On July 21 of 1640, the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Jesuit order, a short but grand procession took place inside the Antwerp Jesuit church (Figs. 8.1, 8.2).1 Members of the community’s Marian sodality, a confraternity dedicated to the promotion of the cult of the Virgin, carried a statue of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel (Fig. 8.3) from the church’s northern lateral chapel, where it had been kept temporarily, back to the southern chapel. The latter had been erected in c. 1620/21–1622 specifically to house this statue, and its walls had just recently been covered with panels of intricately carved, multicolored Italian marble.2
This stonework formed part of an integrated decorative scheme in which every surface was adorned with expensive materials and masterfully executed paintings and sculptures. By the middle of the seventeenth century it was arguably the finest space within an astonishingly richly appointed church, whose original splendor (diminished by a fire in the nave in 1718 that destroyed the famous ceiling paintings by Rubens) can be glimpsed by the modern viewer in paintings of its interior like that by Sebastiaan Vrancx of c. 1630 (Fig. 8.4).3 The chapel survives largely intact today (Figs. 8.5, 8.6), and both its sumptuous decoration and innovative, Italianate architecture make it arguably the most important example of the Flemish baroque.
It furthermore represents a remarkably comprehensive defense of Catholic tenets that were denied by Protestants and that lay at the very heart of the religious warfare that defined Low Countries history: the power of the saints and the Virgin Mary to intercede on the part of sinners, the existence of purgatory, the spiritual value of virginity and celibacy, and the validity of religious art itself, including miraculous images like the Scherpenheuvel Virgin. Yet despite its potential to offer insights for historians both of art and architecture and of religion, the chapel has remained understudied by scholars.4
The present text redresses that lacuna. In contrast to most studies of Jesuit church decoration, which take their material subject matter as an example of or tool to elucidate a broadly Jesuit approach to the visual arts, I seek explanations within the specific local conditions under which the chapel of the Virgin was built. In particular I examine the relationship between the Antwerp Jesuits and the chapel’s patrons, the extraordinarily wealthy sisters Maria (1575–1649), Anna (1581–1674), and Christina Houtappel (1585–1657), and their maternal cousin Anna ’s Grevens or Sgrevens (1579/80–1638). All four women were ‘spiritual daughters’: single women who made ‘simple’ (i.e. not permanently binding) vows of chastity and pursued lives of piety under the direction of male clerics, a lifestyle choice that was especially promoted in the Low Countries by the Jesuits throughout the seventeenth century. This patronage perspective allows us to situate the chapel and its decoration at the interface between the large-scale forces of the Tridentine reforms and the gender dynamics that shaped social behavior, and the small-scale needs of and relationships between individuals. The text further demonstrates the imperative for scholars of the early modern Southern Low Countries to understand its legal system in regards to gender and property in order to avoid the fallacy that only men were positioned to act as important patrons. Women in the region in fact owned and controlled a large proportion of Low Countries wealth, and as the story of the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens shows, the wealthy among them could and did make a major impact on early modern Flemish artistic and religious culture.5
In the following pages I thus tell the story of the chapel of the Virgin as embedded within the social, economic, religious, and gendered environment of Antwerp in the seventeenth century. I first give a sketch of the linked histories of the Houtappel and Sgrevens families and the Jesuits of Antwerp from the mid-sixteenth century through their relocation during the Calvinist takeover of the city in 1577–1585, and into the first two decades of the seventeenth century as both groups reestablished themselves. Using archival evidence I then zoom in on the construction and decoration of the chapel of the Virgin, tracing the various stages of its progression over time, and then giving a brief art historical analysis of the chapel as a whole and the ways in which it broadcast fundamental Counter-Reformation messages in the service of societal reform. Finally, I look at the iconography of the chapel and the patronage acts of the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens from a gendered historical perspective, considering the extent to which we can perceive their own choices within the decorative program, and what it would have meant to these women to build, adorn, and ultimately be buried in such an extraordinary space.
1 Family and Historical Background
The Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens (see family tree, Figure 8.7) belonged to the wealthy merchant class that had profited during Antwerp’s economic heyday in the early and mid-sixteenth century.6 Kinship and professional ties in this group were tightly intertwined, and among the Houtappels’ relatives and business contacts the names Boot, della Faille, de Decker(e), and de Smidt appear particularly often.7
The sisters’ father, Godfried Houtappel (1543–13/01/1626), partnered with the brothers Simon and Pascal de Decker in the early modern equivalent of an import/export firm with branches in Antwerp, Venice, and Naples, and by the 1570s they had also established a branch in Cologne.8 In 1571 Godfried married Cornelia Boot (c. 1553–17/09/1620), with whom he would have at least ten children, five sons and five daughters.9 As Protestant sentiments rose in the Low Countries, spilling over into a wave of iconoclasm during the ‘miracle year’ of 1566–67 and the start, in 1568, of armed insurrections against Spain led by William of Orange, the Houtappels and their circle remained staunchly Catholic, supporting the fledgling Jesuit community that had arrived in Antwerp in 1562 to combat the spreading ‘heresy.’ The order’s mission was to defend the Catholic tenets that Protestants denied – the doctrine of the Trinity, spiritual merit accrued through good works, the existence of purgatory, the power of the saints and the Virgin Mary to intercede on the part of sinners, the existence of miraculous images and the validity of religious art in general, and the spiritual value of virginity and celibacy – and to increase the laity’s engagement with orthodox piety.10 Among the Jesuits’ strategies was the establishment of colleges in which both the liberal arts and Catholic theology were taught, and Godfried Houtappel was one of the donors towards the founding, in 1574, of the Jesuit college in Antwerp.11
That institution was, however, short-lived. Protestants gained control of the city and declared it a Calvinist Republic in 1577, expelling the Jesuits in 1578 and the other religious orders in 1579, and banning Catholic worship altogether in 1581.12 Many of the Antwerp Jesuits took refuge in Cologne, whose community was one of the order’s most vibrant.13 Cologne was also the destination for many of the wealthy Catholic families who left for more religiously hospitable environments during these tumultuous years,14 though the Houtappel-Boots-Sgrevens group seem first to have gone to Italy. By 1579 or 1580 Anna Sgrevens’s parents, Anna Boot and Adam Sgrevens, were in Naples, where their daughter was born.15 Godfried and Cornelia probably left Antwerp in or just before 1581, as their own daughter Anna – their seventh or eighth child – was born that year but is not recorded in the Antwerp parish records.16 The couple were in Venice in 1584, when Cornelia gave birth to Christina Houtappel, and Gottfried is recorded there in 1586–1587.17 By 1590, however, they had joined other Antwerp exiles in Cologne, where their last child, Lucretia Susanna, was born. In 1597 they had their portraits painted by the émigré Flemish artist Geldop Gortzius (Figs. 8.8 and 8.9).
