GHENT, BELGIUM. In the 2014 film The Monuments Men, the character portrayed by George Clooney claims the Ghent Altarpiece is the most important work of art in the Western tradition. Clooney’s passion for the recovery of stolen art masterpieces by the Germans during World War II may have been exaggerated but his point is well taken.
In the greater scheme of things, the Ghent Altarpiece may not rank number one in the history of all human art. But the mission of the Monuments Men is certainly among the most important recoveries in art history. And the story of the altarpiece’s recovery is nothing short of miraculous. It may have been the greatest artistic rescue mission in history. Displayed today in the Cathedral of St. Bavo’s in Ghent, Belgium, the fifteenth-century collaborative masterpiece of the brothers van Eyck, Jan and Hubert, comes, as one writer put it “close in spirit to the 1970s theatrical…rock opera…Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The story of the Ghent Altarpiece begins
The story of the Ghent Altarpiece begins in 1426, when the mayor of Ghent Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lybette commissioned the work as part of a larger project for the St Bavo’s Cathedral chapel. In general, most art historians agree that Hubert van Eyck created the overall design of the altarpiece in the mid-1420s. Younger brother Jan completed most of the panel paintings between 1430 and 1432.
Hubert died in 1426 however, leaving some debate as to how much he contributed to the project.
Further adding to the mystery: a now lost Latin inscription Hubert van Eyck wrote on one of the frames. The phrase maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) states that Hubert started the altarpiece. But it also notes that Jan, who labeled himself arte secundus (second best in the art), completed it in 1432.
The altarpiece design consists of two vertical registers with each containing double sets of fold-out wings featuring inner and outer panels. In a sense, the work represents an artistic storybook depicting events in the Bible.
Surviving the turbulent centuries
Other than the art itself, the history of the Ghent Altarpiece is remarkable. Although it became the most stolen painting in the world, it survives nearly intact to this day. Yet throughout the decades, the 12 panels of this work were threatened by destruction from heretics. Even worse, they suffered actual damage by fire. During various wars over the centuries, some of the panels were sold, while others were stolen. Additionally, German forces made off with many of the frames during World War I. Yet somehow, those frames managed to find their way back to St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
In 1934, two panels, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist, went missing. As part of an extortion effort, the theives returned the Saint John the Baptist panel on the condition that a large ransom would be paid for the other painting.
To this day, unfortunately, The Just Judges panel remains missing — the only missing frame in the display. Situated in the lower left hand corner of the altarpiece as you face it, a reproduction currently takes its place.
Hitler takes a turn
In 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the Ghent Altarpiece seized and brought to Germany. Subsequently, it was hidden in King Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. When Allied air raids made the castle too dangerous for the painting, Hitler’s forces moved it to a salt mine in the region. There, corrosive elements greatly damaged the paint and vanish.
Given the number of times the altarpiece was disassembled over the centuries, art historians can only conjecture as to whether the current display of panels now appear in their original positions.
What the Ghent Altarpiece reveals
If nothing else, the Ghent Altarpiece, strikes viewers today as revelatory. Visually, in a sense, it stands as a visual pun on divine “revelation.” When closed, its compact message becomes easier to delineate. Yet in its completely open manifestation, as expert observer put it, it unfolds as “a visual moveable feast.”
In its opened format, the work unfolds as a biblical travelogue of prophets on foot, princes on horseback, saints, martyrs and angels. The artists depicted them in the dynamically colored focal point of the painting known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
One finds it virtually impossible to discus every element of the central painting of the altarpiece in a mere 1,000 words. Much less to analyze the remaining 11 panels. But we can note some key details here.
The meaning of the key panel
Suffice it to say that the key panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, depicts a large meadow, dotted with flowers. At the center, two primary structures stand. The foreground displays a lovely octagonal stone fountain with a tall central pedestal from which multiple cascades of water emerge. In the background, on a direct axis with the fountain, stands an altar graced with a standing lamb on its surface.
The altar lamb offers a dual meaning. First, it symbolically represent Christ and his death as the sacrificial lamb. But it also marks the equivalence of the crucifixion. The positioning of the lamb, with the cross held by an angel, drives this lesson home to the viewer.
Earthly beauty symbolizes heavenly themes
We should not overlook the most significant aspects of the Ghent Altarpiece. First, the van Eycks paid as much attention to the beauty of earthly things as they did to religious themes. Clothing and jewelry, the natural surroundings, the churches and landscape in the background — the artists painted them all in remarkable detail.
The Light of the World
Next, major artistic innovations in the altarpiece involve advances in light and lighting. Several panels contain complex light effects and subtle plays of shadow, found especially in reflections such as the ripples of water in the Fountain of Life depicted in the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.” In that regard, the Ghent Altarpiece represents a glorious explosion of light, which also symbolizes Christ’s characterization as the “light of the world.”
Scholars know that Jan, by far the more famous of the two brothers, was was known as a painter of exquisite miniatures when he worked for the Dukes of Burgundy. Many aspects of the Ghent altarpiece work are consistent with the detail work of such an artist. But the altarpiece shows some important differences too, not the least of which involves its substantial scale. The relatively large size of the panels clearly pushed Jan to new heights as a virtuoso in in his mastery of the painting of light.
The fascinating story of the Ghent Altarpiece joins adventure and political intrigue to its already rich texture of history and art. This masterwork is indeed a “tale of two brothers” and a monument to the greatness of man’s artistic creativity.
—Headline image: Ghent is an illuminating place to visit (Courtesy: Visit Ghent)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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