The grandiose vision of the Van Eyck brothers, divided, stolen, burnt and tormented during centuries, is back in its “birthplace” Ghent. The best restorers are diligently applying contemporary techniques with ageless patience in order to rejuvenate the polyptych panel painting. Some secrets are being brought to light, but the “Lam Gods” is probably still withholding many.
Anne van Grevenstein-Kruse, professor emeritus in Conservation and Restoration at the Amsterdam University, who initially led the project, and Ludo Collin, the rector of the Saint-Bavo cathedral, exchanged views.
The lamb’s sacrifice is depicted on the central panel, the lamb representing Christ. Beneath it is the fountain representing baptism that can save mankind. But technical analysis proves that the fountain has been added in a later stadium. The reason why is unknown to this day.
Another object of debate is the question whether the central figure represents God the Father or Jesus Christ. This is a question of interpretation, and technical probe isn’t going to elucidate it. But if it is Christ, the Trinity would be absent from the painting, which would be rather strange. There’s still uncertainty, anyway.
And then there is the question of the prime function of the Altarpiece. What is the balance between its catechetical and its aesthetic role? Collin points out the artwork contains a very beautiful summary of the Christian faith: Creation, the Old Testament in relation to the New Testament, the central position of Christ and the reference to the Eucharist… it’s all there, looking like a catechism for the population of Ghent.
Originally, the polyptich was kept closed on most days, and only revealed on important religious holidays. This way, the religious and aesthetic experience was very strong. Although most people will view it primarily as an icon of Art history, it is still a religious work.
What becomes clearer through thorough cleaning and restoration is that the representation of the light on the panel corresponds to the actual light entering the Vydt chapel in which the work was originally kept. Even the frame’s painting becomes a part of the architecture.
The restoration helps to restore the three-dimensionality, according to van Grevenstein.
Whilst restoration was an almost secretive work at the time Belgian copyist Jef Van der Veken painted the copy of the Just Judges in 1945, there have been only positive reactions so far on the ongoing restoration campaign during which the team can be openly watched by the public. Work in progress, for a few more years.
19th May 2013.
Source: “Lam Gods geeft nieuwe geheimen prijs”, Tertio, 8th May 2013.