St. Charles Borromeo Church is easy to miss if you are not on a tour. While it is “hidden” in a little square it is not small. It does not appear in my Lonely Planet book or on either of the three maps that we got from the tourist office, the city’s map, the tourist office’s map or the hop on hop off bus map. It was on the rounds of old town walking tours. We learned about it through an off-hand mention by the woman in the tourist office who was giving us directions to a tram stop. The off-hand mention was that it was in a deadend piazza of the Italian style that Peter Paul Rubens designed after he returned from 7 years in Italy. We took a detour on our way to the tram stop.
The church was written up in a little booklet put out by the Catholic Church that Suzi picked up at the Cathedral and I was able to read about it after the fact. Rubens did, indeed design the church, with an “Italian Baroque” façade, for the Jesuits as part of the counter reformation. The booklet that we got at the cathedral calls it a “billboard for the Catholic Church.”
The church has since served as kind of an art shop for other churches and museums. The main alter piece was deemed by the Habsburgs to be too grand for Antwerp so ended up in Vienna. Two other works also ended up in Vienna. Rubens’ “Return of the Holy Family” was auctioned off and was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, although it was recently repatriated. The wardens of the church are trying to get back other masterpieces. Fire destroyed the ceilings that Rubens painted in 1718.
Rubens painted a lot for this church and some of the paintings were designed to be rotated in and out based on the seasons of the liturgical year. The church has acquired other paintings to fill the gaps and it is a baroque wonder.
However, for me the most interesting thing, for me, was the confessionals. They are not mentioned in the booklet we got at the Cathedral. As you enter the booth you are flanked by angels who have either really done something bad, because of the anguish on their faces, or are sad for you and your sins.