WINTER 2012 - 2013 (19)
Ghent Altarpiece (3)
(27th February 2013)
The ongoing restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the six centuries old polyptych panel painting created by the brothers Van Eyck, prompted me to go and look again at this piece of art, which I hadn’t seen since my grandfather took me there as a twelve year old.
I discovered the history of the twelve panels, the involvement of the two brothers, biographical details about commissioner Joost Vijdt. I learned that the Altarpiece represented a "new conception of art", in which the idealization of the medieval tradition gave way to an exacting observation of nature and realistic human representation.
And I was amazed to discover the “calvary” the artwork had gone through including theft, thirteen crimes, fire, wars and how panels got separated and finally reunited after having been in Germany, France, Britain and so on (at least some of the panels). The Altarpiece was forcibly stopped in the French Pyrenees on its way to the Vatican, where it was going to be be hidden during the Second World War. But it would end up in exile in a salt mine instead before being “liberated” by the Americans and returned to Belgium.
An altarpiece, means this a big panel that's hung behind an altar. On weekdays and penitential days/seasons, the Altarpiece would be in the "closed" position. That would give the altar a more somber appearance. On Sundays and major feast days, the Altarpiece would be in the "open" position to radiate its bright colours and vivid scenery.
Some more history. In August 1566, a massive iconoclastic riot broke out. Protestant Dutchmen sacked every single church and monastery in the city of Ghent. The Ghent Altarpiece was almost destroyed, but had been hidden in the church's tower before the rioters could get to it. The church where the Ghent Altarpiece was hidden was later whitewashed and stripped bare to become a Protestant church. But in 1600, the Counter-Reformation kicked in, so the city of Ghent was "re-Catholicized" and all the churches were repaired or rebuilt in grandiose Baroque style.
Anyway, in the closed position, there are sibyls and Old Testament prophets at the top; the Annunciation - the scene in the gospels where the archangel Gabriel greets the Virgin Mary with "hail, full of grace" and tells her that she will give birth to the Christ - in the middle; two statues of St. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the bottom centre; and the donor of the painting and his wife on the sides.
The open position, which is more important, is based on a description of a scene in heaven from Revelation 7:9. "After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands: And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb."
In the top panels, you can see God the Father in the centre, the Virgin Mary to His right and St. John the Baptist to His left. Directly below God the Father is God the Holy Ghost, as a dove, and God the Son, Jesus Christ, as a lamb. In the further upper panels, there's a choir of angels and an angel playing a pipe organ with an orchestra behind him. On the far left and right are Adam and Eve, stark naked and ashamed. This is actually very different from most other Renaissance paintings, which copied the Greek and Roman way of glorifying the human body. Here, the Van Eycks were being honest and intended to show the nature of fallen man as "ugly as sin".
In the lower panels, all the saints in heaven and all the people of the world are bowing before the Lamb, Jesus Christ in figurative, who stands upon the altar as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
With the help of the Getty Foundation, the Ghent altarpiece has undergone a thorough investigation to assess its current condition and to research its material and techniques.
A second Getty Foundation grant allowed an international advisory committee of experts in early Dutch and Flemish paintings to oversee the condition assessment. Close to 30 conservators, art historians, conservation scientists, and scientists met for two days in early 2011 to discuss research topics that would advance knowledge on the mechanical behaviour of panels under stress.
During the technical study, experts photographed every inch of each panel in extremely high resolution in both regular and infrared light. These photographs were then digitally "stitched" together to create amazingly detailed images that enable study of the altarpiece at unprecen-dented microscopic levels. This documentation is now widely available on a website supported largely by the Getty Foundation, Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece.
One of the most important works of art in the world can now be shared digitally across the globe. I’m in no way a nationalist, but it makes me feel good that the work reflects some of the creative genius of the Low Lands.
The altarpiece is back where is belongs, once and for all - let’s hope so. Although it once was an object of dissention between Catholics and Protestants, those days are long gone. Its’ silent and mysterious beauty can now speak to all. If you’ve got eyes, it’s worth feasting on this sight, and if you have ears, you may captivate the centuries old message of the Lamb of God… I plan to go back now and then to witness the resurrection of this creation, because I find the interaction between the ancient techniques and the modern ones exciting. Recently a sketch of a face was discovered beneath another scene. Who knows what other secrets are going to surface during the coming five years.
With a little help from the above websites, 27th February 2013.