They were likely still residing in Cologne in 1601/02 when Anna Muns (later called Moens), then fifteen years old and a native of the city, joined their household staff. She would remain with the family for the rest of her life and apparently developed a deep bond with the Houtappel sisters, who in 1646 granted her the remarkable (for a servant) honor of being buried in the family crypt beneath the chapel of the Virgin.18
It was during their time in Cologne that the family became involved with the spiritual daughter movement. Much research remains to be done on that movement, whose origins have not been studied and which has not been looked at from a European perspective (what studies exist are highly localized).19 We can nevertheless characterize it as a Tridentine iteration of a long tradition of women rejecting marriage to embrace religious chastity without joining a convent, which went back at least to the mulieres religiosae of the High Middle Ages.20 Individual women were drawn to such lifestyles both for religious reasons and because they offered a degree of independence that they would not have had had they married or professed as nuns (which along with other restrictions entailed, respectively, reduced control over or renunciation of their personal property). In the context of confessional warfare religious celibacy took on a new political weight, and the Roman Church vehemently defended the value of female virginity in particular. The subsequent tightening of enclosure restrictions on contemplative nuns, whose potential for sexual incontinence was a danger to the Church’s reputation, is well-known to scholars;21 however, new research is showing that in many places this coincided with increased support for un- or semi-enclosed female communities that combined a vow of chastity with direct engagement with the world; examples include the Low Countries the Beguines, Spanish beatas, teaching congregations, and variety of active tertiary convents.22 While Church officials remained anxious about the difficulty of regulating these movements, the concerns seem to have been outweighed by having such women visible in society as pious exemplars who were also often engaged as free labor in teaching children catechism. Women pursuing such a lifestyle outside of a community presented more of a regulatory challenge, and the advent of the spiritual daughter movement solved that problem by making a close, personal relationship with a professed male cleric as ‘spiritual father’ a defining aspect of these women’s lives.
The Jesuits, whose mission was based in active engagement with the laity, may well have founded the movement; in later decades in the Low Countries they were clearly its strongest supporters. Spiritual daughters are recorded in Antwerp before the Dutch Revolt, and in the early seventeenth century there were an estimated 400 of these women living in Cologne, quite likely due to the Jesuits’ strong presence there.23 It was in this environment that Maria Houtappel made her vows as a spiritual daughter in 1596, when she was about twenty-one years old.24 Her younger sisters Anna, Christina, and Lucretia would all follow in her footsteps, as would Anna Sgrevens, whose epitaph states that from a young age she viewed Maria as a “pious example” and a teacher.
By 1607 Godfried Houtappel and Cornelia Boot had returned to Antwerp, where they bought a large house called “The Big Ruby” (Den grooten Robyn) and three adjacent houses on the Lange Nieuwestraat, a posh area situated between the cathedral and St. James’s church.25 In 1609 they also purchased the castle Zevenbergen, a landed estate about ten kilometers away, which gained Godfried the title of Lord of Ranst and elevated the family to the ranks of the nobility. Over the following years the couple would spend over 30,000 guilders restoring the castle, which was pictured in Jacob le Roy’s 1678 illustrated volume on the castles, monasteries, and monuments around Antwerp (Fig. 8.10).26
Cornelia’s cousin and Anna Sgrevens’s mother, Anna Boot, had returned to Antwerp by January of 1611 when she died a widow (the fate of her husband Adam Sgrevens is unknown). She would be buried in the yet-uncompleted choir of St. James’s.27 In the same year Godfried also purchased burial rights there for himself and his family, although as we shall see these would not be used.28
With their four surviving daughters at home and pledged to remain unmarried, the perpetuation of Godfried and Cornelia’s biological legacy was in the hands of two surviving sons, Antonius and Franciscus, who are recorded as living together in a house on the Piazza Monteoliveto in Naples in December of 1617.29 These two young men would however die before their mother passed on 17 September 1620 (her epitaph stated that her sons had all been “snatched from her”), leaving only Maria, Anna, Christina, and Lucretia Susanna as the couple’s heirs.30 These four women then by law would have inherited their mother’s half of the marital estate on her death, and Cornelia likely also left much of her personal property to her daughters (though without her will we cannot be sure). They must have used this money to build the chapel of the Virgin, which was begun around the same time. Lucretia then died on October 31 of 1622, and her epitaph states that she left her property to her sisters “to be given back to God, lest they build, donate, and adorn a temple of God without her.” On January 13 of 1626 Godfried died, at which point the remaining half of the marital estate passed to Maria, Anna and Christina.
2 The Reestablishment of the Jesuits in Antwerp and Their Controversial New Church
The Jesuits had returned to Antwerp immediately upon the city’s fall to Spanish forces in August of 1585, and they made the city their center of operations in the Low Countries.31 While the Houtappels were still in Cologne, probably waiting to see if the financial situation in Antwerp would stabilize, the Jesuits set to work establishing their presence and re-Catholicizing the region.32 In September the college was reopened and Francis Coster founded a Marian sodality to promote devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was now a symbol of the Catholic Church and all of its tenets that Protestants had denied and who would be held up as Antwerp’s patron and protector.33 In this early period numerous Jesuit writers, including Coster, Jan David, Peter Canisi, and Carolus Scribani (1561–1629), whom the Houtappel family may have known in Cologne and who would act as their spiritual father in Antwerp, began publishing works on Catholic theology and devotion in order to spread their messages.34 Jesuits were also instrumental in helping the archdukes Albert and Isabella create a new Marian pilgrimage site at Scherpenheuvel based around the miraculous healing powers of its resident cult image, and in or shortly before 1606 Albert gave the Antwerp Jesuits a ‘copy’ of that image, made of wood from the oak tree in which the original Scherpenheuvel Virgin had reportedly appeared.35 It is that copy – believed to carry the miraculous essence of its original and thus quite a powerful object – for which the Houtappel chapel would later be built.
