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Real close: history and extreme close-ups of the Ghent Altarpiece on "Closer to van Eyck" website

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A number of important updates have been added to "Closer to van Eyck" website, which provides the exciting detail of the restoration of the Ghent altarpiece, one of the most important works of art in the world. First of all, the new pictures are available in such high resolution, that it is time to exclaim "closer nowhere!" Also, there are pictures before, during and after the restoration, a wider range of technical shots and simultaneous viewing and comparison of multiple images.
The updates of Closer to Van Eyck website have not been carried out since its launch in 2012. Now this is a good chance to explore the masterpiece of van Eyck brothers from both artistic and historical points of view.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb — this is the official name of the Ghent Altarpiece — is truly legendary work of art. And this is not only because of the craftsmanship of the Dutchmen Hubert (1370 — 1426) and Jan (1390 — 1441) van Eycks. In 600 years, their creation was nearly destroyed by fire, it was forged, stolen, censored, seized by Napoleon, hunted in the First and Second World Wars, stored in a salt mine, and even sold by an apostate priest. But it always returned to its place in the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb alterpiece
closed, before and after restoration.
Photograph: Closer to Van Eyck

Artists and their patrons

The Ghent Altarpiece was consecrated in 1432 as two silver plates discovered in 1823 on the back of the panels with the images of the donors (customers) bear an inscription in Latin:

"The painter Hubert van Eyck, greater than whom none was to be found, began this work and Jan [his brother]—second in art—having carried through the task at the expense of Judocus Vyd, invites you by this verse to look at what has been done, 1432."


Transcription of the quatrain. Done in 2012 by Hugo van der Velden, with the use of the original print.
The red letters in the last line form a chronogram that indicates the date of completion of the polyptych:
when they are read as Roman numbers, as you sum them up the result is 1432.
Photo: Closer to van Eyck

Jan van Eyck. Portrait of a man in a red turban (self Portrait?)

Since Jan van Eyck was more famous of the two brothers, some art historians lifted their eyebrows with astonishment while reading about his being "second in art". Though, other experts suggested that Hubert, the eldest brother, was responsible for the design of the altar, and the younger brother painted it later on. The construction of a polyptych required the knowledge of one kind, and drawing images on it was entirely different thing.

Hubert died in 1426. Apparently, Jan took over the contract his brother signed with the customer. Here is the explanation of the "second in art".

Left: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?), 1433. National Gallery, London


Jan van Eyck, the detail of the Ghent Altarpiece, John the Evangelist.
Photograph: Closer to Van Eyck
The identity of the donors should be given special attention. Like many patrons in the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
, Joos Vijd was a successful merchant who was trying to atone for the sin of accumulating wealth by spending a part of it for the monument to God. By ordering the altarpiece for the Church of John the Baptist (now Saint Bavo Cathedral), an influential resident of Ghent had two aims: firstly, to save his soul, and, secondly, to demonstrate his prosperity. Vijd was an elder of the Church of St. John and an assistant to the mayor of his native city, his wife was a rich aristocrat, consequently the couple could afford to hire the Van Eyck brothers.

Jan van Eyck, portraits of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut on the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece.
The extent of the donors` influence on the iconography of the whole work remains unclear, but they spared no expense on it. The images of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut are painted on the extreme left and right wings of the altarpiece (closed). The donors are depicted in traditional poses: kneeling, their hands kept in prayer, facing the central panels. Painted in grisaille technique (painted reliefs), the merchant addresses to Saint John the Baptist, and his wife — to Saint John the Evangelist.
Restorers working with the outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. Photograph: Closer to Van Eyck

Adoration of the Lamb and wool merchants

The main panel features a flower-strewn meadow with two key structures in the center. It is a beautiful octagonal stone fountain with a bowl for the cascading jets of water, and an altar with a lamb, whose head is surrounded by light. The spread-winged dove above is the Holy Spirit surrounded by a halo with the golden rays reaching the dround. A paradise landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
is complemented by the city buildings in the distance, with the valley and mountains on the horizon.

What is the relationship between the altar, the sacrifice of the lamb and the fountain in the foreground?
Jan van Eyck, central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece — Adoration of the Lamb.
Photograph: Closer to Van Eyck


The Lamb, or the Mystical lamb of God, is a symbol of Christ and his death; and his sacrifice is equivalent to the crucifixion of Jesus. This is emphasized by the cross held by one of the kneeling angels. In the hands of others, you can see the objects associated with the Passion of Christ: a pole to which the Son of God was tied during the flagellation, the sponge on a stick soaked with vinegar (it was used to moisten the lips of Christ to increase thirst, nails and spear that pierced his flesh. The inscription embroidered on the cloth covering the table reads: "Ecce Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis" ("Behold the lamb of God who takes the sins of the world"). The Lamb is bleeding into the Holy Grail mounted on the altar.

It is noteworthy that lamb is not only a symbol of Jesus, but also the emblem of the Guild of wool merchants, who played a crucial role in Ghent.
In the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
, all these scenes related to the gospel of John and the Book of Revelation informed the audience about the sacrifice of Christ and his salvation. Now we see the altar as the material evidence of time, wars, reparations and restorations.
Compare the images on the website Closer to Van Eyck: the choir of angels (left)
and the clasp of the cloak on the chest of one of them.

