by Thomas O’Dwyer
Across Europe, the doors of museums and art galleries, along with the gates of sports stadiums, are being slammed shut by the Covid-19 pandemic. This week, the oldest museum in Belgium, The Fine Arts Museum of Ghent, was among them. This is sad for it will prevent tens of thousands of art lovers and tourists from seeing a brilliantly restored 600-year-old masterpiece that has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous history to become a legend — and even a viral internet meme — along the way. Among its many adventures, it was stolen by Napoleon and was again looted and almost blown up by Adolf Hitler. Many art historians consider Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, to be the most exceptional work of art ever created — sorry, Mona Lisa. The brilliantly restored altarpiece was the anchor of Jan van Eyck Year, a national celebration of the painter’s life and art. The exhibition, Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, was the gold crown on the events.
Hubert van Eyck started to work on the painting around 1420, six years before his death, and his younger brother Jan continued and completed it in 1432. It is gratifying to note that the altarpiece, 3.5 meters wide by 4.5 meters tall, still stands in the place for which it was commissioned 600 years ago – in the chapel of St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. But it is also startling to discover that it features in the Guinness Book of Records as the most stolen piece of art in history. Indeed one of its panels is still missing since thieves stole it 86 years ago and Belgian police have a 2,000-page file on the mystery.
The “optical revolution” title of the now-closed Ghent Museum exhibition was admirable, as even a casual glance at reproductions of the paintings make clear. We have become so used to photography and realistic art in recent centuries that it is almost impossible to imagine the impact that Jan van Eyck had on the artistic world of his day. But we can still be astonished as we examine the exquisite fine detail in every square centimetre of his work – jewellery, decorative designs on clothes and furniture, landscapes, skies, flora and fauna, even lettering. Botanists can still identify the species of meticulously painted plants — the altarpiece features 75 different kinds of herbs, plants and trees. It seems hard to grasp how such realism was captured 400 years before the first camera.
The altarpiece was, therefore, a landmark in European art. The central piece of the 26-panel construction depicts the Lamb of God surrounded by worshippers, while the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above, a conventional pious theme for its time. What was certainly not traditional in such church iconography was Van Eyck’s expansive European landscape with its natural and urban elements rendered in perfect composition. There is also a full gallery of diverse people in four groups, as well as Adam and Eve nudes. The new exhibition opened for its short run in early February and included ten paintings by Jan van Eyck, exactly half of all his works that have survived. It may seem a thin legacy, and yet the Flemish painter was the titan of what is known as the Northern Renaissance.
The Ghent Altarpiece is his masterwork and for the past few years, since 2012, visitors have been allowed to watch firsthand as painstaking expert restorers brought new life and light to Van Eyck’s achievement while they worked in an atelier behind glass. The piece was the superstar of the exhibition, but it also stood there in a broader context. There were 80 other works by late medieval contemporaries of Van Eyck from France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, showing how he changed the course of Western art with a combination of extraordinary oil painting talent, scientific knowledge and meticulous observation. His inventiveness and virtuosity influenced the later landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Among his contemporaries being shown were Masaccio and Fra Angelico, to contrast him with other religious painting of the time.
The show had been starting to attract enormous crowds from across Europe before it was abruptly shuttered and one aspect of the restoration erupted into a rowdy viral argument online. After six centuries, art experts would have assumed the altarpiece had few new secrets to reveal. However, the restorers caused a sensation in the art world. Previous restorations had obscured the original face and eyes of the central panel’s Mystic Lamb. After they removed centuries of varnishing and overpainting, the modern team revealed the authentic lamb that van Eyck had painted. It turned out to be less sheeplike than anyone expected and seemed to contain a face with disturbingly human eyes staring out at the viewer. “It was a shock for everybody — for us, for the church, for all the scholars, for the international committee following this project,” Hélène Dubois, the head of the restoration work, told a reporter from The Art Newspaper.
The internet was having none of it. Suddenly, Van Eyck experts and trolls were everywhere. “Van Eyck could paint hands realistically (really complicated) but not a lamb’s face. It’s obvious,” one tweet said. Another said, “Whoever painted over that was absolutely right.” Some charged that the restorers had bungled the job and compared the human-eyed lamb to the much-ridiculed amateur “granny restoration” of the Ecce Homo (a painting of Jesus) in a Spanish church. Experts reassured art lovers that the Van Eyck restoration work was meticulous and this was exactly what he had done, though they were at a loss to explain why. Given the exquisite realism of his other images, the forward-looking eyes and cat-like mouth of the lamb are a hard aesthetic sell, and nothing comparable has ever appeared in early Flemish art.
Jan Van Eyck is as elusive a figure as his lamb is enigmatic. It is assumed, not known, that he was born near Maastricht, the date also not determined but probably before 1390. He had a sister, and at least two brothers – his older and younger brother were also painters, though none of their work has come down to us. The earliest mention of him in 1422 says that he was a court painter in the Hague attached to John of Bavaria, the ruler of Holland. Jan van Eyck was a master painter, and he had a workshop with a few assistants – they were redecorating the Binnenhof palace for John. When the ruler died in 1425, Jan van Eyck was employed in Lille as a painter to Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, but also as an adviser. He was part of an embassy sent to Lisbon in 1428 to arrange details of the duke’s marriage to Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyck was very successful as a diplomat, and the duke paid him well.