From their return to Antwerp in 1585 the Jesuits received crucial financial support from a number of local wealthy families who donated large sums of money and real estate. Many of their offspring became involved directly with the Jesuits by either professing at the community (whose numbers swelled from 25 in 1601 to 157 in 1619) or taking vows as spiritual daughters and using their fortunes to further the Jesuits’ mission.36 The first known indication of the Houtappel women’s patronage relationship with the Jesuits is an act of June 24, 1609, in which the provincial superior Franciscus Florentius granted Maria Houtappel permission to participate in ‘all the merits, devotions, masses, penances, sermons, confessions, and all the other good works and religious offices that are performed and shall be performed henceforth by all the company and religious of this house [i.e., the Antwerp Jesuits] wherever in the world they may be.’37 On November 27 of 1611 the superior general in Rome, Claudio Aquaviva, wrote a letter to Cornelia Boot, her four daughters, and Anna Sgrevens that recognized the society’s debt to these women and in turn granted them a list of spiritual benefits similar to those earlier accorded to Maria. A postscript on the letter, signed by Scribani, attests that they all now possessed the right to be buried in the (as yet only planned) church of the Jesuits in Antwerp.38
In 1612 the Jesuit Provincia Belgica was split into the Provincia Gallo-Belgica (Walloon Province) and the Provincia Flandro-Belgica or Diets-Nederlandse (Flemish Province). The Antwerp Professed House (the Jesuits avoided the term ‘monastery’ to emphasize their non-enclosed, active missionary lifestyle) became head of the latter, making its prefect Scribani the new provincial superior, a position he retained until 1619. Under his purview plans were made for a new building complex in the heart of the city, which would include residential and administrative buildings and a modestly sized but architecturally grand public square, defined by a church, a library, and a sodality house, all built in a classicist Italian style (see Fig. 8.1). Francois d’Aguilon was appointed architect, and although initial plans sent to the superior general in Rome in 1613 were rejected, a new design was approved in 1615.39
On April 15 of that year the first stone of the new church was laid. It was to be built on an open three-aisled plan that recalled early Christian basilicas, without side chapels or an architectural divider or roodscreen to block the laity’s view of the masses performed at the its three altars.40 At first glance this church plan might be seen to embrace and even exceed the emphasis on sobriety and restraint embodied in the Gèsu, the Jesuit mother church in Rome on which it was largely modelled (the rich decoration in the Gèsu today was added mainly in the later seventeenth century). But the Antwerp Jesuits in fact visualized a wholly different kind of space, one whose richness of decoration would outshine every other church in the region. The costs rose quickly, and despite embarking on a fundraising campaign beginning with parish collections in 1614, the Jesuits began borrowing large sums from local wealthy families.41 Jeffrey Muller has convincingly argued that this ‘deficit spending’ was a calculated strategy on the part of the community’s leaders, who believed (correctly, it would turn out) that investing in grandeur and opulence would both draw the populace in to be educated in the tenets of faith and stimulate pious giving back to the community.42
But the Jesuit leadership in Rome was not at all in favor of this approach. In 1617 the Antwerp house’s deficit was 21,348 guilders, and the superior general, Muzio Vitelleschi, wrote to Jacobus Tirinus, who had headed the project since his appointment as provost of the new Professed House in 1616, instructing him to moderate his building activities to spend no more than the donations that had already been collected.43 In 1619 the debts were 118,192 guilders and in 1620, 220,000 guilders, at which point the general ordered Tirinus to stop building. The latter ignored the order and not only continued with construction but also expanded the original plans to include two large lateral chapels, which appear on a new plan drawn up by Pieter Huyssens, who had taken over as architect when d’Aguilon died in 1617 (Fig. 8.11). That on the north side would be dedicated to St. Ignatius, that on the south to the Virgin.
In 1621 the Jesuits owed their creditors 460,286 guilders, and in a letter of June 12 Vitelleschi rebuked Tirinius for his disobedience and specifically for having already begun work on the chapel of the Virgin without permission.44 The church was dedicated the same year with great celebration, and the grand two-story sodality house was constructed from 1622 to 1623.45 In 1624 provincial superior Florentius de Montmorency reported to Vitelleschi on the progress of the church’s decoration, emphasizing its grandeur and listing aspects of the decoration that had been paid for by wealthy benefactors (implicitly arguing against the accusation of irresponsible spending and for the idea that the project’s opulence was attracting new donors).46 He touched on the two lateral chapels and made a point of noting that that of the Virgin was funded by the generosity of the “three daughters of Godfried Houtappel, Maria, Anna, and Christina, along with his descendant Anna Sgrevens.”47 Income from such gifts had not yet caught up to the Jesuits’ borrowing, however; the next year the debt peaked at 508,000 guilders and Vitelleschi ordered that both Tirinus and Huyssens be dismissed from the project. Tirinus was replaced as provost of the Professed House by Jan de Tollenare, whom the general superior instructed to repay the Jesuits’ creditors as quickly as possible.48
3 The Construction and Decoration of the Chapel
It is the context of this conflict and its aftermath that the chapel of the Virgin was created, with construction beginning in 1620 or 1621 and the main phases of decoration stretching until about 1645, with at least one later addition in 1657. Here I will first sketch the chronology of this process and the expenses laid out for it as far as can be gleaned from the documentary evidence. I will then discuss the chapel as an integrated whole in which architecture, sculpture, and painting came together to communicate theological messages.
It is unclear whether the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens were involved in the chapel’s initial conception; however, the correspondence of its foundation with the sisters’ inheritance from their mother in the fall of 1620 strongly suggests that the latter was the catalyst. We are missing the documents (the parents’ marriage contract, Cornelia Boot’s will, probate inventories for her half of the marital property and for her personal property) that would tell us the exact size of this fortune, but considering the family’s standing and the daughters’ subsequent patronage acts it was undoubtedly huge. On receiving their inheritance the sisters may have had the idea to build a monumental family chapel in the Jesuit church, or the Jesuits might have seen their faithful supporters’ new wealth as an opportunity and brought a proposal for the chapel to them. It could also have been the case that the Jesuits were already planning the project when Cornelia Boot died, and the sisters, seeing the financial pressure under which the fathers were working, saw a chance to step in and make the chapel their own.
In any case, the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens were established as the chapel’s patrons by November or December of 1622, when Tirinus wrote that he had allocated or dedicated (ghegundt) the space to these women and hung their arms there in recognition of the “many good deeds that they have done for our Society.”49 The fact that the escutcheons could be hung at all implies that the architecture of the chapel was complete at this time, and the ‘allocation’ also almost certainly corresponds with the establishment of the chapel as the Houtappel family’s tomb; the body of Cornelia Boot, if not already in the subterranean crypt, must have been interred around this time as would have been that of her daughter Lucretia.
