For fine art – say, a 15th-century oil painting – to make the news, it usually has to be stolen, recovered or sell high at auction, which is why the attention of some art lovers was pricked recently to see Belgium’s Ghent Altarpiece trending on social media.
The altarpiece is big – when it is open, as it usually is now, its 12 panels together are 15 feet wide and 11 feet tall. Despite the difficulty of concealing it, it is sometimes called the most stolen artwork of all time, because, among other incidents, Napoleon robbed it, Calvinists almost burned it and the Nazis were desperate to own it, as The Guardian noted a few years back.
This is not hard to understand. While the Ghent is not widely known the way the Mona Lisa is, it is one of the greatest works of the Northern Renaissance, of European art and of late medieval Christian theology. On the last point it tends to blaze its own way.
It was begun in the 1420s and likely completed by the end of the decade, by the brothers and masters Hubert and Jan van Eyck. In brilliant color that had dulled with time, it tells a complete story of faith from their vantage, as representatives of their time and place. Their role is akin to Shakespeare’s more than a century later, when he was composing plays to be performed for all of the people who came to the Globe, including the groundlings.
Opened, it begins with the figures of Adam and Eve on outer wings, who would have been astonishingly natural – real – for their day, exciting wonder. It moves inward through panels of angels to the high-center triumvirate of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist flanking a distinctly human God. That they had dared to envision His face – and as a distinctly Asiatic visage – would have been like speaking His unsayable name: almost too good. But not quite.
Below is the central panel of the work,the adoration of the lamb. This is Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God; the mystical lamb – the metaphorical incarnation of Jesus. It has a wound in its breast from which its blood spurts into a gold chalice. And the most curious thing of all is its face: It and God alone look out from the painting, confronting the viewer, a supernatural double portrait.
We said the color had dulled with time. The latest generation of restorers went to work on the Ghent in 2012. A team of technicians has been taking panels off display at St. Bavo’s Cathedral one at a time and cleaning them in Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts, where the public can view the works in progress.
The outer panels, which tell another story, were restored in 2016. On Jan. 24, the five completed lower panels of its inside were unveiled – and that is when, in late January, the Ghent Altarpiece suddenly found itself in the news, a part of it reaching more people on social media than had ever known the altarpiece existed, and all because the face of the lamb was clearer.
“Perched atop its fluffy woolly-white body, the penetrating, close-set eyes, full pink lips and flared nostrils of the original lamb are, at a minimum, eye-catching, if not alarmingly anthropomorphic,” said a writer for Smithsonian Magazine.
Imagine people being alarmed today by a figure in a medieval altarpiece. Isn’t this just what the van Eycks were going for? Not to mention the anthropomorphic Lamb of God.
“I have mixed feelings about this iconic creature turning into something that looks like it’s about to tell you that you left the fridge door open,” said a Twitter user.
That might be inelegant, but in some ways it was exactly what their Lamb was supposed to do.
How glorious to see it come full circle.