Standing eye to eye with the restored Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432) is an awesome experience. The Mystic Lamb is small, but its human eyes seem to notice everything. That those eyes remained hidden for many centuries is one of the mysteries connected to this intriguing work of art.
Behind the Mystic Lamb we can see the contours of the New Jerusalem. The van Eyck brothers did not think of Israel’s capital in the first instance, but they painted, very humanly, a skyline in which the church towers of Ghent, of Bruges and even of Utrecht can be recognized. The multi-panel is exhibited in a special room in the St-Bavo cathedral in Ghent.
In the church you have to pay with cash. It is crowded in the small space. The work of art itself is well protected against the breathing masses, like a corona patient in a glass quarantine residence. Because of all the other people and the height of the upper panels the portrays of Mary and (presumably) God the Father are not easy to examine. These upper panels are still waiting for restoration. Adam and Eve are replaced by black and white copies, because the originals can be seen in the museum. The same can be said about the works at the backside. Both in the church and in the Museum of Fine Arts, postcards of the Mystic Lamb from before the restoration are still being sold: with sheep’s eyes and with four ears.
We are among many others in the Museum of Fine Arts, but it is easier to move around here than in the cathedral. The audio program is a necessary addition and things become more clear now. A large map on the wall shows that Ghent played a central role in Medieval Europe. Antwerp and Rotterdam were not even mentioned. Mayor and merchant Joos Vijd and his wife Lysbette Borluut commissioned Hubert van Eyck to design an altarpiece for St Bavo’s Cathedral. Hubert probably made a first draft, but he died before this ambitious work was finished. Jan van Eyck took over his brother’s painter’s brush and thanks to his great artistic talent and his sharp eye, this altarpiece became a masterpiece and we can still admire its power of expression six hundred years later.
Adam and Eve are displayed at eye level so that we can watch these first two nudes in European art history very closely. Jan Van Eyck developed a revolutionary oil painting technique and he painted boldly and with a certain hand. Adam and Eve have become real people. They seem to escape from their frame. Van Eyck even immortalized his two clients in their own piece. Joos and Lysbette also became people of flesh and blood who seem to be able to get up and walk away at any moment. The exhibition Van Eyck, an optical revolution, shows a large part of Jan van Eycks preserved works. Another highlight is the Portrait of Jan de Leeuw from 1436. The Medieval goldsmith looks at me as if I have time travelled to him.
It is nothing less than a miracle that we can still admire this altarpiece in 2020. Its beyond comprehension that this work of art has survived so many centuries. The French got off with it, Hitler took it as a spoil of war, the Mystic Lamb escaped a sea of flames and it was stored in a damp salt mine. As if that had not been enough: this ultimate expression of civilization had almost fallen prey to the iconoclastic fury of brutal barbarians.
In one of the halls we see a work that depicts Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) looking at The Ghent Altarpiece. The audio tour quotes the German artist’s travel report: ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is a marvellous painting, especially Eve and Mary are very good. By the way, Ghent itself is also worth a visit!’ Five hundred years later I have little to add to these words.