However, his know work covers only the years from 1432 to 1439, two years before his death. Historical sources give us little about his life story or persona, so his 20 pictures that survive are scrutinised continuously for more clues. It is evident from his art and diplomatic work that he was a scholarly man with a grasp of sciences like botany and light physics, and who revolutionised the techniques of painting with the newly invented oil paints. The frame of the Ghent altarpiece has some faded Latin in Gothic lettering. It starts with praise for Jan’s brother: “The painter Hubert, the greatest one ever noted began this. Carrying on the burden, Johannes, the second in art, carried out the wish of Joos Vijd [a rich merchant and mayor] who, with his wife, commissioned it for a chapel in the church.” The date, 6 May 1432, is added.
In Van Eyck’s day, Ghent was the second largest city in Europe after Paris. Its wealth came from grain and, later, textiles, woven by thousands of workers from wool imported from England. The structure and art of the Ghent masterpiece are unique among surviving examples of late medieval altarpieces. It introduces his newly realistic depiction of familiar icons of Catholic mysticism, themes that include the Annunciation, the Fountain of Life, John the Baptist, and Adam and Eve. One historian called it “a masterpiece of Christian art and the cultural cornerstone of the Northern Renaissance — the largest and most complex set of panel paintings executed in the fifteenth century.” Van Eyck used the new technology of oils to craft a precision never seen before.
The fact that his altarpiece has survived to benefit from a 21st-century scientific restoration is something of a medieval miracle. The art historian Noah Charne has noted that it is one of the most coveted pieces of art and has been the victim of 13 crimes and seven thefts. After the Reformation, rioting Calvinists almost destroyed it because they hated its Catholic iconography. Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England were among several European royal courts that coveted it. In the 18th century, puritans condemned the naked Adam and Eve as indecent, and the panels were put in hiding. The altarpiece was plundered by Emperor Napoleon, taken to Paris and exhibited at the Louvre. After the emperor’s defeat at Waterloo, it was returned to Ghent in 1815. The Ghent clergy pawned the outer wings of the piece that same year and failed to redeem them. The pawn broker sold them in 1816 to a British collector, Edward Solly, who for several months tried to find a new buyer. Eventually, the King of Prussia bought them and exhibited them in Berlin. Meanwhile, back in Ghent, the other panels were damaged by fire in 1822 and the two Adam and Eve pieces went to a museum in Brussels.
During World War I, German troops looted the remaining panels from Saint Bavo’s cathedral. After the war Germany in 1920 returned all the panels, including those Solly had sold. “Indecent” Adam and Eve were also taken out of hiding and returned to the cathedral. The complete altarpiece was back in its original home after 100 years of dispersal. In 1934, thieves stole two panels, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist. One thief returned the Baptist panel, but the Just Judges remains missing. After the thefts, church officials received several ransom demands and media rumours at the time suggested that some businessmen who had lost church money in a failed investment had carried out the crime. The plot thickened when a prominent Catholic stockbroker, Arscne Goedertier, collapsed at a political rally. On his deathbed in November 1934, Goedertier told his lawyer that he knew where the panel was and he gave him a few clues, which subsequently proved to be useless. The lawyer did find copies of ransom notes in a drawer of Goedertier’s desk, but the hunt for the panel reached a dead end. Local town gossip still suggests that a wealthy and political Ghent family has the artwork, but keep silent out of shame.
Canon Ludo Collin of St Bavo Cathedral recently told Irish radio reporter Isabel Conway, “The missing panel is Ghent’s Loch Ness monster mystery.” He said that a 2000-page police case-file of tips and rumours has led nowhere and that the stolen panel could now be anywhere or even destroyed. A Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken produced a remarkably accurate copy of The Just Judges which holds the place of the lost panel on the lower left of the altarpiece. Van der Veken, who died in 1964, was an internationally renowned art restorer, copyist — and, it later transpired, sometimes a forger — who had mastered the art of reproducing works of the early Flemish painters.
By 1939, Belgians knew the Germans would be back, this time led by art-looting criminal Nazis and their bad-tempered leader who bitterly resented the repatriation of the Ghent panels in 1920. As war loomed, the altarpiece was moved to a museum at Pau in the south of France. Hermann Goring wanted it for his stolen art collection and Hitler was intrigued by the possible occult powers of the Mystic Lamb panel. In 1942, Hitler ordered the artwork to be seized, and the French Vichy government colluded in the theft. In Germany, it was boxed up with other stolen art and stored in a salt mine at Altaussee in Austria. As Germany collapsed, the SS wired the stolen treasure trove with explosives. But the art was found and narrowly recovered undamaged by the legendary Monuments Men. (The allies formed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943 to try to secure cultural property in war zones and to recover works of art looted and hidden by the Nazis.)
Now, after its masterly makeover, the Mystic Lamb has been struck down again — fortunately, only psychologically and not physically, as a rampaging virus drives its admirers away from what was to be its year of glory. But if ever a work of art has worked to acquire a Schwarzenegger syndrome, this one certainly has. It will be back.