Peter Paul Rubens is to Belgium what Rembrandt is to the Netherlands. That is to say, he’s pretty important, especially when it comes to Baroque art! The 17th-century Flemish painter is so synonymous with the buzzing port of Antwerp, that traces of the city’s most iconic resident can be found throughout the city. Here’s your ultimate guide on how to follow in the footsteps of Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp…
Truth be told, it the most iconic Rubens location in Antwerp is that of his former home, Rubenshuis. Once inside, you’ll even find the artist’s former studio, atelier, and even one of Rubens’ few self-portraits. In comparison with his Dutch contemporary, Rembrandt, who created nearly one hundred self-portraits, Rubens painted few self-images.
Rubenshuis itself was constructed by Rubens after he purchased the plot in 1610. Located on the site of a former Italian villa, the Flemish painter went on to live the majority of his life here. In 1937, the house was acquired by the city of Antwerp with the purpose of turning it into a museum complete with artworks by Ruben’s contemporaries, as well as plenty of period furniture.
Today, the Rubenshuis is an art collection and is principally dedicated as an art museum as opposed to a location where you can learn about 17th-century life. Prior to visiting, it’s important to note that there is little left from Rubens himself and when we visited, the artist’s studio was even closed for refurbishment!
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady)
Situated in the very heart of Antwerp, the impressive cathedral of our lady dominates the Antwerp skyline, imposing above the equally as sumptuous buildings which surround it. Consecrated in the 16th-century, once you’ve paid the entry fee, you’ll soon discover an impressive array of paintings by Rubens.
And that’s not the only history which can be discovered within the walls of the seven-aisle Gothic cathedral. Instead, it’s well known that the ecclesiastical building took well over one hundred and sixty years to build and was originally meant to encompass several towers. The sheer height of the single spire which was eventually built means that Our Lady remains the highest Gothic building of the low countries.
For those who are interested in books and the history of the printing press, a visit to the Plantin-Moretus museum is an absolute must. Comprising of room after room about the history of the written word (and even the chance to glimpse upon two of the oldest printing presses in the world), you most certainly get your money’s worth when you opt to visit this cultural hub.
During Rubens childhood, the Flemish painter counted Balthasar I Moretus among one of his closest friends. Later on in life, Moretus commissioned Rubens to create paintings of the family, title pages, and even illustrated books, some of which remain within the Plantin-Moretus collections to this day.
Sint-Paulus Kerk (St Paul’s Church)
The most beautiful church to be found in Northern Belgium is the light, bright, and Baroque St Paul’s Church. Located around a five-minute walk from the historic city centre, this ecclesiastical building is home to an extensive treasury, a number of Rubens paintings, and was even where a Caravaggio was stolen (the fresco in question can now be found in Vienna).
Free to visit, be sure to allocate at least an hour to exploring all that this stunning structure has to offer. Within the walls of the church, in a hidden church courtyard, there’s even a life-sized calvary to marvel al, featuring over sixty full-sized statues and culminating in the most unusual of dedications.
Also known as the ‘Rockox House’ former mayor of Antwerp, Nicolas Rockox, lived in the house-turned-museum during Rubens’ lifetime. Rockox was a fanatic collector of Baroque art, and as a friend and patron of Rubens, his former home is now filled with countless examples of 17th-century artworks.
Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk (St. Carolus Borromeo church)
One of the most iconic hidden gems of Antwerp is that of the St Carolus Borromeus Church. Though it may not look like much from the outside (this area is also where you’ll find some of the best foodie spots in the city), once inside, a whole array of beautiful Baroque architecture is waiting to be discovered.
In times gone by, the church’s ceiling was home to a set of 39 ceiling panels by Rubens. Although Rubens planned the works and was paid the princely sum of 7,000 guilders for the works, the work was for the most part undertaken by his students. Unfortunately, a devastating fire destroyed the works entirely in 1718.
Sint-Jacobskerk (St James’ Church)
If you make it your mission to see just a few of the Rubens locations on this list, be sure to see St James’ Church, a place where many of the most important events in Rubens’ life were celebrated. For it was here in 1630 where Rubens married Hélène Fourment. It is also here in the Sint-Jacobskerk where Rubens’ final resting place can be found.