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Heaven and Hell in Antwerp

The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp (Belgium) took one hundred and sixty-nine years to build (yes, 169 years!), and building stopped in 1521. In a modern city, its size and intricacy still impresses, so just imagine how it might have looked to a peasant arriving from a village, where a two storey house is already a significant achievement.

The point of the cathedral, just like huge skyscrapers and malls nowadays, was a reminder of the who has the power in the social system, and an invitation to come in and contribute towards the collective building of common value systems. Think of the Petronas Towers and how they are seen as representing Malaysia and the achievements of Mahathir's Barisan Nasional government.

Literacy was rare in those days, and masses were in Latin. So, you may ask, how did people learn about the religion then? Good question, and you can take it as a special assignment and come back tomorrow with an answer ;-P ...

OK - I don't know, I suppose there must have been some portion of the mass that was in the vernacular, the sermon I suppose. Which would leave it open for the priest to interpret the liturgy and the scriptures in whichever way he felt was most appropriate.

The tympanum is the hemispheric portion above the door; and for an illiterate looking closely at it, there are clear messages to take home. I read recently (can't remember where) that only 10% of European medieval children lived to the age of ten years old, death was omnipresent, and the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell were probably the main tools of religious instruction. On this tympanum, the message is carved out clearly.
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp tympanum

At the top sits the ruler, Jesus - who is also God according to Christians - sits at the top. On his right hand, you can see those who are chosen for eternal life and to the left are those consigned to damnation.
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp tympanum

below him, the Archangel Michael (or Gabriel) holds the scales of justice and wields an unyielding sword. Below him is a monk with a skull, dunno who he is.

On the Archangel's left side, the despair and fear of those who were rejected is clear
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp tympanum

and we even have Satan, or a demon, grabbing the hair of a condemned sinner
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp tympanum

On the Archangel's right side, the queue is sedate and worshipful, and they are greeted by a calm figure of religious authority
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp tympanum

The four concentric levels that lead out from the centre are laid out in a cosmogony that reflects the view of the world, with the most holy at the centre. The inner circle are angels (note the wings), next we have wise/learned/religious men - I don't know what exactly, but they all have scrolls and I think represent wise/learned/religious men of the past, possibly the Greek philosophers, and others such as saints.
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp tympanum

Next we have what seems to be monarchs - i.e. the political figures; the Medieval doctrine of divine rulership meant that monarchs were chosen by God to rule, and therefore were closer to God in some way. The final circle has the bishops, and other religious authorities.
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp tympanum

Often, the figures of the bishops, aristocrats and other notables were representations of people who have contributed to the building of the cathedral - a kind of 'thanks to our sponsor' thing :-)

I wonder how many of the malls and office buildings will still be standing in five hundred years?


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kruel74 on :

When I was there, I didn't noticed all this but was impressed with how magnificent the building is. Nice details...

julian on :

I got interested in tympanums after reading 'The Name of the Rose' - there's a great passage in their describing one...

Dr. Ann Voisin on :

At a time in history when churches were the most spectacular places for sensory inputs, not having to compete with TV or Movies for characterizations of good and evil, this kind of detail would have had much more impact than today.

I notice one of the commenters saying he didn't notice all the detail.

That wouldn't have happened at a time when these details were the mainstay of serious "entertainment."

Dr. Ann

julian on :

Good point - a church with all its colours, sounds and 'immersed' experience would have had a major impact on the visitor.

I suppose that's why the more successful Christian churches nowadays need to recreate multimedia environments, complete with shopping opportunities in some cases.

James Postalgold on :

This church is magnificent.But like the buildings back then the architecture is always reflective fo the society that formed it, politics and economy. At the rate we are going now we could all be living in caves again in five years time.

julian on :

you're right, a lot of the architecture as reflection of social values now is somewhat depressing. But there are also some great things like art galleries and some parliament buildings and the like that reflect an openness and democratic values that are important (e.g the Reichstag as redesigned by Foster.

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