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Ghent – Van Eyck and More.
OMG! Van Eyck was here is the slogan currently displayed all over Ghent on flags, flyers, billboards and even refuse bins. Van Eyck fever is taking hold in the city where throughout 2020, celebrations of this Flemish master will showcase both his work and enduring influence. One of the central shows of the year, Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, has opened recently at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) where 10 of the existing 20-panel paintings of Jan Van Eyck are exhibited together. For art lovers, this is a once in a lifetime treat, international museums and galleries having loaned paintings so that the Van Eyck works can be viewed as a collection and placed in their historical context. The centrepiece of this outstanding exhibition is the set of panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most famous works in Western art history.
Completed in 1432, the Ghent Altarpiece – also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – was commissioned by the churchwarden and mayor of Ghent, Joos Vijd, and his wife, Elisabeth Borluut to hang in the church of St John the Baptist (now Saint Bavo’s Cathedral). It is thought that the altarpiece was begun by Hubert Van Eyck and it was completed by his brother Jan (c1390 – 1441) after Hubert died. Over the centuries this magnificent series of 20 panels has fascinated viewers and thieves alike! It is one of the most repeatedly stolen and confiscated artworks of all time. Having survived the iconoclasm in 1566, it was confiscated during the French Revolution and later the wings of the altarpiece hung in Berlin for about a century up until the end of WWI. In 1934 two of the panels were stolen from the Cathedral. One was returned but the other has never been found. During WWll the altarpiece was stolen by the Nazis and hidden in a salt mine at Altaussee in Austria. Fortunately, it was discovered by a group of American combatants (dramatized in the movie, The Monuments Men) who were sent to find stolen artworks as the Allied forces advanced. They discovered the panels before the mine could be blown up as part of Hitler’s decree that the millions of artworks stolen during the Occupation be destroyed if Germany lost the war.
The eight outer panels of the altarpiece have been the subject of an extensive restoration that was undertaken at the MSK by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage between 2012 and 2016. This was followed by a recently completed, three-year restoration of five internal panels which are now on public view. Having bravely removed the many layers of varnish and the overpainting from 1550 that have obscured the details of Van Eyck’s painting, the public and restorers have been astonished by the revelation of Van Eyck’s original work. The restorers discovered that about 70% of the original painting on the outer panels had been obscured. Many startling details have emerged during the restoration such as the face of the lamb, for example. Symbolising Christ, the lamb has been found to feature rather human-like facial features – the overpainting in the 16th century has made it more lamb-like. This and other important revelations will have art historians revising and revisiting much of what has been written about this famous artwork in years to come.
The Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution show is well worth travelling to Ghent to see. It is not only an opportunity to see the 10 van Eyck paintings – more in fact because the eight outer panels, as well as two interior ones, are counted as one item – it is also a chance to experience a very well-curated exhibition. The 13 rooms that comprise the show lead the viewer through the historical and cultural context of Medieval art. Alongside Van Eyck’s oil paintings are works of some of his Italian contemporaries who were painting with egg-based tempura and experimenting with perspective and space. It is with this background of developments in the late medieval understanding of the painted image that one can fully appreciate the ground-breaking – revolutionary – aspect of Van Eyck’s mastery of the medium of oil painting, his detailed observation of the world, and his scientific understanding of light. Van Eyck was not simply a painter, he was a man with a deep understanding of natural science – physics, botany, alchemy and optics. Appointed court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, Van Eyck travelled widely on secret missions as he was a trusted member of the Duke’s entourage. The broad spectrum of his knowledge is portrayed in this work – from foreign architecture and landscapes to 75 plants and herbs. His understanding of optics, how light is refracted and distorted, and his talent for portraying this in oil paint is what set him head and shoulders above his peers and is partly why his Ghent Altarpiece is considered to be one of the most important paintings of his era, its influence enduring down the centuries.
For the public, the exhibition provides an exceptional opportunity to stand right in front of the panels which are usually hung at a height, therefore making it possible to examine the fine details more closely. Experiencing the radiant colours, the glittering jewels, the light reflecting and the faces resplendent is to feel privileged and very humbled indeed.
