Antwerp, Belgium

Three centuries ago the city of Antwerp had in Europe scarcely a rival in commerce and affluence. To-day Antwerp remains one of the most populous commercial cities of Belgium, although the period of its greatest splendour passed with the Spanish persecution under the Duke of Alva. Not only as a busy port and mart is the city on the Schelde famous. It has renown as a centre of the arts, as the home of several of the most illustrious painters of the Flemish school, and as the birthplace of one of the first academies of painting. As a fortified town, it has always been of first importance in the defence of Belgium.

The traveller from England, as the Harwich boat steams up Goldsmith’s “lazy Scheld” at daybreak, in summer-time, sees long grey vistas, on either side of the estuary, of flat pastures and fertile fields of grain, spreading away to Bruges to the south, and across the island of
Walcheren, to the north. Flushing comes into sight, its roofs and spires
lit by the rising sun, which quickly lends colour to the landscape, and
reveals a picturesque town, intersected by canals, lined with vessels.
Past islets and sandbanks, upon which sea-birds congregate, the steamer
follows the line of buoys and beacons, until the river, though still
tidal, becomes narrower, and in sixty odd miles from its mouth, washes
the quays of Antwerp.

During this approach to the city by the Schelde an impression is formed
in the mind of the voyager of the ingenious methods of dyke-making,
canal construction, and damming which have so greatly aided in the
prosperity of Holland and Belgium. Antwerp owes its wealth as much to
the toil of the engineer and the agriculturist as to the merchant and
craftsman. Rural Belgium is well populated, except in some parts of the
Ardennes; the farms are tilled with science, the towns and villages of
the Schelde-side are bright and clean, and inhabited by industrious,
thrifty people.

Antwerp probably derives its name from “an t’ werf,” “on the wharf.” Its
position on a deep navigable river was one of the principal causes of
the early commercial supremacy of the city. When Venice, Nuremberg, and
Bruges were declining, the port on the Schelde was in the height of
its repute, and second to Paris in the number of its inhabitants, among
whom but few were poor. In education Antwerp excelled in these fortunate
days, for the schools were admirable, and every burgher’s child could
benefit by the teaching provided by the senate.

Philip II. of Spain, who despised the Flemings and Walloons, and
disliked their loquacity, was received joyously in Antwerp, as
hereditary sovereign of the seventeen Netherlands. The city was gay with
triumphant arches and splendid banners; a gorgeous assemblage of
dignitaries and their servants, with a great troop of soldiers, met the
Spanish sovereign without the gates. His coldness and reserve disturbed
the minds of the citizens. After Philip came the Duke of Alva with his
reign of tyranny, the setting up of the Inquisition in Antwerp, the ruin
of the silk trade, and the vast emigration of the oppressed workers to
other countries, especially to England.

In 1566, William of Orange was in Antwerp, and two years later, as soon
as the prince had left the city, the natives bent to the rule of the
oppressor. The Spaniards, defeated at Brussels, prepared some years
after for an attack upon Antwerp, then the richest city of Belgium. On
a grey wintry morning, the enemy encompassed the walls of the city, the
besieged having been reinforced by an army of Walloons. The fight was
one of the most desperate ever recorded in history. Gaining entrance,
the Spaniards swept up the chief thoroughfares; “the confused mob of
fugitives and conquerors, Spaniards, Walloons, Germans, burghers,”
writes Motley, “struggling, shouting, striking, cursing, dying, swayed
hither and thither like a stormy sea.”

A frightful massacre followed upon the conquest of Antwerp, no less than
eight thousand men, women, and children were put to death by the
ferocious victors.

Merchants were tortured in order to extort from them the hiding-places
of their gold; the poor were killed because they had no store for the
plunderer; and a young bride was torn from the arms of the bridegroom,
and conveyed to a dungeon, where she tried to strangle herself with her
long gold chain. She was stripped of her jewels and dress, beaten, and
flung into the streets, to meet death at the hands of a rabble of
soldiers. Such were the horrors of the capture of Antwerp, to be
followed by the “Spanish Fury,” in which more persons were slain than in
the terrible massacre of St Bartholomew.

The siege of 1830, on 27th October, was one of the most sanguinary
conflicts in modern warfare. Attacked by the implacable General Chassé,
the inhabitants had to face a terrible cannonade. The cathedral was
damaged, the arsenal fired, and the townsfolk crouched in terror in
vaults and cellars, while many of them fled into the open country.

