Address: Hendrik Conscienceplein, 2000 Antwerpen, 200m east of the cathedral.
Co-ordinates: 51.22114, 4.40508
Distance from central Brussels: 45 km
Open: The church is open 10-1230 and 2-5, Mon-Sat; but the sacristy, with its Hansche stucco ceiling, is open by special arrangement only.
Information in English: https://mkantwerpen.be/en/churches/st-charles-borromeo-church/
Church website in Dutch: https://www.scba.be/
Parking: Several garages within 200 m
How to get there by public transport: 20 minutes walk west of Antwerpen-Centraal railway station. Numerous trams go in the right direction; the 11 comes closest (get off at Melkmarkt)
How good is it? It’s early stuff, but already you can see Hansche’s trademark three-dimensional style emerging.
Date of my visit: 29 January 2022
The church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp started life as the main Jesuit church in the city, and was originally dedicated to St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Order. Built in 1615-1621, it was lavishly decorated by none other than Pieter Paul Rubens, though sadly the 39 ceiling pieces of the main church that he painted were all lost in a fire in 1718. Enough art survives – more than enough, really – to justify its description as the most important Baroque church in the Low Countries.
The sacristy of the church escaped the 1718 fire, which is fortunate for us as it contains the northernmost and also the earliest surviving work by Jan Christian Hansche, dating from 1653. It is not open to casual visitors, and you will need to make a good case to the authorities; I am very grateful to them for admitting my wife and me to their private workspace when we visited in January 2022.
It is not the most developed of Hansche’s surviving work, but even so it does not disappoint. Here are two panoramas of the eastern and western panels, unfortunately missing out the middle as the floor was blocked by tables.
The most interesting figure on the ceiling is at the top of these two pictures, the Jesuit martyr St Paul Miki, crucified by Japanese officials in 1597 along with twenty-five others. Hansche shows him carrying a cross, which protrudes abruptly into our space, and what looks like a palm frond; one of his colleagues is suffering in the background.
Right beside him, one of the poles for carrying what looks like the Ark of the Covenant also sticks out into our space.
On his other side is what looks to me like a cat asleep on a drum. My wife thinks it’s obviously a sheep/lamb. I would love to know what the symbolism is here.
Five of the other ceiling panels depict other heroes of the Jesuits, none quite as dramatic as the unfortunate Paul Miki.
St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), who started it all, being struck by divine inspiration, with his book (always open at the same page).
St Francis Xavier (1506-1552), also struck by divine inspiration, with his trademark cloak.
St Francis Borgia (1510-1572), who gave up a high-flying career in Spanish politics to become a Jesuit, depicted with a crowned skull.
Angels bring Holy Communion to the young St Stanislaus Kostka (1550-1568)
St Aloysius de Gonzaga (1568-1591), brandishing a large lily at the plague victims who fatally infected him.
The central monograms are beautifully worked – Hansche would develop this subject further in Schoonhoven Castle, which we will come to in due course.
Finally, as far as the ceiling goes, the two southern corner pieces depict food and drink, one of them clearly also showing the date – 1653 – and less clearly showing Hansche’s initials (under the table, you’ll have to take my word for it).
But I also want to show you the ornate mouldings on the north and south walls, split in each case by a painting in the middle.
Over in the main church, it’s no exaggeration to say that Hansche and Rubens between them put the “rock” into Baroque here. The church as a whole is a Baroque dream:
My eye was caught by the carved wooden side panels. I love the sassy hip-swinging androgynous supporting figures:
If you happen to be in Antwerp, it’s well worth dropping in, even without the sacristy.
(All photographs copyright Nicholas Whyte)
(The one that might not be by Hansche in the Gent law library)
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from most to least amazing:
Leuven – Park Abbey | Modave Castle | Gent – Brouwershuis | Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | Gent – Canfyn House (in storage) | Wesel, Germany (destroyed) | Kleve, Germany (destroyed) | Perk – Church of St Nicholas | Brussels – Church of the Sablon | Franc-Waret – Church of St Remigius | Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | Leuven – Priory of the Vale of St Martin (destroyed, little known)
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from earliest to latest date of creation:
1653: Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | 1655: Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | 1659: Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | 1666-72: Modave Castle | 1668-70: Perk – Church of St Nicholas | 1669: Franc-Waret – Church of St Remigius | 1670s: Leuven – Priory of the Vale of St Martin (destroyed) | 1671: Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | 1672: Wesel, Germany (destroyed) | 1672/79: Leuven – Park Abbey | 1673: Gent – Canfyn House (in storage) | 1673: Gent – Brouwershuis | 1677: Kleve, Germany (destroyed) | 1684: Brussels – Church of the Sablon
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from most to least accessible to tourists:
Not normally open to the public: Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | Gent – Brouwershuis
The ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche, from west to east:
Gent – Canfyn House (in storage) | Gent – Brouwershuis | Brussels – Church of the Sablon | Machelen – Beaulieu Castle | Antwerp – Sacristy of the Church of St Charles Borromeo | Perk – Church of St Nicholas | Leuven – Priory of the Vale of St Martin (destroyed, little known) | Leuven – Park Abbey | Sint-Pieters-Rode – Horst Castle | Aarschot – Schoonhoven Castle | Franc-Waret – Church of St Remigius | Modave Castle | Kleve, Germany (destroyed) | Wesel, Germany (destroyed)