Just Another Sunday in Antwerp

One of the things my family loves most about living in Ghent are the day trips. On weekends, we typically take one day to putter around Ghent (or visit one of the amazing city museums or better yet, pools) and one day to go somewhere new. I say to the kids, “we’re going to Brussels to see an amazing new museum!” And they jump up and say “Yay! Do we get to ride on an escalator? Can we eat at Panos?” Once I explain that Panos is not open on Sundays so we have to eat “real” food somewhere, we pack a million snacks and head for the train station.

We were especially excited one day in December when we finally got the chance to visit Antwerp. We were invited to brunch by a friend who lives right near the beautiful 19th-century Antwerp train station. He told us about the wonderful art museums and the contemporary art galleries as well as fashion designers in the city. I’m still curious about the sample sales, where those in the know can get inexpensive clothes by famous Antwerp designers like Ann Demeulemeester – who designed the suit Bill wore at our wedding in 2006. But that would have to wait for another time. It was Sunday, the day of extended family meals in Belgium.

So we started with a lovely brunch with my friend’s family, including his two children and, more importantly for mine, their toys. Then he proposed an adventure: since we were only there for the day, we could ride around town on his family’s bicycles and hit several sites we were hoping to see at once: the Rubenshuis, the Cathedral of Our Lady, the famous Underpass that extends under the river, and MAS, the new city museum. We loved the idea, even though the lack of bike helmets in Belgium was daunting, to say the least.

That was only the first concern: the second was the kids’ seats on the bikes. My son, age 7, perched behind me on a tiny metal seat with a single strap around his waist, legs out grasshopper style. My daughter, age 4 and already pushing the weight limits of her giant padded seat at home, rode in front of my friend, on a teeny little seat he’d used for his own kids. There were, ahem, no straps holding her in – but, he pointed out, his arms would be around her the whole time as he held the handlebars. We decided we were ok with that and would just keep the pace to like 2 miles per hour (since we’re in Europe of course, that’s 3.21869 kilometers). Keep in mind: in a country with actual bike LANES, this was still 1000 times safer than biking in Boston. Even so, as we set out, my son kept saying to me under his breath, “Are we going to die?” and I kept answering, “Yes, but not today.” I was trying to focus on steering the wobbly handlebars. My husband, known to bike in New York City, had no problem flanking us on one of those teensy little folding bikes. He looked like those kids we used to see everywhere when we lived in Queens.

My friend guided us beautifully through the quieter streets and bike lanes, avoiding the tram lines and almost all of the holiday crowds streaming toward the Christmas market. We managed to not hit anyone before we got to the Rubenshuis and felt accomplished. Then I actually had a positive experience with Belgian bureaucracy. I had lost my precious MuseumPass, my automatic ticket into any museum in the country for one year, for which I had paid 50 Euros (and probably had already earned my money’s worth). But not to fear! Because the pass owners are required to upload a photo of ourselves into the database (something I thought was silly at the time) the ticket office just looked me up, confirmed my ID, and printed me a new pass on the spot for a 2-Euro fee. Awesome!

Once we got in, the house itself was pretty magnificent. Having just seen Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam (where Rubens was known to visit), we could see how Rubens one-upped him in Antwerp. Rembrandt had an amazing collection of ancient busts and early modern paintings, not to mention intriguing natural history specimens in Amsterdam – but Rubens had his own Pantheon in Antwerp, a semi-circular gallery with circular skylight where he displayed a collection of Roman busts. His house also has a stately garden and a more grandiose space, including a large multistory studio with a balcony where rich patrons and adoring fans could watch him at work with his extensive fleet of painting assistants.

Rembrandt poured all his earnings into his five-story house in Amsterdam; it’s fancy for its time, and well worth a visit. But unfortunately, he never took a personal finance class and died a pauper. The dashing and prolific Rubens ran his studio and his continental career like a well-oiled machine – as you can see in the impressive Rubens room at the Musées-Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels ­– easily paying for a bigger house. His old age was mainly remarkable for the many paintings he produced of his fleshy and robust 16-year-old second wife. These include one in St. Bavo’s cathedral in Ghent, where she stands attended by the image of his first wife, who died of the plague at age 34.

