The Ghent Altarpiece
Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Jan (& Hubert) van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432) is also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It’s a cinematic series of hinged wood panels about 12 feet high and 16 feet wide situated in the Villa Chapel of St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. This isn’t just a piece of art; it’s a Belgian national treasure. If you want proof of its historical significance, it’s the only painting ever mentioned in a war treaty (World War I). But just as a painting I place it in the top 10 of art history. And now that I’ve used that expression you’ll ask me about the other nine. I’m on it.
As religious art, it may well be the single best artistic expression of Catholic theology in history. Its mystic Christian symbolism is extremely well done and could keep you busy for hours if you’re interested. But even if you’re not, you can still appreciate it as art. The gorgeous, saturated colors alone make it uncommonly beautiful and its realism is very striking, especially in a painting of this scale. If you want to do it justice—and you should!—go check out the high resolution images at http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/ . You’ll be impressed by the subtlety and intricacy in the hair, jewelry, and clothing. You can see Adam’s nose hair, for crying out loud. All of that leads to the main reason I put this in the top 10: it’s one of the most influential paintings ever done. So influential, in fact, that at one point it was thought to be the world’s very first oil painting. Not true. But it became so frequently studied by later artists that you could justly call it history’s first major oil painting. It’s still influencing artists today, in fact. Harvard’s art school offered a whole semester course on just this painting a few years ago.
Its turbulent history may interest you, too. An original row of bottom panels representing limbo were ruined by a botched cleaning job around 1550. A decade later Calvinist mobs tried to burn it. Since then it has been stolen, looted, or smuggled about a half dozen or more times by my count. The lower left panel is a replica, incidentally. The original was filched in 1934 and never recovered. The thieves claimed it was hidden in a prominent place, which some think means the “replica” is actually painted over the original. Then war took its toll. When the German army moved across Belgium in 1940, the entire piece was spirited off to France to save it from capture. That maneuver bought it two years before a Nazi delegation tracked it down and took it to Germany. After almost being blown up in an Austrian salt mine, it was recovered by the Allies in 1945. All of this is to say that the Ghent Altarpiece is a historical survivor, an icon for art lovers, and for believers a moving depiction of their greatest hope. Have I made my case that it deserves the Top 10?
Today it’s back home in Ghent where it belongs, hopefully not just passing time until the next heist. And if you happen to be the one planning that heist, be advised that it’s the size of a barn wall and weighs more than a ton. So if you are going to steal it, steal a forklift first.