A brilliant restoration of Ghent’s glorious altarpiece is celebrated by the city’s Museum of Fine Arts
When the church of Saint John the Baptist in Ghent acquired a new ambulatory in the early fifteenth century, the local magistrate, Joos Vijd, bagged the easternmost chapel for himself and his wife, Elisabeth Boorluut. He commissioned an altarpiece from the Flemish painter, Hubert van Eyck, then regarded as “the greatest who was ever found”, but in 1526, some way into the project, Hubert died and his brother, Jan –“second in art” – took over.
The chapel was small but Vijd’s ambitions were large, and the altarpiece, when finished in 1432, comprised 12 panels in two tiers, with the eight wing panels painted on both sides. At 5m wide and nearly 4m tall, it dwarfed the little chapel into which crowds of admirers squeezed on the few feast days when the wings were opened. The Vijd altarpiece was a thing of wonder, not just because of the brilliance of its colours and the breathtaking verisimilitude of its technique, but because of the mysterious iconography of its central depiction of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
The world loves a mystery and over the course of history the “Ghent Altarpiece” – as it is now familiarly known – has exerted a singular fascination, not only on the general public. Monarchs and dictators have itched to get their hands on it. Queen Elizabeth I of England nearly succeeded when, under the brief rule of the Calvinist Republic of Ghent, the Stadhuis threatened to send it to her in settlement of a debt; Philip II of Spain had to settle for having it copied by his court painter at a cost of 2,000 ducats. Napoleon’s soldiers carried it off to the Louvre and Hitler salted it away in Austria’s Altaussee mine, to be eventually liberated by the Monuments Men.