My mother was very devoted to the Virgin Mary, and I believe her mother was also. So it pleased me when we entered Antwerp, to see so many street corner shrines to the Virgin. Even the cathedral in Antwerp – the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedral –is dedicated to the Blessed Mother.
I wondered why Mary was so important here. It is, like most religious tales, a long story.
In the first half of the 16th Century, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe and the center of the entire international economy. Hundreds of ships would pass the city in the Scheldt River, and 2,000 carts entered Antwerp each week. At the height of the spice trade, Portuguese ships unloaded cargos of cinnamon and pepper here.
Yet the city did not have its own long-distance merchant fleet, and the oligarchy of banker-aristocrats who governed Antwerp were forbidden to engage in trade. As a result, foreigners controlled much of the business. Antwerp was a real international city, with merchants and traders from Venice, Spain and Portugal. What’s more, Antwerp had a policy of tolerance which attracted a large orthodox Jewish community (still very much in evidence and employed largely in the diamond trade).
But Antwerp’s golden age — which lasted less than a hundred years — was destroyed by religious wars. Philip II inherited both Spain and the Low Countries when his father, Charles V, died in 1555. Phillip, a religious fanatic, viewed the reformist stirrings in the Low Countries with horror, and his ongoing efforts to control the religious lives of his subjects brought war and pestilence to the region for decades.
Protestantism had taken root in Antwerp early on, and the city seethed with discontent as Philip’s plans became clear. In 1566, priests carried an image of the Virgin Mary through the streets and insisted that everyone should bend the knee as they passed.
Protestants, of course, do not honor Mary as Catholics do, and the order was abhorrent to large parts of the population. The parade passed peacefully, but afterwards the city’s Protestant guildsmen and their apprentices smashed the inside of the cathedral to pieces – the most extreme example of the “iconoclastic fury” that swept through the region.
Philip responded by sending in an army of occupation and building a brand new citadel to house them. Nine years later, this garrison, unpaid and unfed, surrounded by the “heretical” wealth of the city, mutinied. They stormed Antwerp at dawn on November 4, 1576, and ran riot for three days, plundering public buildings and private mansions and slaughtering some 8,000 inhabitants in the “Spanish fury.”
More outrages followed. Philip’s soldiers were driven out after the massacre, but they were back in 1585 laying siege to the city for seven months. They succeeded in taking Antwerp, and the city was incorporated into the (Catholic) Spanish Netherlands. Protestants were given two years to leave town, and a flood of skilled workers poured north into the relative safety of Holland, further weakening Antwerp’s economy. Amsterdam quickly become the new center of trade.
The street corner shrines to Mary are charming, but they reminded me of the stories of Jews in Spain who were forced to convert to Catholicism (the alternative was being burnt at the stake) at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, afraid of Jewish influence in Seville, asked the Pope for permission to start an Inquisition in Spain.
I have read food historians who believe that Spain changed the traditional Easter dinner from lamb to ham to ensure that Conversos, as the baptized but unbelieving Jews were known, were following the laws of their new faith, If the Jews would eat pork, surely they had given up the ways of their fathers.
But many Jews were concerned that eating the ham might not be enough to save them; after all, dinner took place indoors, in private. And so the Jews would hang hams in front of their houses, just to be on the safe side, in case any of the Inquisitors should pass their way.
I wonder how many statues of Mary in Antwerp were put in position for similar purposes.