1. The wandering lamb
As you may know, the Ghent Altarpiece is inextricably linked to St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. However, the painting has had an eventful history. The painting ended up in Paris after the French Revolution in 1789. French troops took the masterpiece from the cathedral and transported it by horse-drawn cart. It was the Duke of Wellington who returned the altarpiece to St Bavo's Cathedral.
A year later, six panels were sold to art dealer L.J. Nieuwenhuys for 3000 guilders. The panels eventually came into the possession of the king of Prussia. After the First World War, Germany was forced to return the panels to Belgium as compensation. During the Second World War, the polyptych was taken to a salt mine near the Austrian village of Altaussee, where Hitler hid several art treasures intended for the planned Führermuseum. At the end of the war, Hilter ordered the salt mine with all works of art to be blown up. A few heroic miners prevented the destruction of the Ghent Altarpiece. They averted a major disaster in art history! The Ghent Altarpiece finally went back to its home, St Bavo's Cathedral.
2. Dastardly theft
Restorations succeeded each other and panels were stolen, found and copied. The theft of The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist panels of the altarpiece was just one in a long series of tribulations! In the early hours of 11 April 1934, two witnesses saw two shadows in the dark putting flat objects into a car. The two shadows absconded with the altarpiece panels. Only a note stating ‘Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles’ was left. A few weeks later, a letter was delivered to the cathedral demanding a ransom of 1 million Belgian francs. The authorities did not wish to pay the ransom, and after exchanging more letters, the thief returned the Saint John the Baptist panel. The mystery of The Just Judges has remained unsolved. Lots of exciting theories exist, but so far no-one has come up with the crucial clue!
3. Finalist Jan Van Eyck
Ghent alderman Joos Vijd and his wife Lysbette Borluut commissioned Jan and Hubert Van Eyck to paint the Ghent Altarpiece. They had a chapel added to St Bavo's Cathedral specially for this work. This chapel is called Vijdkapel or Vijd’s chapel. You are probably not aware of the fact that is was mostly Jan Van Eyck who painted the Ghent Altarpiece. Hubert Van Eyck started work on the altarpiece, but no-one knows exactly what his contribution was, since he died in the early stages on the artwork’s creation. His brother Jan finished the altarpiece in 1432.
4. A microscopic eye
Jan Van Eyck was a true genius! He was the first artist to perfect the oil painting technique. He did not just have great technical skills, his eye for detail was also phenomenal! Jan Van Eyck’s eye operated as a microscope and telescope. He was one of the first painters to depict a realistic moon with craters. Jan Van Eyck worked as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and undertook several diplomatic visits abroad. Thanks to his travels with Philip the Good, he discovered new landscapes and plants, which he depicted with effortless detail on the Ghent Altarpiece. Did you know that the rocks in the painting are probably based on rock masses in Liège or Dinant? He would never have been able to paint them without his incredible photographic memory! Jan portrayed Joos Vijd, the donor, not in an idealised but in a realistic manner, warts and all. The details in the work are phenomenal!
5. Van Eyck’s comet
Jan Van Eyck made his mark on art history like a ‘comet’. We have few sources at our disposal that inform us about his life or career, but he suddenly appeared as one of the greatest painters of his age. His style can be described as unique and revolutionary, unlike that of his predecessors or contemporaries. Numerous art lovers praise his best-known work, the Ghent Altarpiece. According to legend, Hugo Van der Goes went mad when he tried to equal the painting and eventually took his own life. Jan Van Eyck is said to have inspired numerous artists such as Hans Memling, Dieric Bouts and Gerard David.
The 15th century can, without exaggeration, be called Van Eyck’s century. Jan Van Eyck is held in even higher esteem than Da Vinci!
6. Mysteries and riddles
The Ghent Altarpiece is a unique work of art with lots of unsolved riddles and mysteries. It is said that on the panel with the townscape and the Erythraean Sibyl, human faces can be seen in the sky, but no-one knows whom they represent. The skyline on the central panel is said to be a collage of fictional and real buildings. During a restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece in 1951, the lamb appeared to have four ears. The animal’s ears had been painted over when modifications were made around 1550. The otherworldly, mysterious four-eared lamb was on display for a while during the restoration process in MSK. Come and take a look, and search for the hidden faces like a real detective! Who knows, you may even discover another mystery?
7. Van Eyck’s DNA traces
The Ghent Altarpiece abounds in details, and restorers found some brush hairs during the recent restoration process. The hairs are stuck in the paint and have different lengths. Painters sometimes leave fingerprints on their work as they manipulate the paint with their fingers, making the fingerprints permanent. If you look closely, you may find a hair or a fingerprint. If you’re still not convinced you should pay a visit to Ghent and the Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps the final reason will make you change your mind!
8. Largest work of Jan Van Eyck
Jan Van Eyck has left about twenty masterpieces scattered all over the world in museums and collections. The artist’s life is still largely a mystery, but his works have withstood the centuries! As far as we know, one work by Van Eyck is still privately owned. All other works are held in museums across the world. The Arnolfini Portrait and Portrait of a Man, for instance, are on display at the National Gallery in London. The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin is kept in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. But in St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, you can admire his greatest work, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
The Ghent Altarpiece and Van Eyck
Who was Jan Van Eyck, and what makes the Ghent Altarpiece so special? Discover more on these pages!