An elaborate Renaissance altarpiece that has transfixed churchgoers and art lovers alike for centuries is undergoing its most ambitious restoration in its nearly 600-year history.
Flemish masterpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is the work of masters Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. A $1.6 million, five-year project to restore it is unusual in that it taking place in full public view at the Ghent Fine Arts Museum.
Made of 12 oak panels painted on both sides, the 11-foot-by-15-foot work has attracted attention since its unveiling, though not all of it good.
During the Reformation, Protestants attacked Ghent in the 16th century and the altarpiece was hauled up to safety in the cathedral tower.
Following the French Revolution, the altarpiece was among a number of art works plundered in today’s Belgium and was later exhibited at the Louvre. Those panels seized by the French were returned to the church by the Duke of Wellington after his victory at Waterloo against Napoleon in 1815, according to Agence France-Presse.
Several of the painting’s wings were sold in 1816 to an English collector living in Berlin, Edward Solly. Among panels not sold was one with Adam and another with Eve, which were the first known nudes in Flemish art.
Solly’s panels were bought in 1821 by the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, and were displayed in a Berlin art museum.
During World War I, other panels from The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb were taken from Saint Bavo by German forces.
As part of mandated compensation in the Treaty of Versailles after the end of the Great War, Germany returned the pilfered panels along with the original panels that had been legitimately bought by Solly, to help compensate for other German “acts of destruction” during the 1914-18 conflict, according to the 2006 book America and the Return of Nazi Contraband.
In 1934, two of the panels were stolen and one – The Just Judges – remains missing to this day.
Sent to the Vatican for protection during World War II, the panels were instead directed to France and ended up being seized by the Nazis on personal order of Adolf Hitler. The Germans later hid them in a salt mine in Austria.
There they were saved from planned destruction by Gen. George Patton’s US 3rd Army.
The altarpiece underwent a state-of-the-art analysis during the past year, which has revealed, among other things, an early sketch hidden under layers of paint.
“It is a much finer work than ever said before, which uses extremely complex painting techniques,” noted art historian Helene Dubois after poring over St. John the Baptist’s robe with a special 3-D microscope at the Ghent museum.
“We’ll never find the exact original state, it just isn’t possible,” project leader Livia Depuydt-Elbaum told Agence France-Presse. “With time, colors fade, materials alter. But we can get closer than has ever been possible before.”
The wire service noted that already the iconic Van Eyck reds and greens, the optical effects and mastery of detail such as fabric patterns and jewels are emerging from beneath old dulled varnishes.
Conservationists are painstakingly scraping off coats and coats of yellowing varnish and layers of over-paint at a rate of just four square centimeters a day.
The altarpiece was commissioned by merchant, financier and politician Joost Vijdt, who then held a position in Ghent similar to city mayor.
It was designed for a smaller chapel within Saint Bavo that he and his wife were acting as benefactors for, and officially installed on May 6, 1432, to coincide with an official ceremony for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and patron of Jan Van Eyck.
The altarpiece was later moved for security reasons to the principal cathedral chapel, where it remains.
(Top: The front of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, 1430-1432, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.)