The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche, part 6: the Charles Borromeo sacristy in Antwerp

Well, I’ve been able to change the colours of a couple of dots on my map:

I have to start by reporting a dead end, unfortunately. The Inventaris Onroerend Erfgoed had led me to believe that there might be a Hansche ceiling actually in our commune, over in Blanden. After diligent research I was able to get in touch with the owners, who however denied that there is any work by Hansche on the premises. So I’ll have to take no for an answer.

Persistence was also required for the northernmost surviving work by Hansche, on the ceiling of the sacristy of the church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp. The sacristy is not open to the public, but I got special permission from the man in charge, D, so Anne and I went up to Antwerp yesterday. Here are Anne and D in the sacristy itself.

The sacristy ceiling is the earliest and perhaps least developed of Hansche’s surviving work, but even so it did not disappoint. Here are two panoramas of the eastern and western panels, unfortunately missing out the middle as the floor was blocked by tables, south at the top, north at the bottom (sorry, I was not paying attention to the compass directions).

The church is a Jesuit church, and the most interesting figure on the ceiling is the Jesuit martyr St Paul Miki, at the northern end of the room, carrying with him the instruments of his martyrdom (and maybe a palm frond, indicating Japan???). The sidebar of his cross protrudes into our space.

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. Anne thinks it’s obviously a sheep/lamb. I would love to know what the symbolism is here.

Most of the other ceiling panels seem to be Jesuits doing Jesuity things, three of them threatened by heavenly lightning, none quite as dramatic as the unfortunate Paul Miki.

The central monograms are beautifully worked – I don’t think I’ve seen this as much in Hansche’s later work.

Finally, as far as the ceiling goes, the two southern corner pieces depict food and drink.

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.

We are lucky to have this early Hansche work. The roof of most of the church was destroyed by a fire after the church was struck by lightning in 1718, and 39 ceiling pieces by Peiter Paul Rubens were lost in the blaze; but the sacristy was spared. Two of Rubens’ altarpieces still survive at ground level. It’s no exaggeration to say that he and Hansch between them put the “rock” into Baroque here.

The church as a whole is a Baroque dream:

The carved wooden side panels are also rather glorious. I will only give a couple of examples to whet your appetite. Here’s St Francis Xavier, doing Good Works.

And I’m amused and intrigued by the sassy hip-swinging androgynous supporting figures:

If you happen to be in Antwerp, it’s well worth dropping in.

I’ve managed to book a visit to the law library at Gent University on Saturday morning next weekend, to see more Hansche stucco; you are welcome to join me.

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