Chronology and historical facts

The six hundred year long history of the altarpiece is no less rich than its iconography. This is perhaps the most frequently stolen art work in the world. Well, everything bad that could happen to a work of art, has happened to it.

The original frame
It has always been important for artists and art collectors how to frame their works of art. We can paraphrase Shakespeare and say,

“What’s in a frame? That which we call a picture
In an improper frame will look less nice.”

Or, perhaps, the picture’s message will be obscured by too ornate or too plain framing. Here, we present a retrospective journey into the history of framing and its evolution, with illustrations and an expert’s commentary. Read more
, presumably, richly decorated, was destroyed during the Reformation. Some researchers think that it was fitted with a clockwork mechanism that opened the panels and supposedly even played some music.
Jan van Eyck, detail of the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece — Deity Enthroned.
Photograph: Closer to Van Eyck
In August 1566, the Calvinists broke into the Cathedral of St. Bavo to burn the Ghent altarpiece as a Catholic icon. Ahead of them were the knights who dismantled the panels and hid them in one of the church towers. After that, they blocked the stairs and prepared to defend the shrine with their lives. The altar returned to its former place nearly 20 years later.


In 1781, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II wished to see this famous masterpiece. But instead of enjoying seeing the creation of the van Eycks, he was indignant about the naked Adam and Eve who were "not noble enough" for the refined tastes of the Enlightenment. These two panels were removed and hidden in the Cathedral library.

During the Napoleonic wars, in 1794, the French Republicans captured Ghent and sent four central panels of the altarpiece to the Louvre. Only 21 years later, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the new French king Louis XVIII returned the pilfered pieces of the altar. It was as a thank you to Ghent, which had earlier sheltered him, when Bonaparte escaped from Elba.

A year later, in 1816, Vicar Le Surrecremoved the wings of the altar during the absence of the Bishop and smuggled them to Brussels. There they got to the art dealer, who most likely orchestrated the theft. Afterwards, the panels were sold to Frederick William III, King of Prussia who had an idea to gather a collection that would surpass the Louvre. In 1822, the remaining parts of the altar were damaged during a fire in the St. Bavo Cathedral.
Woodcut portrait of Hubert van Eyck, Edme de Boulonois, mid-16th century


During the restoration in the Museum of Kaiser Friedrich (now the Bode Museum) in 1823, on the back sides of the panels the inscription with the names of the authors and the date was uncovered. This has opened a previously unknown artist Hubert van Eyck.
By the time when World War I broke out, the Ghent altarpiece was divided between three cities: the panels depicting Adam and Eve were in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels; the stolen parts were in Berlin; and four central pieces were kept in Ghent. When the German occupation of Belgium became unavoidable, the altar was hidden from the art hunters — they had five attempts to steal the treasure. After World War I, they were finally returned to Belgium as part of the Versailles Treaty (1919). It happened in 1923.
A copy of 'The Just Judges' panel stolen in 1934, produced by Belgian art restorer Van der Veken.



On 11 April 1934, Ghent police commissioner Antoine Luysterborghs pushed through a crowd at the St. Bavo Cathedral that had gathered to gawk at something that was no longer there. One of the panels, depicting The Just (or Righteous) Judges, was gone. The commissioner took a quick look, and left. The missing panel — from what was already the most stolen artwork in the world — could wait. Across the street was another theft on the same night he had already been investigating: at a cheese shop.

The theft was followed quickly by a ransom demand for one million Belgian francs. As a show of good faith, the ransomer returned one of the panel’s two parts (a grisaille painting of St John the Baptist). The ransom was not paid. The crime remains unsolved. In 1945, the missing panel was replaced by a copy produced by Belgian art restorer Van der Veken. It completes the altar to this day.

Lieutenant Daniel J. Kern and German conservator Karl Sieber examining Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece at the Altaussee Mine, where it was stored by the Nazis (Thomas Carr Howe papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).


Fearing sequestration by the Nazis, in 1940, the Belgium government dispatched the altarpiece to the Vatican, but Italy’s declaration of war led to it being diverted to Pau in the French Pyrenees. Seized in 1942 by the Germans, it was first stored in a castle in Bavaria, and then a salt mine, where it was finally liberated by American troops.

In 2010, the Getty Foundation and the Belgian government announced plans to restore "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." From 2012 to 2016 was held the reconstruction of the outer panels of the flaps. A team of ten experts, inch by inch removed layers of varnish remoiving the traces of the previouscoverpainting, the earliest of which date back to 1500. In some areas the folds of the drapery became visible, some space and light was revealed under the dark background.
Now the conservators treat the internal images. The entire process takes place in the studio with glass walls in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, and the visitors can observe the process. On weekends and holidays, when work is not carried out, the panels are moved to the window so that art lovers could get closer to van Eyck.

The restoration is planned to be fully completed by 2020.
Written by Vlad Maslov.
Based on the materials of Closer to Van Eyck website, essey by Dr. Sally Hikson (khanacademy.org) and The Guardian.