Bells are ringing in Antwerp. East. East. East.
The tinkling melody travels from clock tower to cobblestone, speeding along rows of ornate guild houses, briskly rushing toward the miracle.
Antwerp has been waiting for this moment for more than a decade. Not even a downpour of Belgian bullets could stop the tide of citizens flooding Leopold de Valplatz Avenue.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts, one of Belgium’s most important art galleries, has finally opened its doors after 11 years of closure for renovations.
Two centuries ago, when Paris returned Napoleon’s stolen art treasures to Antwerp after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the bell was thus tolled. Apparently, Napoleon didn’t think much of Antwerp – “not a European city at all” – but he still snatched up the golden age of Flemish art for his French National Museum, which eventually became the Louvre.
Now that the ribbon-cutting is over, generations of art-loving Antwerpens are in festive mode, cracking champagne in the museum forecourt and striding up the grand staircase into a new world. Artworks from the past, even if collected by princes, belong to the folk.
From the outside, with its massive limestone façade, neoclassical columns and triumphal bronze chariot, it looks almost exactly as it did when it first opened in 1890. Inside, it’s a different story, two distinct realms merging into one almighty temple art (known by its Flemish acronym KMSKA).
Through the restored gallery of old Flemish masters, an ethereal white “stairway to heaven” leads to a sleek modernist marvel that blends seamlessly with the original building. Bright white cubes with white cast-resin floors reflect daylight from triangular windows sloping high up towards the sky.
KMSKA’s art collection is small by European standards – just 8,400 works – a people-centred museum where quality matters. Covering seven centuries of art accumulated since the 14th century, the collection provides an almost complete overview of Flemish and Belgian art, from the great primitives – Hans Memling and Jan van Eyck – to Jangosa Walter and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordans.
Jean Fouquet’s remarkable Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (1452) has been described as the “Mona Lisa of Antwerp”. There are seminal works by Titian, Rembrandt, Rodin, Modigliani (“Seated Nude”), Magritte (“September 16”), and the enigmatic Belgian expressionist James Ensor’s largest collection of works.
Great public museums are more than a collection of artifacts; they are expressions of cultural strength. The most proud is Antwerp’s most famous son, Rubens.
The massive 15-meter-high Rubens Hall is polished into a dizzying fantasy of gigantic cathedral paintings: Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, Adoration of the Magi and christ’s baptismIncredibly, huge pieces like this – too big to fit through doors or too flimsy to move – were lowered during construction through hatches in the floor and hidden beneath the building.
Conservators tell stories of miraculous restorations (more than 130 pieces have now been restored), but the prize may go to Hans Memling’s stunning beauty God the Father and the Song and music angel (1494). It took the conservator 16 years to remove the thick insoluble salt crust on the surface of the work millimeter by millimeter through a microscope lens.
Despite the artistic and architectural splendor and Lonely Planet’s tagline “The Coolest City on Earth”, Antwerp has been understated as a tourist destination in Dutch-speaking Flanders.
This tiny metropolis is roped to the mouth of the Scheldt River, the second largest port in Europe. It has all the qualities of Belgium: chocolate boxes and beer steins, trams and French fries, a vibrant street life with edgy boutiques and a bustling concept store. Trendy and relevant, the cult fashion museum Mode Museum (MoMu) has just reopened after a three-year renovation.
Today Antwerp is an economic powerhouse powered by fashion, diamonds and petrochemicals, but for much of the 16th century it was also the center of the Western world. Here ideas, information, goods and money flowed with little restraint from any authority, and the city was a melting pot of exciting artistic achievement, further reinforced by an almost insatiable demand for the decoration of churches and mansions.
Rubens was a Baroque star among a thriving community of great painters (Brueghel, Antony van Dyck, Frans Hals and Rogier van der Weyden) who were either born in the city or Cities thrive. Much of the wealth generated was used to beautify the city: the magnificent Grote Markt Square with its imposing town hall, flanked by soaring gabled houses; and the 170-year-old Cathedral of Our Lady.
Tourists still flock to the seven-aisled cathedral to whisper adoration at the hypnotic triptychs that have survived centuries of looting and conflict. Rubens’ extraordinary masterpiece — sublimation of the cross (1610) and descendants of the cross (1612) – Hanging at the exact location specified by the artist at the entrance to the chancel.
