How to recognise the architecture of the baroque?

What does Baroque architecture look like in Antwerp? How can you easily recognise Baroque buildings? We’ve compiled a short list of distinctive features, so you can enjoy a fresh and different perspective on Antwerp.

Building frenzy

Antwerp was consumed by a building frenzy during much of the seventeenth century, with religious buildings cropping up throughout the city. There is a perfectly logical explanation for this, however, as many churches, chapels and convents were damaged during the turbulent times in the run-up to the Baroque while other building projects languished in their unfinished state. And although the Scheldt was closed (1585), many wealthy patricians chose to stay in Antwerp. That is why the seventeenth-century Baroque has influenced Antwerp’s streetscape to such an extent. And the clients still had plenty of money to spend.

Baroque = movement

How can you make stone, which is naturally rigid, more dynamic? How can you bring the façade of your building and your interior to life? Because that is exactly what Baroque does. Here are some tricks for pulling off this feat:

Baroque = ornamentation

Baroque means plenty of ornamentation, on the outside of buildings as well as in their interiors. Over time, authors have sought to describe this style, using such adjectives as flamboyant, triumphant, theatrical, festive, exuberant, sensual, lavish and even “exaggerated”. The Church always seems to want to express a sense of triumph and joie de vivre in religious buildings, transforming it into heaven on earth. But what are these ornaments? And what do we see?             

The theatre flourished in the seventeenth century, and opera started around the same time. In a sense, there is a theatrical element to the Baroque. The scenery, the backdrop are all important elements and we, the spectator, are treated to a veritable spectacular. And of course, spectacular and spectator are derived from the Latin verb spectare, to look. Although you might argue that we don’t know where to look first when gazing at Baroque buildings. 

On a side note, bear in mind that not all Baroque architecture has that same element of opulent decoration.

Pay attention to the entrance!

You can usually recognise a Baroque house by the central span of the façade, where the door or gate is located. The design of this span is usually more elaborate than the rest of the façade. Many of Antwerp’s houses, convents and almshouses then and now have such a typical, striking entrance.

They are called “Spaanse poortjes” or Spanish gates because they date from the Spanish era, which overlapped with the Baroque. The festoons and the “broken” or curved pediment often help identify this style. 

The section just above the entrance was also often lavishly decorated during the Baroque. The top especially was festooned with scrolls, cartouches, garlands, with sections that protrude from the façade, with elegant dormers.

Colour

Is the exterior of a Baroque building colourful? Most certainly, because architects liked to combine different building materials including red brick and white and blue stone to add colour. Sometimes they mixed in other colours, adding a gilded element or painting parts of the building.

Cupolas and towers

No, cupolas are not a characteristic design feature of the Baroque but they became popular during this period because many architects were influenced by their Italian counterparts. There are no real examples of cupolas in Antwerp.  Many of the cupolas that were planned in the Southern Netherlands were actually never built due to structural issues: the stability of the designs left much to be desired, the masons did not have the required expertise and technique to build them and so on.

You can tell that a church tower is a Baroque tower if you take a closer look at its top. And if you factor in its location - usually behind the choir, a position that was often preferred in the seventeenth century. Antwerp has several magnificent Baroque towers. The towers of St. Paul’s Church and St. Charles Borromeo have a square floor plan, tapering off into a rather spectacular crown with… a small cupola. Above it you can observe a so-called “lantern”. Here too you can’t fail to notice the many scrolls and sculptures, the pillars with their different capitals and all the elements that contribute to making this flamboyant art form so baroque.

Perspective

The fact that you can see the garden pavilion at the end of the garden when standing at the gate of the Rubens House in Wapper is entirely the merit of the house’s architect and owner, Rubens himself. Baroque artists and architects liked to use perspective to add depth. Sometimes architects even used illusions and trompe-l’oeils. So what looks like a cupola at first glance is actually just a ceiling painting and in some cases a space is “nothing but” a wall.

Renaissance

Wait a minute. Why are we referencing the Renaissance in this Baroque story? Wasn’t the Renaissance the dominant style in sixteenth-century Antwerp? Didn’t the Baroque flourish in the seventeenth century? Unfortunately, things are not that clear-cut. In the seventeenth century, prominent Antwerpers still liked to have a gallery in their courtyard, with arches and pillars. So Renaissance. During the Baroque.

Baroque, a multifaceted style

Baroque, like so many things in life, is a mix. Of different forms and of different interpretations of the Baroque. Some preferred a more pared down Baroque as opposed to an opulent Baroque, a “pure” Baroque to a Baroque with Renaissance characteristics. In some cases, you can already discern hints of Classicism and Rococo, which came after the Baroque. Even in Antwerp.

Him again!

When discussing Baroque architecture in Antwerp you can’t not mention Peter Paul Rubens. In addition to being a renowned painter, Rubens also worked as an architect, contributing designs for the famous Church of St. Charles Borromeo, which used to be a Jesuit church in Rubens’s time. Rubens was obviously inspired by the architecture he had seen during his eight years in Italy.

What about the interior?

The interior of a Baroque church is very different from that of a Gothic church. We already mentioned movement and dynamics and the interior is no different.

Inside the church, the focus is clearly on the altar, which is designed to catch your eye as soon as you enter the building. The light should literally fall on it. The reason for this is that the eucharist, which is celebrated at the altar, became more important in the new liturgy of the Counter-Reformation. Hence the impressive altars and the shallow choir. And the idea of creating one space, without lateral chapels.

A lot of the furniture inside the church is also new: the priest preaches the catholic faith from the pulpit which is positioned among the faithful, who confess their sins in the confessionals in the darker side naves. They receive the host or the body of Christ at the communion bench in front of the choir.

Surprise!

Antwerp’s Central Station, which dates from the early twentieth century, is a stunning example of Baroque architecture, especially the façade in Astridplein. It’s difficult to reconcile the early twentieth century with the Baroque however, which is why this imitation style is called neo-Baroque. You will easily recognise the lavish ornamentation of the “old” Baroque in this new design. And the station also has a central cupola! Again typically Baroque.

Sigrid Spinnox

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