Winter 2012 - 2013 (8)
Ghent Altarpiece (2) The Lamb's Calvary
26th January 2013
You’ll be able to see the restoration progress during the coming five years. But what has happened since Hubert and Jan elaborated their vision, which Jan went on to materialize on his own after his brother’s death? Wars, theft, fire… threatened to destroy the work. The Lamb was on the run for a good deal of the past six hundred years.
Piece de resistance
The Ghent Altarpiece (or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Dutch: Het Lam Gods or The Lamb of God) is a very large and complex early 15th century Early Flemish polyptych panel painting consisting of twelve panels. The artwork was ordered from Hubert van Eyck, who’s believed to be responsible for the overall design. After his death in 1426, his younger brother Jan van Eyck apparently completed the work between 1430 and -32.
The merchant and financier who commissioned the altarpiece, Joost Vijdt, held a position in Ghent similar to that of the city mayor today. It was designed for the chapel he and his wife acted as benefactors for, today's Saint Bavo Cathedral. It was officially installed on 6th May 1432 to coincide with an official ceremony for Philip the Good. While indebted to the International Gothic as well as both Byzantine and Romanic traditions, 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.
For centuries the altarpiece has been considered one of Northern European art's masterpieces and one of the world's treasures. Over the centuries the panels have been moved and damaged by fire, while some have been sold, and some taken during wars. After all the panels were again returned to St. Bavo's, in 1934 the lower left panel, The Just Judges, was stolen. It has never been recovered. In 1945 the Altarpiece was returned from Germany, having spent much of World War II hidden in an Austrian salt mine which greatly damaged the paint and varnishes. Jef Van der Veken produced a copy of the stolen panel, as part of an overall restoration effort during that same year.
The first major restoration was carried out in 1550 by the painters Lancelot Blondeel and Jan van Scorel, following a poorly executed cleaning that resulted in damage to the predella. The predella - showing a hell scene, painted in water based paints - was destroyed by fire in the 16th century. During the Protestant Reformation the Altarpiece was moved out of the chapel to prevent damage during the so-called “Beeldenstorm”. It was first hidden in the attic and later on in the town hall, where it remained for two decades.
The Lamb’s Calvary
The altarpiece has been moved quite a few times over the centuries. It was the victim of no less than thirteen crimes and seven thefts since its installation. After the French Revolution it was taken to Paris where the panels were exhibited at the Louvre. It was returned to Ghent after the French were defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The painting's wings (not including the Adam and Eve panels) were pawned in 1815 by the Diocese of Ghent. When the diocese failed to redeem them, they were sold in 1816 to an English collector. The pieces spent some months in London, during which time the new owner unsuccessfully sought a buyer. They were later bought by the King of Prussia and for many decades they were exhibited in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The panels still in Ghent were damaged by fire in 1822, and the separately hinged Adam and Eve panels sent to a museum in Brussels…
During World War I, other panels were taken from the cathedral by German forces. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany returned all the panels, and, in 1920, after a century of separation, all the panels were finally back in Ghent. In the following decade, The Just Judges panel was stolen: in 1934… In 1940, the Belgian authorities decided to send the Altarpiece to the Vatican in order to keep it safe, fearing the Germans would otherwise steal it again. While it was en route to the Vatican in France, Italy declared war as an Axis power alongside Germany. The “exodus” was interrupted, and the painting was stored in a museum in Pau, a town in the French Pyrenees. French, Belgian and German military representatives signed an agreement requiring the consent of all three before the masterpiece could be moved. In 1942, a lousy Sunday painter named Adolf Hitler ordered the painting to be seized. He had it brought to Germany, where it was stored in the Schloss Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. After Allied air raids made the castle too dangerous for the painting, it was moved to the Altaussee salt mines. Belgian and French authorities protested against the seizing of the painting, and the head of the German army's Art Protection Unit was dismissed after he disagreed with the seizure.
The altarpiece was recovered by the Americans after the war and returned to Belgium in a ceremony presided over by Belgian royalty at the Royal Palace of Brussels, where the 17 panels were displayed for the press. No French officials were invited, as the French Vichy regime had allowed the Germans to remove the painting to Germany. The tests and trials this material Lamb of God endured all these centuries and the peregrination resemble a Calvary of the second millennium. But for now the work is back where it belongs: in the good city of Ghent, where it is being taken well care of for the next five years at least.