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