Thou Shalt Covet: The Gothic Masterpiece Everyone Wants

One of the most celebrated – and coveted – paintings in all of Western art is the altarpiece known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, located in the city of Ghent in present-day Belgium.  It is believed to have been painted between 1430-1432, by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, although today the general consensus is that Hubert was responsible for the overall design, and Jan for the actual execution.  Also known simply as “The Ghent Altarpiece”, this massive work is really a series of twenty-four paintings on twelve wooden panels, connected together in a hinged framework that, when fully opened, measures over 12 feet high and 17 feet wide.  Try hanging that above the sofa in the den.

Now thanks to some very generous donors, the work is undergoing an equally massive, five-year restoration and conservation program.  Restorers have been painstakingly scraping off layers of old, yellowed protective varnish to reveal the original, vibrant colors underneath, working no more than a couple of inches at a time.  Alongside the artists, scientists and researchers are using all of the innovative resources at their disposal to learn more about how the painting was created, and what can be done to ensure its future.  This is a blending of both creativity and technology at a microscopic level which, if you love art and happen to be rather a big nerd, like this scrivener,  makes for a tantalizing, ongoing story of discovery.

The altarpiece has been a point of both religious and artistic pilgrimage since its unveiling at the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, wielding a tremendous influence not only on the development of the Flemish school of painting, but also on artists down to the present day. Passages from “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” have been referenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Surrealists, in Pop Art and even in contemporary digital art.  In fact, thanks to technology, the vibrant colors and intricate details of the altarpiece can be admired up close online, thanks to a recent collaborative effort among several institutions including the Getty here in America, to create a high-resolution digital scan containing over 100 billion pixels.

As is so often in the case when it comes to beautiful objects, “The Adoration of the Lamb” was stolen many times during its history, most recently by the Nazis in World War II.  At the outbreak of the war the Diocese of Ghent decided to send the altarpiece to the Vatican by train for safekeeping; the Germans intercepted the piece in France, and took it to Hitler to add to his personal collection.  It was later recovered hidden inside an Austrian salt mine alongside hundreds of other stolen works of art by the “Monuments Men”, who are the subjects of a forthcoming film by George Clooney starring himself, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray.

Perhaps the most tantalizing story connected with the Ghent Altarpiece is the present whereabouts of one of its panels, which went missing during an earlier outburst of covetousness in 1934.  The painting of the “Just Judges” was stolen and held for a ransom of one million francs; the alleged thief went to his deathbed without revealing what he had done with the panel, and it was replaced by a copy based on photographs of the original.  To this day, it is not known whether the “Just Judges” was destroyed, is now part of a private collection, or is sitting in someone’s attic, waiting to be rediscovered.  The life of the alleged thief of the panel served as the inspiration for the French novelist Albert Camus’ novel, “The Fall”, and much of the symbolism employed in it is heavily derived from the altarpiece itself.

Despite the fact that this work of deeply Catholic devotional art was created nearly six centuries ago, it remains one of the most fascinating objects in the world, even for people with no institutional religious affiliation whatsoever.  You can still see a copy of it in situ at the cathedral in Ghent, but given its history the original has now rather prudently been locked safely away.  The process of its restoration and preservation has been drawing the interest not only of scholars and scientists, but also of ordinary people, who can now view the painstaking work going on at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent from behind a window looking into the conservation laboratory.  Over the coming years we can look forward to further revelations of its secrets thanks to new technology and dedicated efforts, but hopefully not to its being stolen yet again.

Lamb

Front of “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (1430-1432)
Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent

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