The Ghent Altarpiece
One of the world’s greatest art treasures is secreted away in the bustling city of Ghent: the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the van Eyck brothers, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. After an intensive restoration, it is once again at home. At last. The brand new visitors’ center in St Bavo’s cathedral unveils the secrets of this masterpiece.
The divine colours return to St. Bavo's cathedral
In 1432, art history was written in Ghent. In the iconic St Bavo’s cathedral, a magnus opus was presented to the world: the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. A monumental work consisting of twelve panels, each depicting a Biblical scene. The medium chosen: oil paint, something in which van Eyck is considered a pioneer. He may not have invented this artistic process, but he sure perfected it. The Flemish Master applied various semi-transparent layers on top of each other, working his way from light to darker shades. The result: an unparalleled feeling of depth and perspective in this masterpiece.
Eye for detail, technical skill and overwhelming use of colour makes Jan van Eyck a figure-head in art: internationally, but also of course in Flanders. Along with his colleagues the great Pieter Bruegel and the baroque grand master Peter Paul Rubens, he forms the artistic triumvirate of Flemish Masters. Although they never met - they lived, after all, in different times - the trio elevated art to a higher level.
A tumultuous tale
The Flemish Masters gave the world an extraordinary body of work, brimful of highlights that stand the test of time with flying colours. The Ghent Altarpiece is a fine example of this: a work of the highest artistic level, and that arouses interest. On the one hand among art lovers, on the other among those with less worthy intentions. In 1794, (part of) the Lamb of God left St. Bavo’s Cathedral for the first time. French soldiers took the centre panels to Paris. They would not return to Ghent until 1815, after the fall of Napoleon.
That was the start of a tempestuous history. Over the centuries, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb has been stolen or removed from the cathedral on seven different occasions. The altarpiece is one of the most stolen paintings in art history. The Ghent Altarpiece still bears the scars. In 1934, two side panels were stolen, and only one has been recovered. The panel featuring the Righteous Judges remains missing.
Restored right in the public eye
In 2012, a new chapter was added to this remarkable history, albeit with much nicer consequences. The time had come for a thorough restoration. A group of leading experts set to work with the patience of Job. And they did it literally in the public eye. Visitors could follow everything through the window in the studio, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. A daunting undertaking, but one, it would transpire, more than worth the effort. Nearly a decade later, the work had been fully restored to its original grandeur.
Back home, but in a new environment
The Ghent Altarpiece could finally return home. And its natural habitat had, in the meantime, been revamped. This masterpiece has been exhibited in a rather cramped space in the cathedral since 1985. A spot that didn’t do justice to the age-old glory of this retable. That had to change. Therefore a chapel in the apse of the cathedral was transformed into the new home of the Mystic Lamb and a brand new visitors’ center was built in the crypt of the stately cathedral.
There, with augmented reality glasses, you can travel back to the distant past in the cathedral’s crypt, and witness the tumultuous history the Ghent Altarpiece and the cathedral as if you were there. Both the masterpiece and the imposing building are brought to life down to the smallest detail. Come and experience the supreme mystery. Whether you’re hardcore art lovers or a visiting family, the Ghent Altarpiece visitors’ center welcomes you all and prepares you to discover the magnus opus in its full glory, in the Sacrament Chapel of the Cathedral.
Story created on July 12, 2021