The Ghent Altarpiece


The main attraction for art lovers in Ghent is the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” in St. Bavo’s Cathedral by Jan (and Hubert) van Eyck.  If you want to see the work in a way that makes sense I will attach a link for you.  The subject of this blog is what’s happened to this work over the years.  If you are in the Renaissance to Contemporary class we have already spent some time studying the iconography and formal aspects of this work.  The work was finished in 1432 and was a major shift from the stiff depictions of the Middle Ages to Renaissance humanism.  It’s also the first work signed by Jan van Eyck though his brother had some hand in the work as well.

It’s actually quite amazing this work has survived at all given it’s been the victim of 6 thefts, probably the mot stolen painting in existence.  In 1566 Protestant iconoclasts wanted to burn it though the priests had hidden it away.  In 1794 Napoleon carried it off to the Louvre.  In 1821 the king of Prussia tools several pieces to Germany.  Those panels were so prized by the world community that the Treaty of Versailles (ended World War I) ordered Germany to return the panels.  In 1934, someone broke into St. Bavo’s and stole the “Just Judges” panel which is still missing. It has an excellent copy in place until it can be found.  In World War II the Allies Monuments Men were in the process of moving it for protection with it was intercepted by the Nazis who stored it in a salt mine until the end of the war.  It’s now back in St. Bavo’s in a dark secured chapel.

St. Bavo's is a large Gothic cathedral built in 1350 on the site of an earlier structure dating to 942.
St. Bavo’s is a large Gothic cathedral built in 1350 on the site of an earlier structure dating to 942.
The "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" behind bullet proof glass with a limited number of visitors permitted entry.  Restoration work is planned for the next few years to stabilize the condition of the altarpiece.
The “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” behind bullet proof glass with a limited number of visitors permitted entry. Restoration work is planned for the next few years to stabilize the condition of the altarpiece.
In the 18th century two panels for Adam and Eve were substituted for the nude panels on the altarpiece.  When they were returned to the altarpiece the reproductions were hung elsewhere in the cathedral.
In the 18th century two panels for Adam and Eve were substituted for the nude panels on the altarpiece. When they were returned to the altarpiece the reproductions were hung elsewhere in the cathedral.
The altarpiece is in need of major restoration and the lab is at the Fine Arts Museum.  Here you can see the panels that are in restoration at the moment.
The altarpiece is in need of major restoration and the lab is at the Fine Arts Museum. Here you can see the panels that are in restoration at the moment.
An xray for one of the patron panels.
An xray for one of the patron panels.
These are the two panels of the patrons for the altarpiece (they are on the closed side)
These are the two panels of the patrons for the altarpiece (they are on the closed side)
The back side showing black and white photo images of the portions in restoration.
The back side showing black and white photo images of the portions in restoration.
Second side of front panel.  These panels would be what you see when the altarpiece is closed though I don't think it ever is now.
Second side of front panel. These panels would be what you see when the altarpiece is closed though I don’t think it ever is now.

 

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