There are other places of pilgrimage, churches and fine museums outside the galleries, such as the Rubens House. Rescued from ruins in 1937, the building was purchased by the artist on his return from Rome in 1610 and converted into a sumptuous Italian palace. Rubens was not an artist who suffered for his art. He was a diplomat who mingled with the highest political and social circles, and made a fortune churning out commissions from the busy studio, which has been closed for renovations from January.
The Enlightenment continues in another incredible but lesser-known World Heritage treasure, the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Founded in 1576, this great European printing house is as fascinating as Rubens’ altarpiece.
The dark timber-framed room, covered with gilt-embossed leather wallpaper, displays relics of the printing revolution, including two of the world’s oldest surviving printing presses, dating to around 1600, and an eight-part Royal Palace in five languages. Bible. The knowledge hidden in these books, maps, paintings and manuscripts is simply unfathomable.
There are too many reasons to stop by in Antwerp, but another artistic revelation awaits in one of Belgium’s oldest cities, an easy hour’s train ride away.
Ghent is a marvel of canal-side medieval architecture set against the gritty post-industrial district of cool urban renewal. A large student body ensures the vibrancy of the quirky bars and cozy restaurants scattered throughout the city. One of the best bookstores in the world is here – Bookz & Booze is a physical lesson in pairing a good book with a good bottle – but that’s not really the reason to come to Ghent.
This is the home of the Flemish genius who revolutionized painting in the 15th century.
Jan van Eyck’s ultimate masterpiece – completed after the death of his brother Hubert in 1426 – is one of Belgium’s national treasures. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), known as the Ghent Altarpiece, was painstakingly restored over seven years and now hangs in a €5 million bulletproof display case in St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
It barely made it to the list of the most stolen works of art of all time. Works were removed from flames lit by rioting Calvinists by winches, cut in half by the King of Prussia, scratched by Napoleon, and returned due to the Duke of Wellington. It was hidden in a salt mine in Austria by Hitler and might have been blown up with dynamite if it hadn’t been rescued by a group of silent heroes. One panel was stolen in 1934 and remains missing.
The Visitor Center inside St. Bavo’s Cathedral helps bring the piece to life through an augmented reality digital experience that immerses you in the world of Van Eyck.
The allegorical celebration of the death of Christ came out of nowhere after centuries of highly stylized medieval art. Van Eyck transformed painting with his hyperrealistic, technically masterful canvases, his use of perspective and reflection.
These 12 panels – including Adam and Eve, the first monumental painted nude of the Renaissance – capture the amazing diversity of the natural world like never before. The work is full of old-age intrigue and symbolism, but occult witchcraft is just as fascinating in the new.
When conservators removed centuries of overpainting to reveal van Eyck’s original “humanoid” depiction of the Lamb of God, the image of the altarpiece went viral, standing on the altar in the middle of the meadow, blood pouring into the golden altar foot cup.
This is a masterpiece that changed the course of Western art.
If ever there was a reason to ring a bell, it is here, in this quiet corner of Flanders Cathedral.
A leisurely walk through KMSKA in Antwerp’s Het Zuid district takes about two hours. Tickets €20 (adults), €10 (under 18-26).Look https://kmska.be/en
The Rubens House is under renovation but is open until 8 January 2023. Buy tickets at reception – €12 (adult), €8 (18-25) – otherwise book in advance online.Look https://rubenshuis.be
Open the doors of the Plantin-Moretus Museum and step into the Plantin-Moretus family 400 years ago. Tickets 12 euros (adults), 8 euros (18-25 years old).Look https://museumplantinmoretus.be
The cathedral of Notre Dame has been shaped by the faith for 500 years, and a visit including Rubens’ masterpiece costs 12 euros per person.Look https://www.dekathedraal.be
Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent is available every day (except January 1) for an augmented reality tour of the altarpiece for €16 (adults), €8 (under 12).Look https://www.sintbaafskathedraal.be/
In a special place, try the new Fiera, in the gorgeous old stock exchange building.Look https://fiera.be/
Experience Het Leienpaleis, a mansion that recently reopened after a stylish renovation by Flemish interior designer Gert Voorjans.Look https://www.leienpaleis.be/
Anabel Dean travels as a guest of Visit Flanders.