Antwerp cathedral’s 50-year makeover


Fifty years after work began on restoration, visitors to Antwerp’s cathedral can now access all areas of the delicate interior. Though it's almost complete, the long-term renovation project was affected by a severe hailstorm last summer, and, in the coming years, the roof will need attention

City celebrates

With more than 350,000 visitors a year, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp is one of the most important monuments in Flanders. Over the past 50 years, the building has undergone a dramatic restoration programme that saw many parts of the building off-limits to visitors for years at a time. The ambitious project has included repairs to the exterior fabric of the building, as well as its delicate interior.

The cost of renovating the cathedral has been funded by the province of Antwerp, which is responsible for its upkeep. The province pre-finances the work, but counts on a subsidy of 60% from the government of Flanders. Since the renovations started in 1965, more than €52 million has been spent to repair the cathedral and protect it for future generations.

While the cathedral is the responsibility of the province, the north tower is the responsibility of the city of Antwerp. This arrangement was implemented by Napoleon and still applies to all cathedrals in Belgium; it was a logical division as the belfry of each cathedral also acted as a lookout tower. Town authorities posted sentries in the tower to spot fires or approaching enemies.

From the outside, it’s obvious that not all of the renovations have been completed. Scaffolding on the south side is in place to repair damage caused by a hailstorm that hit Antwerp last June. “About €1 million in damage was caused to the roof and stained-glass windows in just 10 minutes,” explains Amke Maes, project leader of the provincial restoration project. “That will take another eight to 10 months to repair.”

The ongoing work affects just a small area on the south side of the cathedral. Visitors can now get unobstructed views of the building from almost every angle – enabling them to appreciate the fine detail and centuries of work by highly talented craftsmen.

Although 2015 will mark 50 years since the restoration project began, it does not mean work will stop. “The transformer box that brings power into the cathedral needs to be updated,” says Maes. “And in the next decade we will need to start replacing the roof.”

Yearly inspections of the building’s fabric are carried out by Monument Watch Flanders, an organisation that aims to maintain the region’s valuable historical heritage. If the inspection identifies major maintenance, the works are scheduled and carried out by the province.

Reunited after two centuries

Inside, the cathedral is finally free of scaffolding, and all areas are accessible to the public. One of the highlights is the Reunion exhibition, which has brought together many of the artworks that were looted from the cathedral during the French Revolution. 

Protecting the artworks has been a major challenge

- Leen Evens

“The exhibition includes works by Peter Paul Rubens and Quinten Metsijs, which were specifically commissioned for the cathedral. They hang as close as possible to the place they were designed to occupy,” says Leen Evens, deputy director of the cathedral. About half the works are on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA), which is currently closed for its own renovation.

The exhibition opened in 2009 and will run until the KMSKA renovations are completed in late 2017. “Protecting the artworks has been a major challenge,” explains Evens. “At times we have had to remove windows for repair, which required us to create ‘bubbles’ around the construction work to prevent damage to the art. It has been difficult, but there have been no major problems.”

With the restoration project stretching over five decades, there has inevitably been a change in approach. “Initially, the goal was to reveal the fabric of the building and how it is put together,” says Evens. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the great pillars near the high altar.

“If you look at the west side of the pillar, you will notice that the paint has been stripped back to show the stonework underneath,” Evens points out. “Move around to the altar side of the same pillar and you see that the stonework appears whitewashed. This reflects the modern approach – today we don’t take anything away unless it is absolutely necessary.”

Preserved for future conservationists

Another example can be found in the sacristy entrance on the south side of the choir. Renovation revealed two murals, only one of which is visible to the public today. “The top image dates from the 15th century. It was more or less intact … so it was left as we found it,” says Evens.

Below that mural was another that “was less clear,” she notes. “This has been recorded, then preserved under a layer of Japanese paper to protect it for future generations. When technology is more advanced, the mural will still be available to a new generation of conservationists as we haven’t taken anything away.”

We don’t take anything away unless it is absolutely necessary

- Leen Evens

The area surrounding the high altar was the last to be restored and appears notably brighter than the body of the cathedral. “This is due in part to the whitewash that was used,” explains Evens. “However, LED lighting has also been installed in this area.” The new lighting highlights details such as the keystones on the ceiling of the ambulatory that surrounds the altar. Future maintenance will include the placement of LED lights in the body of the church.

Noticeably absent from the cathedral is the Schyven organ, which dates from the late 1800s. The organ was removed for renovation late last year and is scheduled to be operational again by late 2016.

This year will mark a symbolic end to one of the most ambitious renovation projects in the cathedral’s history. The province of Antwerp is organising a number of celebratory events during the year, including a performance of church music. A study day will also be held to give an overview of the extensive renovations and repairs that have been carried out over the past half century.

A brief history of the cathedral

Antwerp’s cathedral has occupied a place in the heart of the city for more than 1,000 years. Tied to social life, the cathedral’s own history hasn’t always been trouble-free.

Today’s cathedral is on the site of a Romanesque chapel which is first mentioned in historical documents from the 11th century. Known as Our Lady Chapel, the small building developed into a large Romanesque church which, in 1124, became the parish church of Antwerp.

Over the next two centuries, the church grew slowly, funded by donations from Antwerp’s wealthy families. By 1352, construction of a new Gothic church had started. As the building work proceeded, the Romanesque church was systematically demolished. In 1420, construction of the north tower started.

By 1521 the north tower and the body of the church were complete. An ambitious plan to quadruple the size of the church was put in place. But those plans went up in smoke when a fire ravaged the building in 1533. A year later, construction of a new roof started. By 1559, the fire damage had largely been repaired, and the exterior looked much as it does today.

In 1559, the church became the cathedral of the new diocese of Antwerp. At the time, the Protestant reformation was sweeping Europe, and Antwerp was not spared. In 1566 the cathedral was severely damaged during the iconoclastic attacks of 20 August. By the late 1500s, the counter-reformation had led to the refurbishment of the cathedral.

The cathedral continued as the centre of Antwerp’s spiritual life for the next two centuries, until the French Revolution (1789-1799) intervened. The cathedral was pillaged and closed for worship. In late 1801, Pope Pius VII abolished the diocese of Antwerp, and the church lost its cathedral status. However, services were restored in 1802, and the building began a new life as a church.

A restoration campaign was launched in 1830 to redesign the interior in a neo-Gothic style. Much of the existing interior dates from this time, including the stalls and chapels around the high altar.

In 1961 Pope John XXIII re-established the diocese of Antwerp, and the church became a cathedral once more. In 1965 the province agreed to a request from the diocese to start a 50-year restoration of the cathedral’s interior and exterior.

Photo (c) Mark Walker