The Thrilling Tale of The Ghent Altarpiece

Do you think classical art is boring?  

“Yes actually, VampireNomad, I really do think those praying saints and pious religious paintings are deadly dull.  I prefer Campbell’s soup and melting clocks.”

Well, yes, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali are two of the greats!  Campbell’s Soup Cans and The Persistence of Memory are truly brilliant works.  But why don’t you like Renaissance art?  Why are the more classical works boring?

“They just are.  There’s nothing interesting about them.”

I respect your opinion.  If anything, art is a personal experience.  Art, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  What arrests the attention and stirs the emotions of one will have no effect on another and that’s the beauty of art, the power of it.  But if I may, I’d like to tell you a story about a famous work of Renaissance art from the 15th century.  This, though, is no lecture, no droning factual discourse.  This is a riveting tale of angelic beings, sacrifice, scandal, death, piety, theft, Nazis, and mystery.  This is a thriller, an action adventure tale set in the Renaissance world of oil painting.

The Thrilling Tale of The Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.  

The Ghent Altarpiece resides in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium.  It is widely considered to be the greatest monument of early Flemish painting.  It is an oil painting and a polyptych: which is to say it is a painting comprised of many panels and opens and closes to reveal different scenes, religious in nature.  Fully open it stands at an impressive seventeen feet wide.

Who painted what?  Nobody knows for sure.  The brothers Hubert and Jan did not work side by side on the entire Altarpiece and as is so often the case with famous siblings, one brother far outshone the other.  Nobody knows much about Hubert but Jan van Dyck is a household name.  He’s the Alec Baldwin to Hubert’s Daniel, you see.  It is widely believed that Hubert painted the central inside panels featuring God, Mary, and John the Baptist because their scale is so different from the rest.  Then Hubert died.  And Jan finished the Altarpiece, graciously inscribing his brother’s name first on the completed work.  Sibling rivalry!  Death!  Posthumous acclaim!  

When closed the upper panels depict the Annunciation: the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to inform her she would bear the Christ Child.  Though the scene spans four individual panels it depicts a single room with Gabriel on the far left addressing Mary on the far right.  He addresses her literally, for the words he speaks to her are painted directly on the canvas emanating from the level of his head.  He says “Ave gratia plena” (“Hail thou that art full of grace”).  Mary’s reply is also inscribed as emanating from the level of her head.  She responds with “ecce ancilla” (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”) but her words are painted upside down.  Was Jan having an off day?  Did Hubert do it before his death to spite Jan’s vision?  No, the words are deliberately painted upside down because Mary isn’t talking to Gabriel or you, the viewer, she’s talking directly to God.  So the words are upside down for God’s benefit, being as He’s viewing them from above.  Effectively this would make the panels one of the first graphic novels, really.  Graphic novels with a supernatural twist.  (Or even a ‘Supernatural’ twist.)

“VampireNomad I distinctly recall you saying something about a scandal.”

And so there was!  The Ghent Altarpiece was completed in 1432 (some speculate it may have been started as early as 1420) and contains, when open, far right and left upper panels featuring nearly lifesize nude renderings of Adam and Eve.  The figures are beautifully done, neither idealized nor unlovely, and, though modestly covering their most intimate parts with cleverly placed hands, are fully naked.  Weren’t a lot of figures naked in classical art?  Aren’t a lot of figures naked in art today?  Yes of course.  Nudity is natural, especially when one is painting Adam and Eve.  However in the late 19th century the worshipers at the church were not over-fond of the nudity and so they commissioned substitute panels (by another artist, of course) that this time showed Adam and Eve fully clothed in fur garments.  And they displayed those new clothed panels in place of the originals by Jan van Eyck.  Prudery!  Just like today and the Superbowl!  Renaissance art is so topical.  Nowadays the original naked Adam and Eve have been restored to the Altarpiece but the substitute panels are also on display so you may gawk as you like at the strangeness of the clothing or the original supple beauty of the painted flesh.

The lower inside panels - of which there are five in total: one large central piece with two flanking panels per side - all depict the same scene, the Adoration of the Lamb.  In the middle foreground is a fountain, the fountain of baptism and therefore of eternal life, and behind it is an altar on which stands a lamb.  The lamb is representative of Christ, of course, who is widely referred to as the Lamb of God.  The lamb in the Altarpiece is pierced in the chest and blood pours out of it into a chalice below, a chalice offered by the church.  All around this vividly depicted sacrifice are groups of worshipers: Christian knights led by Saint George, Christian hermits, the Just Judges, pilgrims led by a giant St. Christopher, and so on.  The setting of this sacrifice and worship is an ever-retreating pastoral landscape.  Brilliantly it continues back into the painting, the clever oil layering techniques employed by Jan van Eyck giving the impression of depth and scale, so the scene seems enormous and endless.  And off in the distance, if you look intently enough, if you can gaze past the gathered figures and the lamb, is Jerusalem.  It’s like that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron loses himself in George Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte only instead of Cameron finding less meaning as he was absorbed by the art, in the Altarpiece you find more. 

“Does this painting have a Ghostbusters connection?”

Yes!  In the film The Monuments Men Bill Murray portrays a soldier who helps retrieve the stolen Altarpiece from the Nazis.  Ghostbusters connection confirmed.

Which brings me to the most thrilling part of the tale.  The Ghent Altarpiece was one of the countless cultural works stolen by Hitler’s armies during World War II.  All twelve panels and seventeen feet of it were taken from the Cathedral of St. Bavo and, dismantled, it was hidden away in the salt mine at Altausee in Austria.  Hitler, as I discussed on Tuesday, intended to make a Führermuseum where he’d display all the greatest works of art he could get his hands on (read: steal).  Theft!  Secret hiding place!  Spoil of war!  Nazis!  The Altarpiece was subsequently found by the Monuments Men and ultimately returned to Belgium and its rightful place in the Cathedral.  But!  Not all panels made it out of the war.  After its trip to the Austrian salt mine and dramatic rescue, it was discovered that one of the lower left inside inside panels was missing.  The panel featuring the Just Judges worshiping the Lamb was gone.  So a replacement had to be commissioned and to this day that replacement panel is the one you will see if you visit the Altarpiece.

Where is the missing panel?  I can’t answer that.  Still in the depths of Altausee?  Decaying on a forgotten roadside somewhere?  Secreted away in a private chalet?  The imagination runs wild.

Still think Renaissance art is boring?  Eh, that’s your prerogative.  But know that behind every work is a great story waiting to be told.  Nothing is exactly as it seems.  The Ghent Altarpiece is both greater than the sum of its parts and a complete and beautiful work all on its own.  It is a masterpiece.

- Corinne Simpson

 

Sources:

Janson, H.W., Revised and Expanded by Janson, Anthony F.  History of Art.  New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1991 (Fourth Edition).

Kloss, Professor William, MA.  A History of European Art.  Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2005.