The Gods of the Hofkamer
The Gods on Mount Olympus has been painstakingly removed from the ceiling of Antwerp's Hofkamer building for a years-long restoration
Painting restoration, building renovation
You might remember the Hofkamer, one of the complex of buildings called Den Wolsack in Antwerp’s Oude Beurs street, from headlines last year when “The Gods on Mount Olympus” was removed from the ceiling of the building, where it had hung for nearly 240 years. The largest single painting on canvas in Belgium, Erfgoed Vlaanderen (Heritage Flanders) is having it restored, along with the entire building.
You might also remember the headlines a few months later when, under restoration in the large reception of the nearby ING bank, part of the painting fell over, leaving a tear five metres long. “It was a nightmare,” says Bart Jonckheere of Erfgoed Vlaanderen, who is heading up the restoration project. He’s able to smile while he says it now, but it was a different matter before, as the legal and technical ramifications of the accident delayed the project for six months.
Now it’s back on track, headed up by Belgian restorer Hugo Vandenborre, and will be completed as early as the end of this year. But then it just has to sit and wait.
The Hofkamer building is also undergoing renovation, and work continues at the same pace as money is raised. “The bestcase scenario is three years,” says Jonckheere. “The worst case, 10 years.” When it’s ready, the painting can “go back up on the ceiling for the next 240 years,” he laughs.
“The Gods of Mount Olympus” is a remarkable example of quadratura, a tradition in Rococo art that gives the illusion of an arch shape or an open sky. Measuring 65 square metres, one end of the rectangle shape seems to meld seamlessly into the fireplace at the end of the room. The 32 gods, goddesses and other divinities sit among the clouds, many staring upwards towards Zeus. (An interactive computer programme located both in the Hofkamer and in the ING bank offers a tutorial on many of the painting’s characters from Greek mythology.)
The painter – or rather the painters – is unknown. “We know there is more than one painter because there is a difference between the architectural motifs and the figures,” explains Jonckheere. “The architectural motifs are of better quality.”
Completed in 1772, the painting was commissioned by François Adrien Van den Bogaert, a rich merchant “who wanted to impress his colleagues,” says Jonckheere. He must have done because he completely renovated the entire Hofkamer, which was originally built in the 16th-century, with an entirely new facade, boasting fantastic Rococo architecture. At the same time a clock was being installed by the Van Hoof family in Antwerp’s cathedral, another by the famous clock-making family was being installed on the Hofkamer.
Its gold face flanked by putti, the clock is topped by an armillary sphere, a miniature representation of the universe – a touch meant to prove that Van den Bogaert was an educated man of the world. He also seemed to have a sense of whimsy, as evidenced by his “library toilet”. In the upper story of the Hofkamer, he employed the style used in some French castles of hiding his porcelain bowl behind fake book fronts. But he went a few steps further – the walls of the small WC are lined by fake book shelves of wood and leather. It is unique in the world.
This is one of the many reasons why the Hofkamer is a protected monument under the aegis of Erfgoed Vlaanderen, whose job it is to see to the upkeep of 13 of Flanders’ protected monuments. Some of the others are the Fort Napoleon in Ostend, the Beauvoorde Castle in Veurne and the Horst Castle in Holsbeek. They maintain the historical buildings and oversee their activities. It’s also their job to increase awareness of Flanders’ heritage sites, which means they are also the organisation behind Open Monument Day, which was last weekend in Flanders.
Erfgoed Vlaanderen receives half of its operating costs from the Flemish Region. The other half comes from rents from businesses located in its properties, guided tours and, of course, private donations. Visit the website to see how you can help support protected monument in Flanders.
Tour the Hofkamer with Flanders Today
On Thursday, 1 October, Flanders Today teams up with Erfgoed Vlaanderen to offer guided tours in English. You’ll see the Hofkamer building, hear the legend of the “book toilet” and find out just how they managed to take “The Gods on Mount Olympus” down from the ceiling and get it out the door. The tour continues to the ING building for a viewing of the painting, an explanation of restoration techniques and (of course!) food and drink.
To join the 90-minute tour, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “English tour” in the subject line. Limited to the first 50 respondents (two people per email), who will be asked to pay the €5 fee in advance.