What better place to visit on your birthday than the undisputed diamond capital of the world?
Antwerpen in Dutch – Antwerp in English – is the second most populated city in Belgium and known for its diamond district. It is said that 85% of the world’s uncut diamonds flow through the city creating employment for nearly 10% of the city’s 500,000 residents. DIVA, the diamond museum claims to be the largest in the world, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations during our visit. We were looking forward to it because during our visit to Washington DC last summer, when visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, we saw an absolutely incredible gemstone and mineral collection, including a number of world renowned diamonds. According to Antwerp’s DIVA website, they have an important collection and it would have been awesome to see more of it. Instead a pop-up one-room mini-DIVA museum was all that was available.
Regardless, we did spot a few interesting pieces within. There were a handful of cases of premium stones well over 100 carats, including the largest clear cut diamond in the world. It has been cut into a large teardrop shape and is named the Cullinan I or the Great Star of Africa. It is 530.4 carats and weighs 3.74 ounces (106.08 g).
The tray below showing the progression of diamond cutting over the centuries was interesting. Starting in the top left corner with a simple 15th century cut (Spitzstein-sharpened stone) through to the bottom right hand cut from the 20th century, the multi-faceted Highlight diamond cut.
The 1920 Belgian Jewellers Association catalogue showed a 1893 miniature diamond polishing factory belonging to Paul Wijngaard and the same mini-factory was on display in the temporary museum. It is a fully working factory, albeit tiny, with a cutting table, an Edison motor that drives the polishing table and numerous other moving parts.
It took us approximately 90 minutes via train to get from Brugge to Antwerp and oh my, what a beautiful first impression the 19th century train station made. Antwerpen-Centraal railway station is widely regarded as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium and in 2014 the American digital media platform, Mashable, awarded Antwerpen-Centraal the most beautiful railway station in the world. See our photo at the top of this writing.
Building began on the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, in 1352 and ended in 1521. Two 400 foot tall towers were initially planned but the second tower reached about half that height and was never finished. It is extraordinary as it is.
Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, (1577-1640) lived and worked in Antwerp and is considered one of the most important and influential artists of the Baroque era. His large statue stands in the center of the square right out front of the Cathedral. Perhaps best known for his mythological paintings of voluptuous nude females (from which the term “rubenesque” arose), the artist also created significant religious works. It is relatively easy to find Rubens art in churches.
The interior of the Cathedral is a striking blend of Baroque decor and is home to Rubens: The Raising of the Cross and The Resurrection of Christ – both triptychs, as well as the altarpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin. Painted in the early 17th century, depicting Christ’s lifeless body being taken down from the cross by a group of people, among them the Virgin Mary, John the Apostle cloaked in red and Mary Magdalene, titled “The Descent from the Cross” is Peter Paul Rubens most famous artwork.
Saint James Church of Antwerp was built on the site of a long ago hostel used by pilgrims on their route to the burial place of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The current St. James was started in 1491 and finished in 1656. Throughout the years the architectures continued with the original Gothic exterior design. The interior however is decorated in Baroque style; all the rage in the 17th century. The stunning interior decorations of note are the carved wooden choir stalls, the opulent main altar, the communion rails of the holy chapel and the central pulpit. The stations of the cross are particularly good as well and you can see samples of each in our photos at the bottom of the blog.
Peter Paul Rubens was married in 1630 in Saint James and he is buried in the church. His grave is in the eastern chapel and the painting above Rubens’ tomb was painted by the master himself.
Rubens House is the former home and workshop of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). He bought it in 1610 and immediately had it renovated, using his own designs, to resemble an Italian palazzo. The city was able to buy the house in 1937 and following extensive restorations opened the Rubenshuis museum in 1946. Today this beautiful building has dozens of paintings and artworks by Rubens and his fellow artists. Period furniture decorate the rooms, each fireplace makes a statement and it was the first time we have seen beautifully embossed leather walls.
Museum Mayer van den Bergh
Museum Mayer van den Bergh is a wonderful museum that houses the treasures of the late 19th century art dealer and collector, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh together with his mother, Henriette Mayer van den Bergh. The most recognized works are from the Gothic and Renaissance period in the Netherlands and Belgium. Among our favorites are the detailed and often comical paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. His famous painting entitled Mad Meg, circa 1562, was here and it is considered one of the masterpieces of the museum.
