Location, location

William Cook on how the city of Antwerp helped him develop a love for a masterpiece by Rubens

I never liked Rubens until I went to Antwerp, and even then I didn't warm to him straight away. His paintings always seemed too slick, too showy and accomplished. But then, in a quiet church on the edge of the old red-light district, I came across a picture that made me change my mind.

Most of the Rubenses I had seen before were ingratiating tributes to rich despots. Even his nativities seemed like triumphant coronation scenes. But this one was different. I chanced upon it in a gloomy corner of Sint-Pauluskerk, a Dominican cloister a few blocks from the River Scheldt. It was surrounded by other paintings, but it almost leapt off the wall. Like pop stars, some painters have star quality. Why had I never spotted that of Rubens before?

The Flagellation of Christ is a world away from the bombastic Rubenses you find in most museums - Allegory on the Blessings of Peace at the National Gallery in London, or the Marie de'Me dici cycle at the Louvre. Unlike those flamboyant daubs, this one is messy, intimate and contemporary. Christ turns his back on you (you can scarcely see his face) and his torso is criss-crossed with bloody cuts from the whips of his assailants. His persecutors are jubilant. Jesus is supine.

There were other treasures, too - two emotive crucifixion scenes by Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens, both of whom lived and worked in Ant werp, like Rubens. These were both fine paintings, but it was the Rubens that really stood out. So, what was so special about this one? Why did I find it so arresting, after so many of his other paintings had left me completely cold?

Then I realised this was the first Rubens I had seen in situ, in the place that it was painted for. It was the first Rubens I'd seen that was really personal, not just painted to impress. Rubens spent almost his entire life in Antwerp, and this church was especially important to him. Despite his father's conversion to Calvinism, Rubens was a devout Catholic. He used to come here to make his confession to Michael Ophovius, a Dominican monk at this church.

Rubens's portrait of Father Michael hangs a short walk away, in the Rubenshuis, the spectacular palazzo where Rubens lived and worked. Sadly, it is only a copy (the original is in The Hague at the Mauritshuis), but it's a very good one. Rubens would have approved it personally, like Warhol signing off a silk screen. You can see from the portrait why he chose Father Michael as his confessor. Unlike a lot of priests, he looks sympathetic and broad-minded - someone to whom you could tell your darkest secrets.

The house that Rubens built reminds you why he is so hard to like. Finished when he was still only 38, it is regal and ostentatious, like a lot of his work. You feel that, unlike Rembrandt, he never really suffered, and his mansion bears this out. When it was finished, in 1615, it must have seemed terribly modern, and terribly foreign, too. Although Rubens enjoys the same "national treasure" status here in Belgium as Shakespeare does in England, his house feels closer to Italy. That is not the only irony. Rubens was raised in Antwerp, but he was actually born in Germany, and the house was restored, at the instigation of the Nazis, during Hitler's occupation.

Like most artists' homes, the Rubenshuis is an attempt to catch a shadow. It is a pleasant place to spend an hour, but the spirit of Rubens isn't here. The home of his friend and patron Nicolaas Rockox is a lot less overrun with sightseers. Even though it holds only one Rubens, a tender Virgin and Child, you feel closer to the painter here than at his own house down the road.

Yet my walk around Antwerp in search of Rubens kept leading me back to his churches - Sint-Jacobskerk, where he lies buried alongside Rockox, and Antwerp's Gothic cathedral, where two of his greatest triptychs, The Raising of the Cross and The Descent From the Cross, stand side by side. They make a superb pair - the first one so full of life, the second so desolate - but, like the Rubenshuis, this sacred site has been worn smooth by tourist traffic, and even though I had already been to Sint-Pauluskerk, I ended up back there.

The church where Rubens came to confess his sins has been knocked about a bit since he died, and the biggest wonder is that it is still here at all. In the four centuries since his death, it has mirrored Antwerp's many ups and downs - from invasion and revolution to revival. Founded in 1571, six years before Rubens's birth, it almost burned down in 1679. Worse was to follow. In 1786 the Austrians carted off Caravaggio's mesmeric altarpiece The Madonna of the Rosary. A few years later the French pinched various other artworks. After Napoleon was defeated, these paintings were returned to the Sint-Pauluskerk, but Caravaggio's altarpiece is still in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. The Madonna of the Rosary you see in here today is just a copy - faultless in every detail, but without the life and verve of Caravaggio's masterpiece.

But the biggest threat to the Sint-Pauluskerk came in 1968, when the church again caught fire, threatening to destroy all the precious works of art inside it. That these priceless pictures survived was due largely to the locals, who risked their lives to rush inside and cut them out of their frames. One of these brave volunteers was a local art dealer called Adriaan Van Raemdonck, who runs a gallery called De Zwarte Panter (the Black Panther) from an old almshouse that was here in Rubens's day. When I met Van Raemdonck at his gallery, he told me that some of the people who had helped him were transvestites from the nearby bordellos. What he had discovered was Antwerp's unique alliance of high art and lowlife.

Half a lifetime later, in the church Van Raemdonck helped to save, I saw a side of Rubens that I had never noticed before. For all its art and history, Antwerp is still a tough old place, but Sint-Pauluskerk is a symbol of the city's steady regeneration. The red-light district has been contained, smart new cafes are sprouting up amid the old streetwalking haunts, and this sleepy parish church now doubles as one of the greatest little galleries in Belgium.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.