In the restoration campaign that followed the period of Iconoclastic Fury, the main focus was on a new high altar in the then nave. In keeping with the Counter-Reformation, the patron saint is portrayed as a heroic martyr on a giant scale (437 x 287 cm). In 1594, the contract was signed with Otto Van Veen, the artist then held to be the authority in Antwerp and under whom Peter Paul Rubens came to study in that same year. The contract was agreed on the basis of Van Veen’s colourful and detailed modello by his own hand, which, since 2006, has once again come into the possession of the churchwardens.
The two predella pieces depict both versions of the story of the patron saint’s calling. The left panel shows – according to the version from the Synoptic Gospels – how Andrew and his brother Peter abandoned their fishing nets to follow Christ. Both of their gazes are ‘poignant’, so captivated are they (Matthew 4,18-20). The right panel shows Andrew with another of Christ’s disciples – according to John 1, 35-40.
Andrew, the apostle of present-day Turkey and Greece, died a martyr’s death around 66 AD in Patras – according to tradition on 30 November, his saint’s day. However, the extended right hand of the Roman proconsul in the main tableau alludes not to his order for the apostle’s crucifixion but to his second order to have Andrew freed from the cross! After all, tradition has it that that the commander revoked his first decision under pressure from the masses. Consequently, the soldiers are not raising the cross but are already busy executing this second command – alas, too late. Andrew, who is about to succumb in this scene, is nevertheless surrounded by heavenly light, a sign of God’s mercy. It would seem that the anticipated joy at finally meeting with God causes the agony of martyrdom to be forgotten. Angels symbolically offer Andrew his heavenly reward, at once causing the immense, raised martyr’s cross to appear somewhat in the nature of a trophy.
P. P. Rubens undoubtedly had this work by his former tutor in mind for the same theme in the Chapel of the Flemish Foundation in Madrid, dated around 1638. It is also surprising how closely a comparison can be made between this work and Rubens’ famous Raising of the Cross, now in Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady, above all in terms of its composition, but also concerning the figures, such as the (naked) child with the grieving women in the foreground. A work that under Van Veen was still but a fledgling pup, matured under Rubens’ direction to become a truly imposing beast. Consequently, as a graduating student of Van Veen, it is more than likely that Rubens had a hand in this altarpiece to St. Andrew.