by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Ghent Altarpiece Restored

By Roderick Conway Morris
GHENT, Belgium 1 April 2020
St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent
The Ghent Altarpiece, showing the restored exterior panels



The survival of Jan van Eyck's masterpiece, the monumental Ghent Altarpiece, has been little short of a miracle. It was narrowly saved from Calvinist iconoclasts in 1566 by being hauled up on ropes into the bell-tower of St Bavo's, the city's cathedral. Its 'Adam and Eve' panels were removed in the late eighteenth century on the grounds of indecency, and in 1794 its central 'Mystic Lamb' panel was carried off to Paris by French revolutionaries. It was returned to Ghent after the Battle of Waterloo, but the following year six wings were sold off to an antiques dealer as 'worthless old junk' and ended up in Berlin, where they suffered the indignity of being sawn down the middle so that the recto and verso images could be displayed side by side.

The various components of the Altarpiece were finally reunited in Ghent in 1920, only to be handed over by French collaborators to the Nazis during the Second World War, and hidden in an Austrian salt mine, from where they were liberated in May 1945 by the Allies.

Jan van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece are now the subject of an entrancing exhibition, Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, at the Fine Arts Museum (MSK) in Ghent. The occasion is the meticulous cleaning of eight exterior panels of the Altarpiece at St Bavo's, which has revealed the full glory of their original colour and detail.

The panels can now be observed at close quarters, before they are permanently returned to the Altarpiece in a specially adapted chapel in the cathedral. After this, the wings of the altar will be opened and closed daily, to display alternately the exterior and interior panels. The exhibition at MSK also brings together over half the known works of Van Eyck from both sides of the Atlantic, making it – according to the curators – 'the largest Van Eyck exhibition ever'.

Jan van Eyck was born in around 1390 and died in Bruges in 1441. He was a valet du chambre at the court of the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good, and his diplomatic duties involved painting portraits for long-distance dynastic wedding negotiations. But otherwise Van Eyck was free to pursue his own calling as an artist, working mainly for religious institutions and providing devotional works and portraits for private patrons in the Burgundian Netherlands.

This region was then the most urbanized north of the Alps – with some two million inhabitants, of whom around 60,000 lived in Ghent and 40,000 in Bruges – and owed its prosperity to the manufacture of textiles, an industry that had thrived here since the eleventh century. By this time, trading relations with Italy were well established and Flemish paintings became one of the commodities most sought after by Italian buyers.

These pictures were to have an immense influence on Italian Renaissance arts. Writing in 1456 in his De viris illustribus, the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fazio named as the four greatest painters: Jan van Eyck, Rogier van de Weyden, Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano, judging Van Eyck to be 'the most important painter of our age'. But when Giorgio Vasari published his Lives of the Artists a century later, he drastically downgraded the significance of the role of Van Eyck in the flowering of Italian art and reduced his work virtually to a footnote, either because by then there was less awareness of the extent of the Flemish painter's influence or because the Florentine wished to minimize it.

Vasari does, however, credit Van Eyck with the invention of oil painting, and it was unquestionably Van Eyck who revolutionized – and perfected – the use of oils (which in fact dated back to the twelfth century) by adding siccatives, or drying agents, and developing layers of transparent glazes. It is clearly mythical that Antonello de Messina learnt oil painting from Van Eyck, as Vasari claims, since he was only ten years old at the time of Van Eyck's death and there is no evidence he ever went to the Low Countries, although there were by Messina's time a number of Netherlandish artists in Italy painting in oils.

Moreover, the three-quarters view of the sitter (replacing the traditional profile format), which Messina pioneered in Italy, had been invented by Van Eyck (something Vasari fails to mention). This was only one of Van Eyck's many contributions to Italian art, which extended to the development of composition, landscape and the nude.

One of the principal differences between fifteenth-century Netherlandish and Italian painting relates to perspective. Whereas the Italians during this period, led by Alberti and Brunelleschi, were developing systems of geometrical, or measured, perspective, the methods invented by Van Eyck were intuitive and empirical. Intriguingly, in his early works Messina appears to be using a typically Netherlandish observational method of perspective, further evidence of the influence of Flemish artists on his paintings.

Bartolomeo Fazio was one of the first to emphasize the point that Van Eyck was a pictor doctus, familiar with Pliny the Elder and 'not unversed in learning, particularly in geometry, and such arts as contribute to the enrichment of painting'. Fazio marvelled at the illusionistic landscape of the artist's 'Bathers', with 'its horses, minute figures of men, mountains, groves, hamlets and castles, carried out with such skill you would believe that one was fifty miles distant from one another' – effects inconceivable to the Italian without the aid of geometry.

But for all his admiration, Fazio was hardly in a position to appreciate the full depth and breadth of Van Eyck's genius. The Ghent Altarpiece includes seventy-five tree, plant and flower species, many no doubt encountered on his travels since they include cypresses, stone pines, olives, pomegranates, date palms and citrus trees.

His flowers often have the precision of later still-lifes and the rock formations in his 'St Francis Receiving the Stigmata' pictures contain identifiable fossils. He represents in the Altarpiece a large variety of birds. Pisanello was probably his only contemporary rival in this regard, but Van Eyck shows them more convincingly in flight. Most artists of that period produced generic clouds of a cumulus variety. Van Eyck gives us, in addition, stratus, altocumulus, cirrocumulus and cirrus. He was also the first to provide a closely observed image of the moon, mapping the lunar surface at a particular phase.

The eight exterior panels of the Altarpiece, along with the 'Adam and Eve' panels from the interior panels, form the centrepieces of the special exhibition. As a result of cleaning, the exterior panels have been transformed and regained an impact they have not had since the mid-sixteenth century. For it was during that period that large areas of them were overpainted, significantly altering them in many ways, including in the rendering of the drapery. All the panels were subsequently dulled by layers of varnish that turned yellow. The restored brightness of the colours and three-dimensionality of the images is now almost startling.

Extraordinary details have emerged that have not been visible for over 450 years, such as the cobwebs at the back of the niches in which the donors Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut are depicted kneeling. This realism is at its most potent in the images of Adam and Eve, with their homely facial features, realistic body hair, veined hands and angular elbows. And it is in his approach to the nude that Van Eyck remains distinct from artists of the Italian Renaissance, whose nudes, even at their most seemingly naturalistic, constantly refer back to the ideal forms of classical statuary.

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution
501pp. Hannibal-MSK Gent
Maximilian Martens, Till-Holger Borchert, Johan Dumolyn, Johan De Smet, Frederica Van Dam (editors)

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023