Conscienceplein: start of a new era (1)

The Conscienceplein, situated in front of the Carolus-Borromeüs church, is an interesting place to visit in more than one way. It is an early example of urbanism, has some very interesting examples of baroque architecture and in the latter part of the previous century it became the very first pedestrians only zone in town.

Early Urbanism

A simulation of Antwerp around 1200
A simulation of Antwerp around 1200 seen from the west

Around 1200 the city was surrounded by a series of canals that started in the south with Suikerrui which ran into Kaasrui, then continued to Wijngaardbrug all the way to Koepoortbrug and eventually ended in Koolkaai which ran into the river.

By the 17th century the city had grown and now was defended by a huge wall that ran in a semicircle around town. The present day ‘boulevard’ (Italiëlei, Frankrijklei, Britselei, Amerikalei) is built on the remains of this defensive wall. That meant that the town no longer needed the old ruien-system for defensive reasons. People had been using them as sewers, so they must have stunk very badly when the weather was hot. Therefore the authorities encouraged owners to cover the canal bordering their property. Sometimes the land was given for free.

In come the Jesuits

When you come from City Hall or the cathedral, you enter Conscienceplein from the west. Take a look at the smaller houses on your left (north side). At one time the whole square was full of houses like these. When the jesuits returned to Antwerp in the early 17th century, about half of the population had fled the town and the Spanish authorities. Most of them had gone to Amsterdam, Haarlem and other Dutch cities and taken their trade with them.

A view of the jesuits' lodgings and the sodalities on Conscienceplein
A view of the jesuits’ lodgings (left) and the sodalities (right)

Anyway, many older houses stood empty and the jesuits decided to create their stronghold on Conscienceplein. Unlike other religious orders jesuits do not live in cloisters or abbeys. They lived together in a house like the one you see on the south side of the square. In this part of the buildings the jesuits also opened a college where they trained young men in the classic languages.

Underneath these buildings on the south side of Conscienceplein, the old ‘rui’ still flew, turning to the north to pass underneath the church and flow into what is now the Minderbroedersrui.

The building on the west side housed two ‘sodalities’. These were congregations of lay men (the single ones on the second floor, the married ones on the first floor) devoted to the service of the Holy Mother.

Rubens was a member of the sodality on the first floor, Van Dyck took part on the second floor. Both made nice paintings and decorations for their sodality, but unfortunately the Austrians took them at the moment the jesuit order was abolished in 1773. We must now travel to Vienna to get a glimpse of these works.

To be continued

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