We got to really experience Rubens, literally at his best, in the Cathedral of Our Lady. There, dozens of great paintings from the currently closed-for-renovation Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp are on view. There are two Rubens altarpieces on permanent display there as well, and they completely blew my mind. Rubens’s 1610 Elevation of the Cross (below) is a painting that I actually teach each spring in our global Renaissance to Modern Art History survey. But given all the fantastic art on view in Belgium – we live, after all, in the city of Jan Van Eyck’s divine Ghent Altarpiece – I managed to forget that the Elevation of the Cross lives in Antwerp.

In our class we use this exact painting to explain the Baroque style, with its emphasis on vivid movement, dramatic light, and emotional drama. All of which is enough to hit you over the head in person, when you can see the enormous scale of Rubens’s muscular Christ, inspired by the paintings of Michelangelo, as he is lifted onto the cross by six or seven burly Roman soldiers in a diagonal movement up and across the packed composition. Oddly enough, the Antwerp Cathedral label states that the painting’s counterpart on the other side of the nave, Rubens’s Descent from the Cross of 1612, is the highpoint of the painter’s career. I’d put it a close second. The twisted dead Christ’s body entwined in blinding white cloth is tragically moving as he’s lowered from the cross by mourners, but it’s got nothing on the surging life of the body of the living Christ on the Elevation – eyes rolled skyward, riding a wave of muscular flesh toward the heavens. Still, it’s worth going to see the two works and decide for yourself.

The next stop on our journey was the city museum, the Museum aan der Schoon (MAS). We approached via a picturesque bike lane along the Scheldt river after popping down to see the impressive Underpass, St. Anna’s Tunnel, that, given more time, we could use to bike to the other side. By the time we got to MAS, the kids were not having any more art, so we didn’t go in to see the exhibitions on contemporary art and the city of Antwerp – but for once, that wasn’t what we came for.

The Museum, in a striking new building of Indian red sandstone and curving glass, stretches 60 meters above the city streets. Our kids loved riding the public escalators up and around its ten stories, from which we got views onto Antwerp on all sides. We had a great view of the mosaic reconstruction on the plaza by artist Luc Tuymans of Dead Skull, a famous Renaissance memorial to Antwerp painter Quinten Matsys which hangs on the façade of the Cathedral of Our Lady. From the open roof deck on top, we could see how massive the harbor is – as large as the city itself, in fact. The port of Antwerp is the second largest seaport in Europe after Rotterdam. We also got a peek into the gardens and rooftop pools of the nearby apartment buildings. They have apparently shot up in price since the MAS opened, creating a swanky new North end for the city.

It was really a lovely day, one of our favorite trips yet in Belgium. Unfortunately our luck went down a bit along with the sun. Layla was singing to herself and laughing and loved riding the bike all day. But she didn’t keep her feet pulled in, and on the way home she got her left foot caught between the front wheel and the fork holding it on the bike. We all quickly pulled over, and with her in hysterics, one ankle swollen and bleeding, we called a cab and got her to a doctor whose office was open on Sundays.

The examination was prompt once the cab finally showed up, but then we needed an X-ray to be sure it wasn’t broken, so it was on to the emergency room. Fortunately, the worst thing about the whole experience (for us, not Layla) was the wait. It totalled about 3 hours and involved eating takeout pizza in the waiting room – for those who could eat; I, being the mom, could not. The nurses and doctors were friendly and efficient. The X-ray technician thought we were British, which is always nice. Impressively, she managed to position four different X-rays of Layla’s foot without her shedding a tear. To everyone’s relief, it wasn’t broken, but just badly scraped. My friend drove us home to Ghent, just a bit the worse for wear. We somehow managed to carry both kids asleep up the Belgian staircase (which goes up at about an 85º angle), and they slept through the night. All in all, we were grateful it was just a scrape, and feel incredibly fortunate to have had a wonderful day in Antwerp, even if it wasn’t our best night. We can’t wait to go back and visit again – and next time, we’re going shopping

Karen Kurczynski is an associate professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She plans to spend her Fulbright semester in Fall, 2018, researching a book on the 1950s Cobra art movement in Ghent and Brussels, while contributing to an MA seminar in art history at University of Ghent.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.