It was however Pieter’s son, Jan Brueghel I’s painting entitled Wedding Dance that had us laughing. Looks like weddings have not changed that much over the past 500 years. These people definitely look like they are partying at this early 1600’s wedding.
The UNESCO World Heritage list has only one museum listed and that is the Plantin-Moretus Museum. This fascinating printing press museum has been open for nearly 150 years and is thought to be one of the finest in the world. It was an impressive museum and we loved it. We saw 300 years of book-printing-art, some of the oldest printing presses in the world, a rich collection of books, manuscripts, art, home decor, furniture, tapestries and family history.
Christophe Plantin (1520-1589) was the book printer, publisher and owner of a Plantin Press. In 1555, he released his first book and within 20 years, Plantin’s became the top publishing house in Europe. In 1576, Plantin relocated his family home and business to Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market) in Antwerp. Plantin’s amazing eight-volume, multi-language Plantin Polyglot Bible with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Syriac texts was one of the most complex productions of his time. The audio guide we received during our visit said Plantin had collected an incredible 300 different type fonts in his lifetime and he died in 1589.
After Plantin’s death, his son-in-law, Jan Moretus (1543-1610) inherited the printing press business. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, four women from the family managed the Plantin Press all the while preserving the old materials, print types, machines and business records of their founder. His descendants would live and work in the house for the next 300 years. In 1876 Edward Moretus sold the company to the city of Antwerp and the museum opened a year later.
Snijders and Rockox House is a museum, housed in two early 17th-century historic buildings. One was the residence of the lawyer, former mayor of Antwerp and art collector, Nicolaas Rockox (1560 – 1640) and the second was the residence of Rockox’s friend and painter Frans Snijders (1579-1657).
The museum showcased chests and beautifully sculpted cabinets, ceramics, sculptures, tapestries and a wonderfully large collection of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Antoon van Dyck, David Teniers de Jonge, Frans Snyders, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Breugel the Younger.
This most interesting painting below was painted by Pieter Breugel the Younger (1564-1638) in 1559 and he called it Flemish Proverbs (Also called Dutch Proverbs). Admittedly it was much easy to see the details of this large painting on the museum wall, but can you recognize any of the 126 proverbs or idioms in the scene? (i.e. ‘swimming against the tide’, ‘armed to the teeth’, ‘the die is cast’)
Red Star Line Museum
Between 1815 and 1940, 60 million emigrants left Europe in hopes of a better life. 2 million of those emigrants made the crossing from Antwerp to North America with the steamships of Red Star Line. “Their stories, that of the shipping company that transported them and of Antwerp, the city and port from which they departed, have been captured in this museum.”
The Red Star Line Museum buildings are the same harbor buildings where many of those migrants saw the European continent for the final time. We were able to go up onto the rooftop for a lovely view and imagine the ships leaving port and beginning their long journey to the ‘new world’.
There were various classes of tickets available to purchase. First and second class passengers enjoyed a comfortable, entertaining and easy journey. For third class passengers the experience was much different. However the emotional rollercoaster between fear of the unknown and hope for the future were universal emotions felt by all.
The historical displays are filled with suitcases, ships tickets, passports, photos, postcards and records. They also include beautiful models of ship and attractive advertising posters. In total, the museum holds more than 6,000 objects. It is however, the collective stories of the emigrants who came to Antwerp from all over Europe to take the boats to the New World that make this such a significant museum.
To end this writing we want to share a legend from the city’s historic past. Antwerp’s 16th Grote Markt or town square is surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful architectural buildings. In the center of the square is the Bravo Fountain and the statue of Brabo, the giant slayer.
There was once a giant who demanded a extremely high toll for each ship than wished to enter the city. If the ship’s crew didn’t pay the toll, the giant had the crew’s hands cut off. Little Barbo fought the giant, cut the giant’s hand off and threw it in the River. The city’s name Antwerpen – means ‘to throw a hand’. Below is the green colored statue of Barbo throwing the giant’s hand.
Farewell Antwerp and farewell Belgium.
Proost from these Antwerpenaar,
Ted + Julia