Of course, we know the Van Eyck brothers primarily for the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’, which gained extra notoriety with the theft of two panels in 1934 (‘The Just Judges’ is still missing today). What the brothers particularly excelled in, however, was their extremely detailed portrayal of reality - in the art of painting called 'naturalism'. Just look at the centre panel of that famous ‘Ghent Altarpiece’, where they bring every blade of grass, every flower and every leaf on every shrub to life with such precision that you can almost touch them. We do not know whether the Van Eyck brothers themselves spent hours in nature with a sketchbook observing it in the minutest detail. Although it could hardly have been otherwise, because general botanical knowledge was still quite limited at that time. So they had to rely on their own research.
Researchers examining the masterpiece's central panel discovered more than 75 different flowers, plants and trees in the background, each with their own symbolic meaning. Here and there you can see some exotic flora, such as cypresses and orange trees, but most of the vegetation in that garden of paradise is indeed home-grown. For example, you can spot a few typical, more everyday plants, such as daisies, violets, clovers and lilies-of-the-valley. But there are also a few species that were more abundant specifically in the region around Maaseik – the birthplace of Jan and Hubert van Eyck – than they were in the rest of Flanders, such as fragrant Solomon’s seal and meadow saxifrage. Thus, although the garden of the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ consists of a potpourri of vegetation from many different regions, it is safe to say that this fascinating, blooming mix also includes a pinch of the Meuse Valley!