Again in the revolution of 1830, and in 1832, Antwerp was the scene of

From such records of carnage and cruelty, it is a relief to turn the
pages of history till we read of the arts that flourished for so long in
Antwerp. Not only were the wealthy classes of the city cultivated beyond
the standard of many countries of Europe, but the artisans also shared
in the general culture, and cherished respect for art.

Quentin Matsys, whose pictures may be studied in the museum, was one of
the early painters of Antwerp. Rubens and Teniers were both associated
with the city, and their statues stand in the streets. Vandyk is another
famous artist upon the roll of honour of Antwerp, and his image in
marble is in the Rue des Fagots.

Peter Paul Rubens was born in 1577, in Siegen. He was the pupil of
Verhaecht and Van Nort, and afterwards of Otto Van Veen, whom he
assisted in the decoration of Antwerp at the time of the visit of Albert
and Isabella. Rubens travelled in Italy, where he pursued his art
studies, afterwards settling in Antwerp at the beginning of the twelve
years’ truce. Here he painted most of his chief pictures. The works in
the cathedral were finished in 1614.

Under the patronage of Charles I. Rubens visited England, and was
commissioned to embellish the banqueting hall in Whitehall. His fame
also reached Spain, and his “Metamorphoses of Ovid” was painted for the
royal hunting seat of that country.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, though a somewhat prejudiced critic of Dutch and
Belgian painting, visited the Low Countries more than once, and brought
back art treasures to England. In 1781, he wrote to Burke from Antwerp,
where he inspected the pictures in the churches.

The Museum contains some of the masterpieces of Rubens, and notable
examples of the work of Vandyk, Teniers, Rembrandt, and Van Eyck. Here
is the great work of Quentin Matsys, “The Descent from the Cross.” For
the best-known painting by Rubens, “The Descent from the Cross,” we must
visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It has been said that the painting of
the picture was suggested to Rubens by an Italian engraving, for there
are traces in it of Italian influence. Parts of the painting have been
restored and cleaned. It is seen to good advantage from a short
distance, for the painting was planned for a large building. “The
Elevation of the Cross” is another of the treasures in the cathedral.
This, in the opinion of Sir Joshua Reynolds, is one of the chief
pictures by Rubens. “The Assumption of the Virgin” was painted rapidly,
and decorates the choir.

The cathedral is Gothic, and one of the finest in Europe. The interior
is impressive, with its wide nave and aisles. The choir stalls are
beautifully carved, and should be carefully examined as examples of
Gothic art. The pulpit is also carved, but the work is indifferent. The
steeple, one of the highest in Christendom, is very exquisite, like lace
work rather than stone and metal. In the tower are the many tuneful
bells that ring out chimes, and one huge bell with a sonorous note.

In the churches of St Paul and St Jacques, and of the Augustines, are
paintings of great interest by Rubens, Vandyk, and Teniers.

A ramble around the fortifications will show how strong are the defences
of the city, which have been constructed since the last siege in 1832.
Walls and citadels, well provided with points of vantage for artillery
fire, begirt Antwerp to-day. The forts and barriers cost an enormous
sum. Guns and ammunition are made in the city, which is the chief
fortress of the country, and an important military centre.

In the Grande Place stands the town hall, a florid building, containing
several paintings, though none of remarkable note, except some frescoes
by Leys, one of the most eminent of modern Belgian painters.

Our tour of the city must include a visit to the house of Rubens, in the
street named after him. The archway is from the designs of the painter,
whose studio was in the grounds.

The first Exchange was erected in 1531, and destroyed by fire in 1858.
It was from this building that the plan of the London Royal Exchange
was taken. The modern Bourse is in the Rue de la Bourse.

Antwerp is architecturally a handsome city, with several fine squares,
wide promenades, and well-planned streets. The docks are extensive, and
the long quays stretch thence to the old fort on the south side. There
is a triangular park with sheets of water, beyond the great Boulevard,
and in the zoological garden is a fairly representative collection of
animals. In the Rue Leopold is the botanic garden.

The Plantin Museum, containing relics and volumes of one famous printer,
is one of the public institutions that must be visited.

Such are the chief monuments and objects of interest in the old city of
Antwerp, where the ancient and the modern are both represented side by
side in odd contrast.


  • The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan