One of the most important paintings of the Northern Renaissance hasn’t been quite itself for hundreds of years. Over the course of six centuries, large expanses of the Ghent Altarpiece polyptych, also known as the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” have been overpainted, mainly in the mid-16th century, to reflect the tastes of the time or to patch up damaged areas of canvas.
Now, the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece can be seen as the van Eyck brothers, Hubrecht and Jan, intended it in 1432, when the commission was completed for St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The cathedral also commissioned the current restoration of the entire altarpiece, which has occurred over a number of phases, this being the end of phase two.
The lower register, now revealing the joyful details of the original, is on view in the Villa chapel in St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
An Innovative Time for Art
Jan van Eyck’s brother Hubrecht (circa 1385–1426) was originally commissioned in 1425 to create the altarpiece, but Jan (1390–1441) took over the task completely when Hubrecht passed away in 1426. It’s not understood who painted what, but many assume the majority was painted by Jan.
The van Eycks lived at a time when the early Italian Renaissance artists were paving the way for traditional Western art as we now know it. In Florence, Italy, Masaccio was beginning to introduce in his paintings solid figures full of emotive gestures and life, a move away from the rather two-dimensional Gothic style.
Masaccio, inspired by his friend the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, used mathematics to pioneer single-point perspective in his paintings. Brunelleschi looked to ancient Roman architecture to revolutionize architecture. At the same time, Donatello was advancing sculpture.
Far from Italy, Jan van Eyck didn’t have Rome in his backyard, so he looked to life for his models, placing figures intuitively into compositions, while his Italian peers were placing them with mathematical precision.
And while Italian painters continued to paint mainly with tempera, which uses egg to bind pigments, van Eyck preferred oil paints. Using oils gave artists more time to paint than tempera did, as oils dried slowly between each application of paint. And painting with oils also allowed more fluidity of the brushwork.
Van Eyck perfected the medium of oils. He painted layer upon layer of translucent glazes that allowed for exceptional blending and detailing. Such innovations allowed him to create glossiness and glimmers of reflected light, for example. His luminous figures were full of life, and the details of everyday life are so fine as to be minuscule. He also pioneered the three-quarter-view in portraits while most of his Italian peers used the profile-view in portraits.
The Ghent Altarpiece shows these innovations–his brilliant legacy–across the 11 feet by 15 feet polyptych.
These are just some of the reasons that the Ghent Altarpiece is deemed the masterpiece of all the works by early Flemish artists.
Over the seven years that conservators worked together on the Ghent Altarpiece project, they’ve gained “an intimate understanding of the altarpiece” and “unique expertise,” the international team of experts overseeing the project said in a press release.
For the last three of those years, the conservation team from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage has worked tirelessly on the lower register of the opened altarpiece to restore the four original panels painted by the van Eycks. “The Just Judges,” one of the panels, is a copy of the van Eycks’ painting. Jef van der Veken created it in 1945 to replace the panel that had been stolen in 1934.
The conservators worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent in a temporary studio, which was open to the public, allowing visitors a peek into much of the conservation process as it happened.
Visitors could watch the painstaking peeling away of the old paint. We can see the extent of the overpainting on a conservators’ diagram of the lower register’s central panel, which clearly shows in red, just how much of the composition was overpainted.
Only skilled hands and exceptionally keen eyes trained to differentiate between the varnish, overpaint, and the original paint could be trusted with such a delicate operation. The conservators looked through stereo microscopes while using surgical scalpels to chip the yellowed varnish and centuries-old paint away flake by flake, retouching paint where needed.
Luckily for us, the van Eyck brothers’ original painting was well-preserved, with only five percent of the nearly 600-year-old original paint lost. Now, we can see how the brothers intended the Ghent Altarpiece to be.
The lower register depicts the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.” On the altarpiece wings, we see different groups of people coming to adore the Lamb of God. On the left, the Knights of Christ (on the inner panel) arrive on horseback with the Just Knights not far behind (on the outer panel). On the right, pilgrims (on the outer panel) and hermits (on the inner panel) come on foot.
The paintings are rich with symbolism. On the central panel, in the foreground is the Fountain of Life. At the center of the painting is the altar and the sacrificial lamb; the lamb’s open wound pours blood into a chalice, symbolizing the Eucharist.
Before the restoration, the face of the lamb was unremarkable, but after peeling back the layers of paint, the lamb’s face appears more human than animal. The eyes face forward, connecting calmly with the viewer’s. Medieval artists commonly depicted the Lamb of God with human eyes.
Van Eyck painted right down to the microcosm of what the human eye can see. Every little thing is rendered as if it were significant; even the stones on the ground have been granted great detailing. It’s almost as if the painting is a hymn, a Hallelujah if you like, to each and every divinely created thing.
Maybe this is how heaven will appear to us all. With our earthly concerns left behind, we may elevate to such a sense of awareness of each and every little thing.
To find out more about the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, visit SintBaafsKathedraal.be and cathedral visitors can learn more about the restoration from the exhibition: “The Return of the Lamb.”