The architectural plan for the chapel of the Virgin has traditionally been ascribed to Rubens, though Leon Lock has recently argued for a collaborative approach between the painter and Huyssens.50 Measuring seventeen meters long by seven-and-a-half wide, the chapel is architecturally separate from the rest of the church and accessible through a portal on its northeast corner. The east end is divided into a small rectangular apse just wide enough for the altar frame, which is flanked by two small triforia elevated to the height of the altarpiece. The spaces below these balconies are accessible by small doors, one giving access to the sacristy behind the altar, and the other to a stairway down to the church’s crypt and the subterranean mortuary chapel beneath the altar of the chapel of the Virgin. The most striking architectural element of the chapel is its use of a hidden light source in the form of a window set into the wall of a small barrel vault above the altar (Fig. 8.12), which together with the chapel’s south-facing lateral windows illuminate the space, making it particularly bright in the afternoon. Paintings like that by Vrancx (see Fig. 8.4) that show the church’s interior typically depict the entrance to the chapel of the Virgin as filled with a glowing, almost heavenly light.
Decorative efforts seem first to have been focused around the altar, which along with the altar of the St. Ignatius chapel was dedicated on Pentecost of 1625.51 The state of the apse was described by Florentius de Montmorency in a report to Vitelleschi of that year, which tells us that the statue of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel had been placed on the altar, as had Rubens’s Assumption of c. 1611–1614 (Fig. 8.13) (the original was taken to Vienna by the Empress Marie Teresa at the end of the eighteenth century and is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum; a nineteenth-century copy now appears in its place). This work had originally been executed for the high altar of Antwerp’s cathedral but been rejected, and it is not clear exactly when or how it became destined for the chapel.52
Also complete were the eight small scenes attributed to Hendrik van Balen that act as a kind of predella, painted directly onto the marble of the altar and the adjacent walls. Referred to by de Montmorency as “various painted emblems of the Nativity and the mysteries of the Word made Flesh,” these were possibly executed in 1621, when two payments to the painter appear in the Jesuit accounts.53 They are arranged to be read in pairs; moving from the outermost scenes inward we see the Presentation of the Virgin on the left and on the right the Presentation of Christ, then the Virgin of the Annunciation and the Angel of the Annunciation, the Flight into Egypt and the Visitation, and finally the Adoration of the Shepherds and Adoration of the Magi, which flank the statue of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel.
Neither the designer nor the sculptor of the carved altar frame are recorded, but based on stylistic and circumstantial evidence they were probably Rubens and Hans van Mildert. Designs made by the former for other sculptural elements in the church share elements with the altar’s florid dynamism, and the latter was responsible for the church’s high altar (completed 1621) and later appears to have made a design for a marble altar for the Houtappel-Sgrevens family crypt (Fig. 8.14).54 According to de Montmorency the chapel altar was in 1625 as yet “imperfect,” but this, he assured Vitelleschi, would easily be rectified through the generosity of the community’s donors.55 The Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens, he stated, had already made “many and great” gifts towards the chapel of the Virgin, and would continue to show all “industry and care,” working “day and night” to see to its ornamentation. As this work continued over the coming years, such ‘gifts’ would include rich liturgical vessels, vestments, and decorative elements for the altars, one of which is described in 1628 by de Montmorency’s successor Jacobus Stratius as an expensive altar frontal made of cloth of silver with insigni acus artificio illuso, “striking illusionistic needle work.”
That same letter refers to the chapel as that of the “queen of heaven,” sacello praesertim coelorum reginae, instead of sacello magnae Matri – chapel of the great Mother [of God] – as earlier documents term it. This we can link to the then near-complete altar space and its iconography: viewers saw in Rubens’s altarpiece the Virgin miraculously born up to heaven by a flock of angels three days after her death, while the apostles and bystanders marveled at her empty tomb below; the image was narratively expanded by the marble figure of God at the top of the altar (see Fig. 8.13) who reaches down to place a gilded crown (now removed) onto Mary’s head as she rises. De Montmorency’s reference to heaven also suggests that the stucco ceiling had already been completed or at least that its plans had been finalized. A design for the ceiling attributed to Rubens is preserved in the Albertina, while its execution has been attributed to Andries Colyns de Nole, who would a few years later be involved in other decorative work for the chapel (see below). The ceiling features symbols of the Virgin set into a heavenly space with angels, and it was on view by the Feast of the Nativity (September 8) of 1631 when the Archduchess Isabella and Marie de’ Medici visited the church. In a description of their visit published the following year Jean Puget de La Serre noted that the ceiling was “carved in relief with figures, but so boldly that the work seems to detach from the [ceiling], deceiving the spirit with the eyes” – plastic illusionism in this case was clearly valued by the author and presumably by contemporaries. De La Serre however mistakenly stated that the carvings were done in “white stone,” probably indicating that the stucco had not yet been gilded as we see it today (see Fig. 8.15).56
On March 13 of 1635 the three Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens contracted with Robrecht Colyns de Nole and his nephew Andries to “clothe” (becleeden) the chapel in marble.57 The cost for the project was to be 21,000 guilders paid in installments, with Anna Sgrevens covering one-half of the amount and the Houtappels the other half. While Rubens is presumed to have designed the installation, the contract makes reference only to a (now lost?) drawing “delivered and signed” by a certain Jesuit named Joannes Van Dam, which is described as marked with letters denoting where each different type of stone was to be used: marble of black, red, and white, as well as “variegated [i.e. polychrome] Italian marbles, whether black and yellow, or green-white, or whatever sorts are available.” The women further ordered “six figures in white Carrara marble, each six feet high, being Our Lady with the Christ Child, St. Joseph, St. Joachim, St. Anna, St. Christina, [and] St. Lucretia or Susanna.” The result, visible today, is a richly decorated interior whose aesthetic effects depend on not only the stones’ natural colors but also deeply carved relief elements in the form of scrollwork, foliage, putti, and antique masks. The contract stipulated that the work was to be completed in three and a half years, but the death of Robrecht in 1636 and of Andries in 1638 must have contributed to delays that stretched the installation of the marble until at least the middle of the following decade.58
On May 12, 1638, Anna Sgrevens wrote her will, naming the Houtappel sisters as her executors and stating that “in the case that I should owe any debts for the affixing of the marble in Our Dear Lady chapel in the Professed House, and also for the gilding of the chapel, and the paintings that should be there, and any other work towards its completion” the sisters should pay the costs from her estate, most of which she left to the Jesuits.59 Anna did die later that year, and over the next six years the Houtappel sisters made numerous payments, totaling 16,729 guilders, from her estate towards the chapel. These were tallied in an account drawn up by the procurator of the Jesuit College Gaspar de Haze on August 13 of 1644.60 On September 12 of 1639 the commission was transferred to the sculptors Jacques Couplet and Sebastiaan de Neve, who had worked as journeymen under Andries Colyns de Nole.61 At that point the two artists still needed “three pieces of white marble” – suggesting that work on at least three of the statues had not yet been started. In 1640 the Couplet-de Neve workshop recorded a payment for renting the workshop where “three figures” had already been completed.62 Marguerite Casteels speculates that these were the statues of Joseph and the Virgin (Figs. 8.16 and 8.17), which she attributes to the Colyns de Noles, with possibly finishing touches by Couplet and de Neve) and St. Susanna (Fig. 8.18, which she attributes fully to de Neve) since no subsequent archival traces for those figures have been found.
