A miracle of soaring Gothic lightness, the Cathedral of Our Lady contains some of Rubens's greatest paintings and is topped by its 404-foot-high north spire—now restored to its original gleaming white and serving as a beacon that can be seen from far away. Work began in 1352 and continued in fits and starts until 1521. The monument is the work of a succession of remarkable architects, including Peter Appelmans, Herman and Domien de Waghemakere, and Rombout Keldermans the Younger. The tower holds a 49-bell carillon played at various times throughout the year.
The cathedral's art treasures were twice vandalized, first by Calvinists in 1566 and again by the French revolutionary army at the end of the 18th century. The French even broke up the floor so that their horses would not slip on it. The masterpieces were either sold at auction or carried off to Paris. Some, but by no means all, have subsequently been returned. Other works, either donated or purchased, make up an outstanding
collection of 17th-century religious art, including four Rubens altarpieces, glowing with his marvelous red, allegedly fortified by pigeon's blood. The panels of De Kruisafneming (The Descent from the Cross) triptych—Mary's visit to Elizabeth (with the painter's wife as Mary) and the presentation of Jesus in the temple—are among the most delicate and tender biblical scenes ever painted. De Hemelvaart van de Maagd Maria (The Assumption of the Virgin Mary), painted for the high altar, shows the Virgin being carried upward by massed ranks of cherubs toward the angel waiting to crown her Queen of the Angels. De Hemelvaart (The Assumption) is skillfully displayed so that the rays of the sun illuminate it exactly at noon.