Rubens House portico wins top European prize for conservation


Jurors were impressed by the meticulous restoration of the 400-year-old structures, designed and built by Rubens himself, while there was a special mention for Leuven’s Peace Carillon

Rubens originals

Monuments in Antwerp and Leuven are among the success stories at this year’s European Heritage Awards. Antwerp’s Rubens House was the winner in the conservation category for its restoration of the museum’s portico and garden pavilion. Leuven’s Peace Carillon was given a special mention for its contribution to upgrading European cultural heritage.

Designed and constructed by Peter Paul Rubens himself, the 400-year-old portico and garden pavilion at his former home are the only parts of his original design that have survived more or less intact. The various types of stone used in their construction were in a poor condition because of pollution, inappropriate interventions and water damage. A two-year project, completed in 2019, applied contemporary conservation measures to preserve them for future generations.

The portico, with its columns and archways, was inspired by Roman architecture and 16th-century Italian painter-architects such as Michelangelo. This kind of passageway appears in several of Rubens’ own works as well as in works by Flemish artists Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens.

The results of the restoration are stunning, further highlighting Rubens’ architectural skills

The triumphal arch marked the passage to the garden, where the pavilion was the garden’s focal point. The sculptures on both the portico and the pavilion were chosen to fit the iconographic concept of the artist as a scholarly painter. The sculptures of Mercury and Minerva on the top of the portico, for example, are intended as personifications of the art of painting and of knowledge and wisdom.

Over the years, a number of measures had been taken to protect the structure, including building a temporary wooden “roof”. That has now been replaced with a subtle glass and steel canopy, offering more effective and less visually obstructive protection.

“The Rubens House is honoured to receive this international award,” a spokesperson said. “The museum worked for several years with numerous experts to prepare for the restoration of the portico and garden pavilion, before meticulously carrying out the works. The results of the restoration are stunning, further highlighting Rubens’ architectural skills.”

Faithful replica

The Peace Carillon in Leuven’s Park Abbey, meanwhile, received a special mention from the jury. It is a faithful replica of the 18th-century abbey carillon, which was destroyed in 1914.

In 2012, the city archivist of Neuss in Germany learned that a battalion from his city had taken part in the destruction of Leuven in 1914. A partnership developed between the two cities, and they decided to resurrect the destroyed carillon.

More than 300 people donated to the project, and it was inaugurated in 2018 on Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of the First World War.

“We are very pleased with this special mention from the Europa Nostra jury,” said Denise Vandevoort, the city councillor responsible for tourism. “It once again proves the strength of the Leuven Peace Carillon: from its beautiful history to its functioning today. Since the inauguration, it has become an absolute fixture on the Park Abbey site.”

Europa Nostra is a heritage organisation with members from more than 40 countries. Every year, it presents its European Heritage Awards to exceptional achievements in conservation, research, dedicated service, education, training and raising awareness.

Photo: The portico's protective glass canopy is barely noticeable when seen from the front. The garden pavilion can be seen in the background
(c)Ans Brys