You may be surprised to learn that not all of Theodoor van Loon’s works currently grace the walls of the Centre of Fine Arts. Some can still be observed in their natural habitat, like in the quirky place of pilgrimage that is Scherpenheuvel. Van Loon’s monumental paintings have recently been cleaned and will be enhanced by a magnificent soundtrack, during an in situ concert.
Van Loon’s most prestigious commission took him to Scherpenheuvel where the architect Wenceslas Coberger built an iconic church, in the form of a heptagonal star. The architect and the painter probably met in Rome, and previously collaborated on St. Hubert’s Chapel for the hunting castle of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella in Tervuren.
Cobergher designed a new, heptagonal city around his star-shaped basilica. At the centre of his design was the Virgin Mary. It is said that she decided to settle in an oak tree in Zichem in the late Middle Ages – or so a group of stubborn eye witnesses maintained. As a result, the region became famous for its veneration with the Virgin Mary, and the authorities even lent their support in the seventeenth century. What better way to irritate the Protestants after all, than with the people’s devotion to Jesus’ mother. The star was the Virgin’s symbol, the seven points refer to her seven sorrows and her seven virtues.
And so Van Loon set to work on what was probably the greatest cycle of his career, creating seven gigantic paintings about the life of the Virgin Mary. One in each of the six side chapels and one on the main altar. The story starts with the intimate glance that St. Joachim and St. Anne exchange as the desperate and childless couple find out that Anne is finally and miraculously pregnant. And ends with the impressive assumption on the main altar, which stands on the site where the miraculous oak tree once raised its branches to the sky.
Over time, the original sequence of the paintings changed (probably because the path that the pilgrims followed in the basilica also changed). It is difficult to determine the original hanging with 100% certainty. In recent months, however, the paintings were freed from their 19th century cages. The thick and dirty 19th century glass was also removed and the canvases cleaned.
So what do the paintings look like after this transformation? You’ll have to go to Scherpenheuvel to find out. You can see Van Loon’s Cycle of the Virgin Mary every day for free in the basilica. On 16 and 17 November, BOZAR is organising concerts in the basilica, with a programme of music dedicated to the Virgin Mary, by Flemish, Italian and Spanish composers of Van Loon’s era. A guide will take you on a tour of the paintings before and after the concert.