In 1642 a payment was entered for the installation of the figure of St. Anne (Fig. 8.19), and a letter from the provincial superior to Vitelleschi in that year indeed states that that statue had been erected in the chapel.63 The same letter reports that figures of Peter and Paul had already been installed in the balustraded triforia flanking the altar; these were not part of the 1635 contract with the Colyns de Noles and must have been ordered separately. Based on stylistic evidence Casteels attributed them to the Colyns de Noles for the design and primarily to Jacques Couplet for the execution; however the attribution is complicated by the fact that the figures now in place appear to be copies (they are not marble but painted wood, Figs. 8.20, 8.21). Because the statue of St. Peter, in the left-hand triforium as one faces the altar, is swathed in shadow no matter the time of day, one wonders if there may have originally been an opening in the wall beside him that would have allowed him to be illuminated with light from the nave.
Among the last entries in the account for Anna Sgrevens’s estate are a payment of 500 guilders on June 2, 1644, to Sebastiaan de Neve for completing the statue of St. Catherine (Fig. 8.22; Catherine had replaced the statue of Joachim at some point after the original contract was drawn up), and finally a note stating that another 400 guilders, representing Sgrevens’s half of the cost of the statue of St. Christina (Fig. 8.23), would be paid to the artist when it was finished.64 When their installation was complete these eight sculpted figures would have made a striking impression on the viewer, both in a spiritual sense – the life-sized figures peering down from their elevated but still accessible register on the walls would have heightened the illusion of sharing their heavenly space – and a material one, since the Carrara marble from which they were made was very expensive in the seventeenth-century Low Countries and underlined the financial power of the patrons.65
The “paintings” mentioned by Anna Sgrevens in her will of 1638 probably referred to the several works, all depicting Marian themes, that were custom-sized to fit between the marble elements on the walls. No other contemporary documents concerning these images have come to light, but Daniel Papebroeck’s description of the chapel from around 1700 allows us to identify them for the most part.66 Still in its original location at the back of the chapel, beneath the Houtappel coat of arms and between decorative profile portraits of Christ and the Virgin in white marble, is Cornelis Schut’s Circumcision (Fig. 8.24), an unusual composition that removes the scene from its typical temple setting to an ambiguous, perhaps heavenly or timeless, space. The Virgin holds her son in her lap, while the priest (whom Papenbroeck mistook for St. Joseph) kneels at her feet; two angels assist with the procedure while others floating above bear symbols of Christ’s Passion, which is prefigured by the sacrifice of blood in the circumcision.
The two paintings originally on the south wall, hung on either side of the confessional, are works by Gerard Seghers now in the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Fig. 8.25) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Fig. 8.26), both of which display unusual iconography centered around the Virgin. The Antwerp picture presents the viewer with the biblical episode in which the resurrected Christ (recognizable as such by his palm frond and wounds) greets his mother. Mary is depicted as having just been interrupted in prayer, kneeling before a table-like altar with the signs of the Passion around her; above two putti hold a banner with the words Regina coeli, laetare, alleluia: “Queen of heaven, rejoice” – even though Mary was, of course, at this narrative moment still very much alive and on earth. Christ, on the other side, has just returned from hell/limbo and trails behind him Old Testament figures that he has released: King David, Moses, and Adam and Eve. Curiously, also in the group are St. Joseph and two anonymous souls, apparently signifying that Christ’s sacrifice has made possible the salvation of all those who come after him. Seghers has thus created another hybrid heavenly/earthly space that glorifies Mary while underlining the crucifixion of her son as the foundation for mankind’s salvation.
The Vienna painting depicts an apocryphal scene, that of St. John the Evangelist administering communion to Mary. The subject is unusual and has not, to my knowledge, been examined by art historians. It constitutes a curious kind of reintegration of the body of Christ into that of Mary, herself the site of his incarnation. It seems to have gained limited popularity after Trent, and the extant examples I have been able to trace suggest that it was a particularly Spanish iconography that was disseminated into its Low Countries territories in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.67
Above the confessional on the north wall Papenbroeck noted a Return from Egypt by ‘Livinius’ (Jan Lievens, a Dutch painter active in Antwerp from 1635 to 1643). The work currently in place there is a Holy Family with St. John, Joachim, and St. Anne, more reasonably attributed to Schut (visible in Fig. 8.6). This would seem to indicate a replacement of the original painting; however, it may be that Papenbroeck simply misremembered either the work’s subject or the actual location of a now-lost Return from Egypt. To the left of the north wall confessional is an anonymous painting of the Assumption not mentioned by Papenbroeck, and this may be where the painting he described as “by Rubens, with some ornate wreathes of fruit and flowers which Daniel Seghers painted from life” was originally installed.68 Finally, at some point the sisters hung the portraits of their parents by Gortzius (8.8 & 8.9) in the chapel. Inscriptions were added naming Cornelia and Godfried as mother and father of Maria, Anna, and Christina, and calling both the parents and the daughters “co-founders” of the Jesuit College.69 According to Visschers, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, these portraits were hung below the Holy Family mentioned above, which would resonate with its theme of parental and filial love.70
For the making of the three confessionals we have no documentary evidence, but as the marble decorative panels seem designed to fit around them they must have been planned by the time the 1635 contract was drawn up. Made of oak, each consists of a central space with a bench for the priest to sit while hearing confessions, divided from two flanking spaces for penitents to kneel by intricately carved panels (Fig. 8.27).
