As the oak door to the chapel swings open, one is first struck by the scents. The cool, ancient stone of the walls of Saint Bavo Cathedral, the smell of frankincense, and then the surprising notes of old wood, linseed oil, and varnish. The cathedral in Ghent, Belgium abounds with stunning relgious art, but one artwork stands out among the rest. After six hundred years of nearly constant movement, The Ghent Altarpiece is at last back in the cathedral for which it was painted.
Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece has been involved in seven separate thefts, dwarfing the next runner-up, a Rembrandt portrait, lifted from London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery on a mere four occasions. From enduring questions surrounding the movement, through theft and smuggling, of the altarpiece as a whole, to the mystical symbolism of its content, the altarpiece has haunted scholars and detectives, hunters and protectors, interpreters and worshippers.
It is one of art history’s great unsolved mysteries.
Anyone who stands before the altarpiece cannot but feel overwhelmed by its monumentality. The Ghent Altarpiece comprises twenty individual painted panels, linked in a massive hinged framework. It is opened on its hinges for religious holidays, but remains closed for most of the year, at which point only 8 of the 20 panels, which were painted on both recto and verso (front and back sides), are visible. The subject matter of the verso panels, visible when the altarpiece is closed, is the Annunciation: the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Portraits of the donors who paid for the altarpiece, and their patron saints, also grace the back.
The altarpiece has a puzzle-box appearance, and inside its treasures lay patiently in wait for decipherers. When open, the altarpiece’s center displays an idealized field full of figures: saints, martyrs, clergy, hermits, righteous judges, knights of Christ, and an angelic choir; all making a slow pilgrimage to pay homage to the central figure—a lamb on a sacrificial altar, standing proudly, while bleeding into a golden chalice. This scene is referred to as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.” The precise iconographic meaning of the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” panel, and the meaning of the dozens of obscure symbols within it, has been the subject of centuries of scholarly debate.
Above the vast field of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, in the upper panels, God the Father (or is it Christ?) sits enthroned, with Mary and John the Baptist on either side. The figure has a hand raised in blessing, a hand painted with an astonishing realism: veins bulge and tiny hairs curl out of the pore-scored skin. At his foot, a crown is clustered in light-reflecting jewels; the fringe of his cloak is woven in gold threads, and above his head arches rune-like inscriptions. Individual hairs were lovingly painted into his beard, and his almond eyes express a power, and a weariness, that is altogether human.
The level of minute detail in so enormous an artwork is astonishing. Until the altarpiece was painted only portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts contained such detail. Nothing like this intricacy had ever been seen before on such a grand scale, by artists or admirers. The great art historian Erwin Panofsky famously wrote that van Eyck’s eye functioned “as a microscope and a telescope at the same time.” Viewers of The Ghent Altarpiece, Panofsky explained, are privy to God’s vision of the world, capturing “some of the experience of Him who looks down from heaven, but can number the hairs on our head.”
In The Ghent Altarpiece jewels shine with refracted light. One can see individual hairs on the manes of horses. Each of the altarpiece’s hundred-plus figures have been given personalized facial features. Each figure’s face is unique and retains the detail of a portrait—sweat, wrinkles, veins, and flared nostrils. Details range from the mundane to the elegant. Viewers can make out tufts of grass, the wrinkles in an old worm-eaten apple, and warts on double-chins. But they can also see the reflection of light caught in a perfectly painted ruby, the folds of a gilded garment, and individual silvery hairs amidst the chestnut curls of a beard.
The secret weapon that permitted such detail was oil paint.
Because oil paints are translucent, artists can build up layer upon layer, without covering up what lies beneath. The preferred medium before van Eyck’s time, egg-based tempera, was essentially opaque. One layer blotted out the previous one. Oil allowed for a great deal more subtlety, and was also easier to control. Van Eyck used some brushes that were so small as to contain only a few animal hairs for bristles, permitting an entirely new level of intricacy. The result is a visual feast, a galaxy of painterly special effects that at once dazzle and provide days of viewing interest, prompting viewers to examine the painting from afar and up close, to decipher as well as to bask in its beauty.
The Ghent Altarpiece, the young van Eyck’s first major public work, was the first large-scale oil painting to gain international renown. Though he did not invent oil painting, Van Eyck was the first artist to exploit its true capabilities. The artistry, realistic detail, and the use of this new medium, made the artwork a point of pilgrimage for artists and intellectuals from the moment the paint dried and for centuries to come. The international renown of the painting and its painter, particularly taking into account its establishment of a new artistic medium that would become the universal choice for centuries, makes for a strong argument that The Ghent Altarpiece is the most important painting in history.
It is a work of art that centuries of collectors, dukes, generals, kings, and entire armies desired to such an extent that they killed, stole, and altered the strategic course of war to possess it.
New! Explore the Altarpiece in Ultra Hi-Quality Detail.
New Discoveries: to be integrated into the next edition of STEALING THE MYSTIC LAMB
The grisaille statues of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist were first thought to be painted to resemble yellow sandstone. After cleaning, they have now been shown to be white marble, shiny and polished, further suggesting Italian influence.
In the Holy Pilgrims panel, the figure who appears to be Santiago is actually Saint Jodocus the Pilgrim, patron of Joos Vijd, who has attributes of all four major pilgrimages (Rome, Jerusalem, Compostela, and Mont Saint-Michel).
While many art historians argue that the central enthroned figure is God the Father, the work of Peter Schmidt has suggested that it is, in fact, Christ—an argument with which I now agree. The central enthroned figure is meant to have some attributes of God. It would have been heretical to paint God with attributes of Christ, but not the other way around. John Baptist always points to Christ in traditional painting, as he does to the central figure here. Mary in Heaven is said to sit at Christ’s right hand. It would be difficult for a public work to have such complex, new iconography if the central figure is not Christ.
John the Baptist carries a book, rather than his usual reed cross, showing him to be the last prophet of the Old Testament. We can read first line in his open book, from Isaiah, about “a voice crying in the desert,” announcing the Messiah.
Behind the central enthroned figure is a drape with Christological symbols, overt and covert. A pelican in gilding on the drapery was a medieval symbol of Christ, based on the misconception that pelicans pierced their breast to feed their young with their own blood (this was mis-observed, as they actually regurgitate fish). We see grapes for the Eucharist, plus “Iesus Christus” written on drapery. Christ is normally shown barefoot and with wounds displayed, but Peter Schmidt makes a convincing argument that has made me reassess my initial analysis and I now consider the central throned figure to the Christ, intentionally amalgamated with some attributes of God the Father.
One mysterious and unexplained figure appears at the back right of the Holy Pilgrims panel, a beardless long-haired man who appears to be laughing maniacally.
(For the full story of the art of Jan van Eyck and the adventures of The Ghent Altarpiece, you can read Stealing the Mystic Lamb).
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