While the exhibition only runs for a few months, the excitement continues throughout the year. At present, the outer panels (which open and close like wings) and two inner ones (of Adam and Eve) are exhibited at the MSK – part of the larger Van Eyck show. The rest of the inner panels are in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. They are temporarily housed in an exhibition space within the cathedral awaiting their move to a new visitor’s centre which is in the process of being built. In May 2020 the outer and inner panels will be reunited and moved into the visitors’ centre at the rear end of the Cathedral which opens on 8 October. Thereafter they will never be moved again.
After devouring this visual feast at MSK, I visited Saint Bavo’s Cathedral where I stood fifteen people deep to view the internal panels. Whereas the outer panels are painted in muted colours, the internal ones are a blaze of brilliant hues, bursting with people – pilgrims, soldiers, penitents, saints and martyrs – animals, plants, buildings, and – taking centre stage – the mystic lamb itself. Slowly the crowd shuffled forward until eventually, I was face to face with this extraordinary tableau. Fortunately, the restorers have made available imagery online where viewers can zoom in on the myriad details that make this work so outstanding and which, in truth, cannot be fully appreciated in a brief viewing or without a magnifying glass. Check it out for yourself here.
A particularly moving moment was standing in the small Vijd chapel for which the Ghent Altarpiece was created. Now there is a reproduction in its place and the Altarpiece will not hang here again. Being in the chapel highlighted for me the technical prowess and attention to detail of Van Eyck’s work. The panels were made to be hung in this chapel and Van Eyck would have studied exactly where the natural light would have illuminated his paintings. So for example, the panel with Adam faces the window and Van Eyck has painted in the light falling on his face. Eve, on the other hand, has her back to the chapel window and the light falls onto her leg, not her face. In another exquisite detail, a blue brooch on the cloak of one of the singing angels has a reflection of the window of the Vijd chapel. This is but one of thousands of exquisite details.
Outside Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Van Eyck’s influence is visible all over Ghent. From the crafts on sale in the crypt of the Belfry, inspired by artefacts detailed in the Altarpiece, to the delicate squares of chocolate referencing not only the jewels in the paintings but also the herbs and plants that Van Eyck painted with such accuracy that botanists have identified all 75 varieties. This being Belgium, chocolatiers are going all out to honour Van Eyck in their own medium. In the window of Chocolaterie Van Hoorebeke, there is a full colour, chocolate recreation of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
Throughout the year, Ghent’s chefs will be offering Van Eyck inspired dishes and menus, including at restaurant Publiek whose renowned chef, Olly Ceulenaere, is an ambassador for the culinary aspect of the Van Eyck celebrations. In this capacity, he has helped to compile – along with food historians – an intriguing booklet entitled, Smakeleyck (a pun and homonym on the word smakelijk which means tasty). It provides a modern twist to traditional recipes with seasonal ingredients that Van Eyck would have recognised and that were part of the eating patterns of 15th-century diners.
At dinner at Pakhuis brasserie, the drinks menu included a Van Eyck beer which we could not resist. Once again, we enjoyed how Van Eyck reaches into the twenty-first century where his depiction of herbs and plants continues to inspire food producers and delight customers.
No corner of Ghent is left untouched from street art to museums that are hosting special exhibitions on design, art history and science. Throughout the year Ghent will be laying on a programme of music, theatre, horticulture, cuisine, a mid-summer party, walking tours of all kinds and even a Van Eyck marathon. There is also a programme for children so the whole family can get involved.
Sitting in a chip shop one afternoon, waiting for a plate of frites, I noticed a tram pass by. On the side were life sized photographs of Van Eyck’s depiction of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut. It looked as if they were riding by, seated on the no. 4 tram. Their faces have reached into the present, displayed everywhere around their hometown as if nearly 600 years have gone by in an instant. The city displays their images as instantly recognisable celebrities. And so they should be, for without their commissioning the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the marvels of the art world and our cultural history would never have seen the light of day.
Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution continues at the MSK Ghent until 30 April 2020. Tickets are on sale via the website: www.vaneyck2020.be
- More information can be found on https://visit.gent.be/en/omg-van-eyck-was-here
- Find out more about Ghent from our previous feature.
- I was hosted by Visit Gent
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