The master comes home: Antwerp celebrates baroque


This weekend Flanders’ port city kicks off a months-long festival celebrating its baroque roots, bringing old and new masters together and putting Rubens in the spotlight like never before

‘Running through our veins’

The baroque style of art and architecture was born in Italy. But when Peter Paul Rubens brought it to Antwerp, the low countries’ premier baroque city was born.

From its houses’ facades – including Rubens’ famous abode – all the way to its cathedral, Antwerp  took up the extravagant style and preserved it far beyond that of other cities in western Europe. And now it is celebrating this heritage in a big way.

In 2018, the Sint-Augustinus Church – one of Antwerp’s best examples of the dramatic embellishments that baroque architecture entailed – turns 400 years old. Concert hall Amuz now calls the church home, and only if visitors look skyward does its facade offer a clue of what they’ll see when they step inside – an opulent early baroque chapel with arched columns, gold leaf decor, intricate reliefs and row upon row of paintings.

There were once monumental paintings by Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens flanking the altar – now home to a stage – which are now in Antwerp’s Fine Arts Museum.

Rubens inspires

Amuz, which hosts concerts of classical and new music, moved into the Sint-Augustinus Church in 2006, following extensive renovations. Any sense of this 17th-century interior is hidden from the outside, with only concert-goers privy to the wonders of this now-protected monument.

But Antwerp Baroque 2018: Rubens Inspires should get many more visitors through the door. The festive opening weekend starts on Friday and continues right through to the end of the year, honouring Antwerp’s baroque past and its role in local life in the present.

“When you think about baroque cities, you often first think of Italian cities,” says Karen Vandenberghe, the co-ordinator of Antwerp Baroque. “But Antwerp is one of the most baroque cities in northern Europe. That’s not just because Rubens lived here and left behind very visible traces but also because the inhabitants of Antwerp have the DNA of Rubens and his baroque legacy running through their veins.”

That can certainly be said of Jan Fabre, one of the city’s – and Europe’s – most famous contemporary artists. With a penchant for staging large-scale sculptures of rather visceral subjects in churches as well as staggering installations like the ceiling known as “Heaven of Delight” in Brussels’ Royal Palace – made from 1.6 million wing casings of the Jewel beetle – Fabre is, according to Amuz chair Philip Heylen, a baroque artist in his own right.

Fabre has been chosen to create a permanent installation on the walls flanking the Amuz stage – previously the church’s altar. “I love Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, but what you see here are poorly made fakes,” says Heylen. “This space cried out for a contemporary rebirth, and the only one who could do that for us was Jan Fabre.”

Although exactly what Fabre has done with the space will only be revealed this weekend.  “He will certainly create an installation that is as large and lush as we’re accustomed to seeing from the old masters – and from Fabre himself”.

Baroque pioneer

The star of Antwerp Baroque, though, remains Rubens. Having travelled extensively throughout Italy in the first years of the 17th century, he is credited with importing the baroque style of painting – sweeping, clear movement, dramatic emotions, rich colour and sensuality, all on a very grand scale – to the low countries.

His work as an architect solidified the stamp he left on the port city. It is difficult to traverse a few hundred metres in Antwerp without seeing a trace of Rubens.

The organisers of the festival see his contribution to the city as crucial to what it has become today. “When I think about baroque, I think of emotions, exuberance, the dramatic – and we are all aware of what this has meant for our city,” says Heylen.

At that moment in time, Rubens saved this city. Baroque shows that, and we residents feel it

- Philip Heylen

Rubens was heavily invested in Antwerp, keeping his studio in the heart of the city even when he became the official court painter and really should have moved to Brussels. His work and connections across the continent brought with it a keen interest in the city by outsiders.

His prominence was only strengthened when he married Isabella Brandt, the daughter of a highly influential local family. “Rubens was not just an artist; he meant much more to this city,” says Heylen. “At that moment in time, he saved the city. Baroque shows that, and we residents feel it.”

Until 16 December, across Antwerp

Antwerp Baroque 2018 highlights

There isn’t a museum, cultural centre or even a street that will not be involved in Antwerp Baroque 2018. From the Rubens House itself to churches and public squares, the murals, music and performances will be impossible to miss. There are hundreds of initiatives; here are a few to get you started.

Opening Weekend  Antwerp Baroque kicks off on 1 June with a party in the MAS museum. An exhibition introduces visitors to Michaelina, one of the rare women artists of the baroque. There’s also DJs and an after-party in Storm cafe. The weekend continues with a free performance by Ensemble Clematis at Rubens House, the family-friendly Experience Traps at the Middelheim and festive activities on squares where baroque-inspired murals have been created by international street artists. This is just a sampling; the weekend includes much, much more.

The Master Comes Home  Rubens House, with an already rich collection of the artist’s work, has been busy buying up more with Antwerp Baroque in mind. Staff have been busy this year adding works by other artists who Rubens taught or otherwise inspired and have already purchased a Tintoretto and two Van Dycks. The museum will also unveil a fully restored self-portrait. From 1 June

Baroque Murals  It’s urban meets baroque as Yvon Tordoir of Antwerp invites three other international street artists to create massive murals on the sides of buildings and walls (pictured above). The Paris, Glasgow and Los Angeles residents will bring their own interpretation to what baroque means to them. From 31 May

Amuz 1618 Before & Beyond  Amuz concert hall celebrates the 25th anniversary of its summer Laus Polyphoniae festival, after which it launches an impressive series of baroque music concerts. Taken together, they form the 1618 Before & Beyond event, highlighting how polyphonic music had to make way for baroque composers like Bach, Vivaldi and Handel. 16 August to 16 December

Earth Diver  Muziektheater Transparant’s visually striking productions lend themselves to a baroque-appreciative audience. This piece, which mingles theatre with song, music and video art on multiple screens explores the crisis of coexistence. 11-14 October

Photo top: Detail of “Self-Portrait” by Peter Paul Rubens, Rubenshuis Antwerp, photo by Sidgrid Spinnox April 2018
Photo above by Jasper Leonard