In keeping with the original spirit of the development of confessionals by Tridentine reformers, who sought to bring the rite of confession out of closed rooms (with their potential for impropriety) and into public view, the chapel’s examples have no doors or gates on the front.71 Although their details differ, the decorative schema of the confessionals all prominently feature angel-topped herms on their dividing panels with deeply carved scrollwork, floral patterns, putti, and fruit garlands, echoing the same designs on the chapel’s altar and throughout its marble decoration on the walls.
In 1657 Anna Houtappel, the last surviving sister (Maria Houtappel had died on February 18 of 1649 and Christina on January 1, 1657) added one final piece of furniture to the chapel’s decoration: an ornate white marble communion rail erected before the altar (see Fig. 8.5). In its center is the monogram of the Virgin Mary and on either side are angels whose bodies trail away into cornucopia forms, sprouting leaves and roses. Moving outward these intertwine with Eucharistic symbols: oversized ears of wheat referring to the Host as the body of Christ, and grapes for the wine as his blood. This work formed a sacramental pendant to the chapel’s confessionals, as penitents visiting the chapel would first confess and then kneel here to receive the host during the mass.
The chapel of the Virgin in the Jesuit church thus presented its viewers with a remarkably immersive space, one in which every surface was covered in precious materials wrought into visual forms that communicated religious messages. It was in a sense constructed almost like an enormous version of the ornate boxes and cabinets in which wealthy Antwerpers stored precious jewels, antique coins, or religious relics; in this case the “jewel” was the statue of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel, and the decoration of the chapel aimed primarily at communicating the glory of the Virgin Mary herself. The imagery had a narrative aspect, beginning at the altar with the tiny ‘predella’ scenes from the Virgin’s earthly life, each story or episode illustrating her personal virtues and her selection by God to be the bearer of Christ. The next vertical register presents us with the penultimate moments in her story, her Assumption and Coronation. Roses and fruit carved in relief on the altar further enhance our understanding of the scene, referring to the Virgin’s virtue, to the sweet scent that emerged from her tomb when it was opened after her death, and to the heavenly ‘fruits’ of her pious life. The light that streams through the window concealed above God also seems to come from heaven itself, almost as though by a miracle – an idea that would in turn support Counter-Reformation church’s claims for Mary’s power as intercessor and the truth of miracles wrought through her compassion.72 This thematic integration of painting, sculpture, and architecture would become a hallmark of baroque art and was employed most famously by Bernini in the 1640s, which makes its appearance here in the Antwerp Jesuit church by 1625 particularly notable.73
The ceiling then represents, in symbolic form, Mary’s eternal reign in heaven. At its center is her monogram MRA (Maria Regina Ave) inside a sunburst, which would have formally echoed the crown held by God the Father on the altar. A star and a moon appear on either side as references to the Song of Solomon. Above the windows on the south side of the chapel angels hold a vase, a typical symbol of Mary’s virginity, and a ‘spotless’ mirror, symbol of the Immaculate Conception (Wisdom 7:26). The angels at the west end of the ceiling bear musical instruments, a sign of the heavenly music played on the occasion of the Assumption, and flowers. Those at the east hold laurel wreaths, symbol of valor and triumph, and martyrs’ palm fronds. This latter element is curious, as it diverges from an iconographical program in the ceiling that is otherwise completely Marian (Mary was, of course, not executed as a martyr). The palm fronds do, however, resonate with the statues of the three early Christian virgin martyrs – Christina, Susanna, and Catherine of Alexandria – that our ‘spiritual daughters’ commissioned to adorn the walls below, integrating the primary Marian theme into a secondary theme, that of the spiritual virtue of (female) voluntary celibacy more broadly, discussed further below.
The imagery of the chapel thus surrounded viewers with a sense of Mary’s virtue and heavenly presence, while the illusionism of many of its decorative elements would have made it seem as though one had stepped into another realm, a spiritual space removed from the ordinary world. Many visitors would have come specifically to pray before the statue of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel, hoping for a miracle that would better their own lives or those of loved ones, and their physical surroundings would have shored up their faith in her virtue, benevolence, and power. Others came to participate in the sacraments of confession and communion, themes that were emphasized not only through the confessionals and the communion rail themselves, but also in both of Gerard Seghers’s paintings and in Schut’s Circumcision, with their direct and indirect references to Christ’s sacrifice. One might even speculate that this chapel played an important part in the Jesuits’ highly successful and fundamentally Tridentine push to involve the Antwerp laity in just these rituals; in 1649 alone, for example, they passed out around 300,000 consecrated hosts, well over 4 per resident of the city.74 Finally, both the architecture and the decoration of the chapel made numerous references to Rome as the seat of Catholicism, and to the Catholic Church (rather than the Protestant sects) as the true heir of Christ’s teaching: from the employment of the classical orders, barrel vaulting, and arched portico altar, to the use of multicolored marble that echoed contemporary baroque churches in the eternal city, to the figures of saints Peter and Paul as founders of the Church and symbols of the (Catholic) Church militant. The inclusion of these last figures must be rooted in the Jesuits’ emphasis on these apostles as their own forbearers in spreading the true faith, and they mirrored very similar statues of Peter and Paul that appeared on the church’s façade.75 In the context of confessional warfare, the chapel of the Virgin thus both acted as a vehicle to increase Antwerp citizens’ engagement with orthodox religious practice and grounded right belief within the Tridentine Roman Church.
