in mosaic form is one that proved effective in the “Heaven of Delight” ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors in the Royal Palace in Brussels. The glittering, iridescent images shine down on the chapel, subtly altering with each change of light while reflecting tints of blue and gold.

A modern woman

While the colour and sheen of the three tableaux are initially the most striking elements, further reflection reveals the intricate nature of Fabre’s works.

Jordaens’ collage-style depiction of the torture of St Appolonia has been transformed by Fabre into “The Ecstatic Recording”, with Appolonia defiantly a new woman. She appears as a scantily-clad pop singer, riding a tooth and clasping tongs to her mouth like a microphone, while surrounding symbols include a musical composition, decibel-busting sound-level meter and the mythical images of dogs licking her wounds and palm fronds.

The musical allusion persists in “The Monastic Performance”, inspired by van Dyck’s “The Ecstasy of St Augustine”. Fabre retains elements of the original motifs – the Holy Trinity and Augustine’s staff, mitre and book – while placing a modern-day Christ figure in the centre of the composition. In his left hand he grips a microphone, in the right is visible a stigmata, giving the performer a martyred look.

In the dominating central altarpiece stands Fabre’s interpretation of Rubens’ monumental “The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine”. It’s a multi-layered mosaic of an image that’s typical of Fabre. After the human figures that flank right and left, here we have a lamb bearing a giant diamond, which in turn sprouts a giant vein of lifeblood and a fountain of flames, encircled by a winged ring. The sacrificial lamb is a frequent Fabre motif, while the diamond is a symbol of the city’s industry and riches.

A modern-day Rubens, Fabre is an internationally renowned painter, sculptor, theatre director and designer who remains based in Antwerp. His unique visual language made him the natural choice to decorate this temple to music and provide the artistic bridge between the city’s past, present and future. The triptych is a continuation of other works, such as his bronze sculpture and semi self-portrait “The Man Who Bears the Cross” (2015). Standing in the nearby Cathedral of Our Lady, it also dialogues with another treasure, Rubens’ masterpiece “The Descent from the Cross”.  

The Amuz altarpieces can be seen on Mondays until 10 December, and on Open Monument Day on 9 September.