On 20th August 1566, the tide of iconoclasm swept through Antwerp, then the commercial heart of northern Europe. Out of a small mediaeval nucleus on the banks of the river Scheldt, Antwerp had grown into a modern metropolis. With trade came new ideas, which through a progressive printing and book-dealing culture found an audience among Antwerp’s well-connected and well-informed citizens. After the disastrous attacks on religious imagery in Antwerp’s churches, a stint of Protestant rule from 1581 to 1585 would further empty them of their fabled treasures.
A decisive reversal of fortune followed in 1585 when the city fell to the armies of Catholic Spain. A massive exodus ensued, with many of the educated refugees bringing specialised skills to Europe’s newly emerging Protestant capitals. Firmly under Spanish rule, Antwerp reasserted itself as a northern bulwark of Habsburg and Catholic forces. The city was to become a beacon of the triumphant Counter-Reformation, a superb stage on which to display the new Roman policy on the use of religious images. In this climate of artistic restoration and rejuvenation, commissions for altarpieces soared, and strong domestic and international markets for Antwerp paintings thrived.
Peter Paul Rubens was very much more than the right man in the right place at the right time. He delivered, consistently and on a major scale. He returned to Antwerp after his family had fled to protestant Siegen and travelled extensively in Italy (and Spain) from 1600 to 1608. His return to Antwerp is a major turning point in European art history. A career spanning the continent followed, including massive cycles and ensembles commissioned by royal patrons in Madrid, London and Paris.
Antwerp’s monumental churches and its museum collections, among them the Rubenshuis, offer the opportunity to step into the artist’s universe and to delve deep into the historic fabric of the city that made him: from Rubens’ home and workshop to his tomb.
Antwerp. Depart at c. 11.00am from London St Pancras by Eurostar for Brussels, and from there take the train to Antwerp. The great port on the Scheldt has an abundance of historic buildings and museums and churches of the highest interest. Visit the church of St Charles Borromeo, its Jesuit facade inspired by the Gesù in Rome, with sumptuous decoration partly attributed to Rubens.
Antwerp. Four of Rubens’ most powerful paintings are in the vast Gothic cathedral, reunited for the first time since dispersal by the French in 1799. The house and studio Rubens built for himself are fascinating and well stocked with good pictures. The Plantin Moretus Museum presents Rubens as a book designer and illustrator, while the church of St Andrews displays artwork by Rubens’ apprentice, Otto van Veen.
Antwerp. Visit the MAS Museum and the temporary exhibition in collaboration with the Rubenshuis, contrasting intimate commissions with large Baroque paintings. An opportunity to visit the Mayer van der Bergh Museum before the church of St Paul, filled with over fifty paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens. Walk to the church of St James, one of the largest in the city, and the final resting place of Peter Paul Rubens.
Brussels. The Fine Arts Museum in Brussels is one of the best in Europe, and presents a comprehensive collection of Netherlandish painting as well as international works. Take the Eurostar from Brussels to London St Pancras, arriving c. 6.00pm.
Price per person
Two sharing: £1,870 or £1,620 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £2,070 or £1,820 without Eurostar.
Rail travel (first class, standard premier) on Eurostar and local train; private coach travel for transfers and excursions; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts and two dinners with wine, water and coffee; light meals and drinks on the Eurostar; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Julien, Antwerp: a contemporary 4-star boutique hotel, excellently located near the cathedral. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
There is quite a lot of standing in museums and walking on this tour, often on cobbled or roughly paved streets. It should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair–climbing. You will need to be able to carry (wheel) your own luggage on and off the train and within stations. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 11 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.