Antwerp – with the emphasis on Rubens

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Rubens’ House, where Antwerp’s most famous son and arguably one of history’s greatest ever artists, Peter Paul Rubens, lived

Rubens’ House, where Antwerp’s most famous son and arguably one of history’s greatest ever artists, Peter Paul Rubens, lived

Antwerp, with 500,000 people, is Belgium’s second largest city after Brussels, and decidedly Flemish in character, though different to Flanders’ other fine historic cities – as for centuries it has also been a major port with a large docklands area, linked to the North Sea by canal.

Thus a working class element blends with the rich cultural and artistic aspects of Antwerp life in the grand squares and streets of the architecturally splendid old centre, with many buildings dating back to the 16th century.

An ideal weekend break destination where bars and restaurants serving great Flemish food and unquestionably some the world’s finest beers sit alongside fascinating museums – and all available at prices with the current low value of the Euro – likely to appeal to most.

Linked directly by turbo-propped City Jet aircraft from London City Airport in 55 minutes and in about three hours by Eurostar – changing at Brussels, getting to Antwerp could not be easier.

there are three self-portraits of Rubens in his museum

there are three self-portraits of Rubens in his museum

Indeed this part of 2015 is the time to visit Antwerp for Rubens’ fans as until the 28th of June there is a unique one off major exhibition, “Rubens in Private” where 50 of his greatest works have been brought together from collections around the world.

This is held at the Rubens’ House, where Antwerp’s most famous son and arguably one of history’s greatest ever artists, Peter Paul Rubens, lived.

He was a superstar of his day and was Knighted by both the King of Spain and by Charles the First of England. Unlike many artists Rubens became very wealthy, and his fabulous home, almost fit for a King, now preserved as a fascinating museum, reflects this.

Rubens became famous across Europe for his paintings of members of royal families and other leading figures of his times such as archbishops, and often these works were massive in scale.

the portrait Rubens did of his daughter who died as a child

the portrait Rubens did of his daughter who died as a child

Where “Rubens in Private” differs as an exhibition of his work is that the subjects are from from Rubens own circle of family and friends.

His grandparents and both his first and second wives feature as does his brother Phillip, and his beautiful daughter, Clara Serena, who tragically died young aged just 12.

The exhibition at the Rubens House Museum includes three self-portraits brought together after 400 years. Two show him in his prime – powerful and prosperous, the third a remarkably honest study of an old Rubens with a puffy face, suffering from gout, and eyes no longer as bright as they once were.

the Grote Markt

the Grote Markt

Within Antwerp’s Old Town all the main attractions are within a ten to fifteen minute walk from the magnificent Grote Markt, a vast cobbled square reckoned to be one of the largest in Europe with an imposing Renaissance Town Hall and rows of 16th century guild houses. A large water feature known as the Statue of Brabo dominates the wide expanse which is the Grote Markt

Towering over this part of Antwerp is the Cathedral of Our Lady, the tallest Gothic church in Europe with a stunning exterior described as ‘lacework in stone’, it was completed in 1521 and features two of Rubens masterpieces – the Raising of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross

Cathedral of our Lady

Cathedral of our Lady

About 10 minutes’ walk from here towards the docks is another fine example of religious architecture – St Paul’s Church – and yet more fabulous work by Rubens, the gruesome “Flagellation of Christ”.

At St James’ Church, another short walk away, and you will find a spectacular interior and Rubens’ final resting place in a mausoleum alongside his children and other decedents – beneath one of his most favourite paintings, “Madonna with Saints”.

Notable museums that any visitor should try and visit include the following:

MAS (Museum Aan de Stroom)   In its own right a sublime example of modern architecture – huge with red stone and glass, the MAS has transformed the dockside area into a thriving arts district, it takes visitors on an interactive journey through Antwerp’s rich and colourful history.

Museum/MoMu (Fashion Museum) Antwerp is at the cutting edge of Flemish fashion and the Museum MoMu reflects this with a permanent collection of clothing, lace, embroidery, fabrics – the museum also hosts two themed exhibitions each year to reflect the current trends. 

Rubenshuis (Rubens’ House)  The before mentioned residence of Peter Paul Rubens, who lived and worked here from 1610 until his death in 1640. Rubens painted some of his most celebrated works here. Outside is the impressive Flemish-Italian Renaissance garden, also designed by the genius artist.

contemporary art in Antwerp

contemporary art in Antwerp

Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts)  Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts’ collection spans 600 years from the 14th century including Old Flemish and Dutch Masters is closed for renovation until 2017, but some works are being temporarily displayed at the Cathedral of our Lady and the Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS). (:

MUHKA (Museum of Contemporary Art of Antwerp)  Housed in a converted grain store, the MUHKA houses a vast collection of art from 1970 to present day – works that come courtesy of Belgian artists, as well as a host of international painters and sculptors.

For more information about Antwerp, click here  and for Flanders, click here.

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