The Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or The Lamb of God completed in 1432 is a very large and complex Early Netherlandishpolyptych panel painting which is considered to be one of Belgium’s masterpieces and one of the world’s treasures.

It was once in the Joost Vijdt chapel at Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, but was later moved for security reasons to the chapel of the cathedral. Commissioned by the wealthy merchant and financier Joost Vijdt for his and his wife’s private chapel,  it was begun by Hubert van Eyck, who died in 1426 whilst work was underway, and completed by his younger brother Jan van Eyck. The altarpiece represented a “new conception of art”, in which the idealization of the medieval tradition gave way to an exacting observation of nature.

The altarpiece consists of a total of 24 compartmented scenes, which make up two views, open and closed, which are changed by moving the hinged outer wings. The upper register (row) of the opened view shows Christ the King between theVirgin Mary and John the Baptist. The insides of the wings represent angels singing and making music, and on the outside Adam and Eve. The lower register of the central panel shows the adoration of the Lamb of God, with several groups in attendance and streaming in to worship, overseen by the dove representing the Holy Spirit. On weekdays the wings were closed, showing the Annunciation of Mary and donor portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut.

There used to be an inscription on the frame stating that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck – calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art) – finished it in 1432. The original, very ornate carved outer frame and surround, presumably harmonizing with the painted tracery, was destroyed during the Reformation; there has been speculation that it may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music.

The original lower left panel known as The Just Judges was stolen in 1934. The original panel has never been found and has been replaced by a copy made in 1945 by Jef Vanderveken. The stolen panel figures prominently in Albert Camus’ novel La chute.

Six of the painting’s wings were pawned in 1815 by the Diocese of Ghent for the equivalent of £240, and when they failed to redeem them were bought from the dealer Nieuwenhuys in 1816 by the English collector Edward Solly for £4,000. After failing to find a buyer in a stay of some months in London, they were later bought by the King of Prussia for £16,000, a huge price at the time, and for many decades exhibited in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. During World War I, other panels were taken from the cathedral by Germany. As part of the war reparations in the Versailles Treaty after the end of the war, Germany returned the pilfered panels along with the original panels that had been legitimately bought by Solly, to help compensate for other German “acts of destruction” during the war.

The Germans “bitterly resented the loss of the panels”, and at the start of another conflict with Germany in 1940, a decision was made in Belgium to send the painting to the Vatican City to keep it safe. The painting was en route to the Vatican, in France, when Italy declared war as an Axis power alongside Germany. The painting was stored in a museum in Pau for the duration of the war, as French, Belgian and German military representatives signed an agreement which required the consent of all three before the masterpiece could be moved. In 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the painting to be seized and brought to Germany to be stored in a Bavarian castle. After Allied air raids made the castle too dangerous for the painting, it was stored in a salt mine. Belgian and French authorities protested the seizing of the painting, and the head of the German army’s Art Protection Unit was dismissed after he disagreed with the seizure.

The altarpiece was recovered by the Americans following the war and was returned to Belgium in a ceremony presided over by Belgian royalty and held at theRoyal Palace of Brussels, where the 17 panels were erected for the press. No French officials were invited to the ceremony, since the Vichy French had allowed the Germans to remove the painting to Germany.

Via Ghent Alterpiece

This entry was posted in Arts, History. Bookmark the permalink.