New discoveries in the Ghent Altarpiece – one of the world’s greatest paintings
The Ghent Altarpiece, the 15th century polyptych by the Flemish brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, is one of the most impressive, influential, and enigmatic paintings produced in the West, and one with a colorful history. A multi-year restoration project has revealed new secrets about the nearly six hundred year old masterpiece, according to a fascinating article in the New York Times.
Of the painting’s iconography, the article notes:
[T]he altarpiece is widely recognized as one of history’s most influential art works, because of the intimate attention it gives to both earthly and divine beauty. The polyptych altarpiece, consisting of 12 panels, has at its center its most iconic panel, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.’’ It depicts a liturgy attended by different groups of people in a landscape rich in religious symbolism. In the middle is a white lamb on an altar, with a breast wound gushing blood.
On the lower outer panels, people look on — some more interested than others. The upper register portrays three enthroned figures: In the middle might be God or Christ — experts are not sure — flanked by the Virgin Mary on the left and John the Baptist on the right.
On the upper outer panels, angels sing and play music. Adam and Eve, in one of the earliest renderings of them naked with fig leaves, stand on the outermost wings. The upper outside register represents scenes from the Annunciation of Mary and the lower register has sculptures of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.
Visitors to Ghent today see parts of the altarpiece in a special room at St. Bavo Cathedral, for which it was commissioned, and the Museum of Fine Arts, where the restoration efforts can be observed through a glass wall. Read the Times story about the new scanning technologies that have allowed restorers to go below centuries of old overpainting and layers of varnish to see the original paint layers, and other developments. But, by all means, go to Ghent and see this incomparable painting – one of the great art experiences to be had.