Belgium // Antwerp and the northeast //

The Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Occupying an immense Neoclassical edifice dating from the 1880s, Antwerp’s prestigious Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (KMSKA; Royal Fine Art Museum), overlooking Leopold de Waelplaats, possesses a first-rate collection of Belgian art from the fifteenth century onwards, but it’s closed for a long-term refurbishment until at least 2014. In the meantime, plans are afoot to display highlights of the collection elsewhere in the city – the cathedral and the MAS museum are two likely locations – and the tourist office will have the latest news. Key paintings in the collection include two tiny but especially delicate works by Jan van Eyck (1390–1441), a Madonna at the Fountain and a St Barbara, and Quinten Matsys’ (1465–1530) triptych of the Lamentation, a profound and moving work portraying the Christ, his forehead flecked with blood, surrounded by grieving followers including Mary Magdalene, who tenderly wipes his feet with her hair as tears roll down her face. The museum also possesses several enormous canvases by Rubens (1577–1640), most notably an inventive Last Communion of St Francis (1619), showing a very sick-looking saint equipped with the marks of the stigmata, a faint halo and a half-smile: despite the sorrowful ministrations of his fellow monks, Francis can’t wait for salvation. Also from 1619 is Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves which, with its muscular thieves and belligerent Romans, possesses all the high drama you might expect, but is almost overwhelmed by its central image – you can virtually hear the tearing of Christ’s flesh as the soldier’s lance sinks into him.