A new exhibition features the groundbreaking work of Jan Van Eyck, whose Ghent Altarpiece features an astonishing number of art firsts, writes Fisun Güner.
By Fisun Güner / 3 February 2020 This article was originally published at BBC.com
European artists of the past often depicted exotic animals in a way we now know to be wildly inaccurate. Since most would not have had the benefit of direct observation but were usually reliant only on a written description, accompanied by a sketchy illustration that may itself have been anatomically wide of the mark, this is far from surprising. Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros of 1515, depicting the creature as if its thick hide were a suit of armour, comes to mind – though the intricate woodcut Dürer made from this second-hand encounter also happens to be an incredible artistic achievement, and one which helped spread the German artist’s reputation far and wide.
But a lamb, surely, of which plenty could be found gambolling through the fields of medieval Europe, can’t have presented any such mysteries, especially for an artist as observant, as none had been before him, of the tiniest material detail as the 15th-Century Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.
This is why the unveiling of a part of Van Eyck’s masterpiece, The Ghent Altarpiece, or as it’s also known, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, came as a shock to many. Having undergone years of painstaking restoration, ‘before and after’ images of the artist’s sacrificial lamb trended on social media, drawing the response that the big reveal was simply too freakishly weird-looking and might we please have the earlier one back.
When Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece was revealed after years of restoration, many were shocked by the strange appearance of the Mystic Lamb.
Sixteenth-Century denizens of Ghent might have had similar thoughts, for it was then that Van Eyck’s ‘humanoid’ sheep, which appears on the lower central panel of the opened multi-panel (polyptych) altarpiece, was altered to look more sheep-like. The creature’s ears, which Van Eyck had positioned where human ears would be, were painted over and replaced by ears positioned higher up on its head. The creature’s gimlet eyes, which we now see staring back at us with an all-seeing intensity at the front of its head, were placed at the sides of its head, giving the lamb a naturally more ovine and passive appearance. (During an earlier restoration in the early 1950s, the lamb gained four ears, as some of this overpainting and varnish was removed). At the same time, the mouth and nostrils were also overpainted, leading to a visage that was far less defined than Van Eyck’s original, giving the impression, at least to contemporary eyes startled by the difference, of a comically pouty moue.
The restored sheep was described as strangely humanoid, with gimlet-like eyes and a comically pouting expression.
The monumental altarpiece, which was finished in 1432 and resides in Ghent’s St Bavo’s Cathedral (at that time the Chapel of St John the Baptist), for which it was originally painted, is yet to undergo its third phase of restoration. This will begin in 2021 and will focus on the upper inside panels. The altarpiece was traditionally opened out to reveal the spectacular vision of the enthroned deity (identified as either Christ or God the Father, more of which later) and the Lamb of God, whose holy blood spills out into a chalice, on feast days. The outside panels are those that are visible when the hinged altarpiece is closed – and it’s these which have just been restored.
Giorgio Vasari wrote in swooning terms that Van Eyck was the inventor of oil painting
The 12 outer panels, which are far more muted in colour than the richly pigmented imagery of the interior, describe the Annunciation. Prophets and sibyls, foretelling the coming of Christ, are situated above the two panels featuring, on the viewer’s far left, the Angel Gabriel, and, on the far right panel, the Virgin Mary, their robes extravagantly presented in slightly stylised, angular folds. The panels between them feature a view of Ghent seen through two Gothic windows and a still life – a tray, a jug and a towel – symbolic of the Virgin’s purity, while below, painted in the grey tones of a grisaille, are marble statues of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Framing these statues on each side are the suppliant figures of Jodocus Vijd, the merchant and the Burgermeister (master of citizens) who commissioned the piece, and his wife Lysbette, both, in their richly coloured robes, offering a vivid contrast to the muted palette.
The merchant Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lysbette appear in the outer panels dressed in richly coloured robes.
Temporarily separated, these newly restored outer panels will form the dramatic focus of an exhibition examining the genius of Van Eyck, opening this month at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent. It will also bring together half of Van Eyck’s extant paintings, which total around 20, alongside paintings by Northern European contemporaries and later artists responding to the altarpiece. Later this year, the altarpiece will find its way back to its new purpose-built visitor centre at St Bavo’s Cathedral amid other celebrations marking this important conservation and restoration work.
Even during his lifetime Van Eyck was venerated for his astonishing innovations, so much so that the altarpiece itself can be seen in terms of a series of firsts. A century after the artist’s death, at the exact time the 16th-Century overpainters, the artists Lancelot Blondeel and Jan van Scorel, were busy ‘improving’ the details of his famous altarpiece, the Florentine painter and author of The Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari wrote in swooning terms that Van Eyck was the inventor of oil painting. This was in fact a myth that continued well into the 19th Century.
However, in an important sense, Van Eyck really is the father of oil painting. What he achieved with the medium – the extreme verisimilitude and exactitude of his execution, the fine, three-dimensional modelling, the subtle depiction of light and shadow, and the extreme realism of textures – set him apart from all predecessors. He tirelessly experimented with the medium, altering its chemical balance to achieve faster drying times, and this allowed him to build up layers of translucent paint in order to achieve all those delicate and nuanced effects.