4 Patronage, Gender, and Agency
The Houtappel sisters’ and Anna Sgrevens’s support for the Antwerp Jesuits went far beyond patronizing the chapel of the Virgin to include periodic gifts of cash, real estate, and annuities. By the time Anna Houtappel died in 1674 the four women had donated well over 304,000 guilders, not including gifts in kind, as well as made over 66,000 guilders in loans to the community76 – for perspective, a skilled laborer in Antwerp during this period could expect to make about 240–250 guilders per year.77 This made them the biggest donors to the Antwerp Jesuits in the seventeenth century. But while the scale of these women’s beneficence was exceptional, their profile as wealthy spiritual daughters among the community’s patrons was not. The Ignatius chapel was built by the spiritual daughter Anna Mechelmens, and we find many more such women among their top donors, including the sisters Anna, Maria, and Barbara Goubau, Anna and Elizabeth Haecx, five daughters of the della Faille family, and Anna van Etten.78 Single women and widows furthermore held over one third of the debts incurred by the Professed House in this period.79
The Jesuits in fact seem to have systematically recruited wealthy Flemish women to become spiritual daughters and ultimately patrons. They were criticized for this practice by contemporaries, who not only accused the Jesuits of going after individual women’s fortunes but also pointed out that when multiple members of the same family professed as spiritual daughters (thus remaining unmarried and childless) they tended to pass their inheritances down to each other until finally the family fortune landed in Jesuit hands.80 This is, indeed, exactly what happened with the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens. Much research remains to be done, but there is reason to suspect that a significant portion of Jesuit art and architecture in the Low Countries was funded by spiritual daughters, and this would further resonate with recent scholarship on Italy and France that argues for the Jesuits intentionally targeting wealthy women as patrons.81 The more we know about these relationships, the better we can understand how the Jesuits operated on a global scale, and perhaps even how the Tridentine Church itself understood the challenges to and solutions for its religious missions.
But at the same time the archival documents related to the chapel of the Virgin in the Antwerp Jesuit church show that the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens were not just passive carriers of wealth, obediently providing funds for the Jesuits’ projects. The sisters’ surviving wills make clear that they aimed to provide for each other first and the Jesuits second, and in some cases they were careful to outline restrictions on the purposes to which the Jesuits could use their donations.82 That the simple fact of their affluence gave these women a significant degree of agency in their relationship with the Jesuit fathers is further demonstrated by events surrounding the 1629 death of Scribani.83 The Houtappels and Anna Sgrevens successfully requested that Scribani be buried in their family crypt despite the fact that the Jesuit statutes prohibited such burials for their members. The women interred their spiritual father next to their parents and had a very lengthy, and very laudatory, epitaph inscribed in bronze and installed over his grave.84 On June 8 of 1630 Vitelleschi wrote to Stratius, then serving as provincial, expressing his shock that such a thing had been allowed to happen and ordering Stratius to implore the Houtappel sisters to remove the epitaph, as it represented an affront to the Jesuit ideal of humility. The inscription was not removed, which may have suited the Antwerp Jesuits just fine, but what is most significant for our purposes is that Vitelleschi assumed that the Houtappel sisters were in charge of the space and that no changes could be made without their permission.
Around the same time we find another indication of the position of our female patrons vis-à-vis the Jesuit fathers, in the 1631 second edition of the Dutch translation of the writings of the Milanese spiritual daughter Isabella Christina Bellinzaga (1551–1624).85 Its rather lengthy dedication to the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens by the Antwerp Jesuit father Gregorius Fabri is adulatory almost to the point of being obsequious: the priest states that he offers this “simple” gift to the “most honorable and pious Ladies” not because they need to learn from it, but as a “means of support or maintenance” of the virtues that they have already acquired.86 This suggests that as our four female patrons were in the process of completing the chapel of the Virgin, the Antwerp Jesuits had come to position themselves less as their directors and more as the grateful recipients of their largesse.
While the exact dynamics of the relationship between the Jesuits and the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens will remain unknown, it is clear that these women were actively engaged in the process of building the chapel, and that they were in a position to have a significant impact on its appearance. Whereas the overall decorative scheme of the chapel, with its complex expression of Marian and sacramental themes, is certainly rooted in Jesuit teachings, these themes would also have been very well-known to the female patrons who may well have been quite engaged with the design process. At the very least, the life-sized marble statues commissioned to adorn the walls must be the result of input from the Houtappels and Sgrevens. Three of these figures were, of course, of their own patron saints: the Virgin Mary for Maria Houtappel, St. Anne for Anna Sgrevens and Anna Houtappel, St. Christina for Christina Houtappel, and St. Susanna for the deceased Lucretia Susana Houtappel. Both of the latter saints were fairly minor early Christian virgin martyrs, not a topic of particular interest to the early modern Jesuits but one which would have resonated very strongly with our patrons whose voluntary religious chastity was at the very core of their identity. The replacement of St. Joachim in the earlier plan, where he would have stood as a patriarchal pendant to St. Anne, with St. Catherine of Alexandria surely must also be understood in this vein, but why Catherine in particular was chosen has puzzled scholars.
A clue is in fact found in Antonius Houtappel’s will of 1617. He mentions ‘mia heredita, Catherina seu Cornelia Autappel, figlia de Igidio Autappel,’ or ‘my heir, Catherina a.k.a. Cornelia Houtappel, daughter of Egidius Houtappel.’ This Egidius (or Gillis) was Godfried’s younger brother, who lived in Antwerp and was married to Digna de Smit; their only surviving child was named Cornelia Maria.87 If the family saw the names Cornelia and Catherine as interchangeable, then they must have understood St. Catherine of Alexandria to be the patron saint of their mother Cornelia Boot (there is a fourth-century Roman saint named Cornelia, but she rarely if ever appeared in Flemish church monuments in this period). By erecting a statue of St. Catherine, therefore, the Houtappel sisters were able to include their mother’s patron in the church decoration, and together these life-sized marble statues stood as proxies for all the female family members who would eventually be buried together beneath the altar. Their father, Godfried, would be indirectly represented not by his own patron saint but by St. Joseph, patriarch of the holy family. The visual theme of patron saints also explains, I think, the unusual composition of Gerard Seghers’s John the Evangelist Administering Communion to the Virgin Mary. Typically early modern versions of this subject include only the Virgin, the Evangelist, and an angel or altar boy as an assistant to the mass, as we see in a print by Antony Wierix (Fig. 8.28). Segher’s inclusion of three female observers therefore must indicate that it has additional layers of meaning.88
The middle woman, who leans in closest to the Virgin and holds out her arms, is older and fully veiled to show that she is married, while the other two are young and wear both their hair and a modest décolletage uncovered, indicating that they are virgins. The most likely explanation for the inclusion of these figures is that they are the patron saints of our chapel’s benefactors: the older woman is St. Anne, the young virgins are Saints Christina and Lucretia or Susanna, and the Virgin Mary fills out the group as the patron of Maria Houtappel.
The Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens thus had a significant impact on the decorative plan of the chapel, making the theme of glorified voluntary chastity a major part of its religious messages. Their commissions on this count also show a need on their part to inscribe the chapel with their own identity, here by proxy in the sculpted and painted bodies of their patron saints. The same need can be perceived in the altar plaque that they had inscribed with their names and those of their parents, as well as in actions taken by Anna Houtappel to ensure that her family’s coat of arms would remain displayed in the chapel. The rights to those arms were tied to the seigneury of Ranst, and since Godfried Houtappel had no surviving sons when he died, the seigneury had passed to his eldest daughter Maria Houtappel. Ordinarily such a title and its fiefdoms, which as an exception to Antwerp property and inheritance law were governed by primogeniture, would have been transferred from Maria to her husband, or if she died unmarried (as she indeed planned to) to a surviving male relative. But in 1638 she successfully petitioned the Spanish crown for permission to sell the seigneury. In the same year she wrote a will stating that the proceeds from the sale should be divided between her sisters Anna and Christina when she died, and only after their deaths be passed to the Jesuits.89 In 1642 Maria sold the castle and its lands to her cousin Cornelia Maria Houtappel, mentioned above, making Cornelia and her husband Peter Pascal de Decker the new lady and lord of Ranst.90 While this was clearly financially beneficial to the Houtappel sisters it also meant that they no longer had the right to use the coat of arms, so in 1669, at the age of 89, Anna Houtappel requested and received permission from the Spanish king Charles II to keep the escutcheon in the chapel of the Virgin on the grounds that her father had still held the lordship when he died.91
Making their identity known to the chapel’s visitors would have had both social and religious functions for the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens. While we know nearly nothing about their daily lives, gendered behavioral codes that valued feminine silence and modesty must have girded their public behavior. Through conspicuous consumption within religious patronage, however, they could assert their position at the apex of Antwerp’s social elite, and it seems that they did not shy away from displays that some might have found ostentatious – for example, in 1645 Maria Houtappel’s ‘jubilee’ (marking fifty years) as a spiritual daughter was celebrated in the Jesuit church with grand festivities, at which no less than nine separate choirs sang.92 Keeping themselves visible through artistic patronage also offered them crucial spiritual benefits. It would have been the hope and, I think, the expectation of Lucretia Susanna, Christina, Anna, and Maria Houtappel, and Anna Sgrevens, that the magnificence of the chapel of the Virgin and its trumpeting of Catholic doctrine would have made clear their roles as vital contributors to the social and religious fabric of their city, and that this, in turn, would move visitors to pray for their souls in purgatory.
The chapel of the Virgin in the Antwerp Jesuit church should be seen as a joint effort between the Jesuits, with their zeal for furthering the cause of reform through dazzling visual displays, and the Houtappel sisters and Anna Sgrevens, without whose enormous wealth and enthusiasm for the project the chapel likely would not have been created. In this sense the findings here build on those put forward in Judith Pollmann’s recent (2011) Catholic Identity and the Revolt of the Netherlands, 1520–1635, in which she argues that the restoration of Catholic culture in the Southern Low Countries was a collaborative process between ecclesiastical reformers and members of the local populace. They also complement other studies of women taking on active roles in the Tridentine reform process across Europe by showing that they could do so outside of both convents and the grass-roots, often service-oriented movements with which we often associate them, by instead using their wealth to create monumental spaces that facilitated the conversion of souls. Considering the amount of property under women’s control as well as the popularity of the spiritual daughter movement in the early modern Catholic Low Countries, it is likely that many more such examples will emerge if we simply start to look for them. This could both fundamentally shift our picture of how, and by whom, the region’s religious culture was brought to flourish in the seventeenth century, while at the same time pushing us to revisit difficult questions around power, wealth, and gender, especially in terms of what the Counter-Reformation meant for women.
The case of the Houtappels and Anna Sgrevens furthermore asks art and architectural historians to more carefully consider how gendered norms have shaped not only our own historiography but also our primary sources and the very artworks and spaces that we study. As we have seen in the preceding pages, every single known archival and early reference to the construction of the chapel of the Virgin, from account books to letters between the Jesuits to the description by Papenbroeck, names only the Houtappel and Sgrevens women as its patrons. Yet numerous authors have credited Godfried Houtappel with its foundation and construction.93 Their doing so certainly (though not necessarily consciously) arose from, and has perpetuated, a sexist ontological framework in which men are public actors and women are not, but it has also been anchored to two very important and prominent material sources: the subterranean crypt chapel inscription that named Godfried as founder (note 9), and a marble plaque installed before the altar whose Latin inscription translates to ‘The monument of Godfried Houtappel, Lord of Ranst, founder of this chapel, and of his most pious wife, Cornelia Boot, and of his virgin daughters, Maria, Anna, Christina, and Lucretia, and his descendant Anna Sgrevens, by whose benefices this chapel to the Mother of God was donated and ornamented, and the College of the Society of Jesus was founded in this city.’94 Undoubtedly composed by the female patrons, these texts themselves seem to situate Godfried Houtappel as the chapel’s main patron.
So does this mean that he actually did found the chapel, donating funds and giving instructions for its building before he died, and that all references to these acts have simply been lost to time? This seems to me all but impossible, as such a gift would not simply go unmentioned in the many documents that do survive.95 Instead we surely have here a case of daughters both honoring their father and using his name, his patriarchal authority, to navigate around gendered expectations. As women and especially as spiritual daughters, the Houtappels and Anna Sgrevens were expected to embody feminine humility, passivity, and obedience, to shield their gazes and to hold their tongues, to hide themselves behind walls or at least beneath the long black huycken (a kind of mantle) that proper Southern Low Countries women wore in public. Inscribing Godfried Houtappel’s name before their chapel’s altar, with his coat of arms hung on the opposite wall, allowed his daughters and niece to erect a public monument of incredible grandeur without directly claiming all the credit for themselves. Nor is it a coincidence, I think, that the Houtappels and Anna Sgrevens used their fortunes to glorify the very spiritual virtue – that of voluntary religious chastity, communicated in the forms of their patron saints and of the symbols of the Virgin and virginity on all the chapel’s surfaces – that had justified their choice to remain unmarried and thus in control of their property, and thereby made their patronage possible in the first place. Keeping themselves one step removed, putting forth a patriarch as patron and having images of their patron saints stand in for themselves, these four women were able to create one of the most artistically remarkable sacramental spaces in the Spanish Low Countries, ensuring their own souls’ salvation while furthering the glorious cause of the Counter-Reformation Church.