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Visual arts: Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, at MSK Gent in Belgium

20 March 2020

Nicholas Cranfield visits Ghent for this year’s celebration of Van Eyck

Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent © Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw, photo KIK-IRPA 

The Ghent Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

The Ghent Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

THROUGHOUT 2020, Ghent is celebrating the Burgundian court painter Jan Van Eyck (c.1390-1441); “OMG! Van Eyck Was Here” is the title for a slew of exhibitions, performances, and experiences in what is often regarded as a medieval Manhattan. It is the third in a series (2018-20) that previously highlighted Rubens and Brueghel.

There might be any number of good reasons to visit Flanders at the best of times. In my own life, the Vicar of St Mary’s, Lewisham, has the patronage for the living I presently hold. Anciently, Lewisham was a dependency of the Abbey of St Peter in Ghent, and both parishes have recently rebuilt strong links.

Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent © Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw, photo KIK-IRPA The Virgin annunciate, as she appears on the right-hand outer panel of the closed Ghent Altarpiece

It may surprise us after Brexit, but, by the end of the 13th century, it was trade with England (wool and cloth) which gave Ghent a port that was larger than Paris and helped to establish Bruges as the entrepôt of the Western world. “Old John of Gaunt [Ghent], time-honoured Lancaster” (Shakespeare) was Edward III’s third son, who was born in Ghent in 1340, the ancestor appealed to for justification of the claims of the usurping Tudors after the Battle of Bosworth.

The later Habsburg emperor Charles V was also born there, in 1500; he later refused to persuade Pope Clement VII to allow Henry VII’s son to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the pope’s aunt, annulled.

The four copper candlesticks that now stand before the high altar in the cathedral of St Bavo come from Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb at Windsor, which later passed to Henry VIII, like so much else. They were designed by Benedetto Grazzini da Ravezzano (c.1474-1552), a sculptor who was born in Pistoia and worked in England for Henry from 1519 to 1540. When the tomb was broken up, they were sold off by Cromwell. The Chancellor of the cathedral proudly told me that one would be sent to New York later this year for the Metropolitan Museum’s big winter exhibition, “Art at the Tudor Courts”.

St Bavo (Baaf), originally the Abbey Church of St John, was founded by St Amand in the seventh century, alongside that of St Peter. It was raised to cathedral status in 1561 when Philip, erstwhile king of England, created the diocese to emphasise the city’s Catholic credentials.

Ghent is best known as the home of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the altarpiece commissioned from Hubert and Jan Van Eyck in 1342 by Joos Vijd for the new funerary chapel to honour his late wife, Elisabeth Borluut, possibly as an indulgence. Many think that the donor looks unduly shifty. Was her death suspicious?

The various vicissitudes of this three-tier altarpiece since it was dedicated on the feast of St John at the Latin Gate, May 1432, have become the stuff of legend, and of film. As part of the year-long festival, Matt Collishaw has devised a light-and-sound show that will not only showcase the altarpiece itself on mobile high-resolution screens under projections on the interior east wall of St Nicholas’s, Ghent, but will also uncover the murkier side of its survival. (“Lights on Van Eyck” will run from 28 March to All Saints’ Day.)

The Habsburgs coveted the altarpiece and, as it now emerges, had it substantially repainted. It remained in Ghent until it was looted by Napoleon in 1794 and carted off to the Louvre. It was returned in 1815, a year after the Treaty of Ghent ended the two-year war between England and America and after Napoleon’s Hundred Days.

The outer wings of the polyptych were sold off by ignorant cathedral canons later that century, and the panels that ended up in Prussia were returned as part of the war reparations insisted upon by the Treaty of Versailles in 1921. Two panels were stolen in 1934, and the penitent thief sent the bishop the railway-station left-luggage ticket for one of them. One panel still remains to be discovered.

Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent  © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzwThe outer panels of the closed Ghent Altarpiece

Sent for safekeeping throughout the Second World War to France, it fell with Vichy into the hands of the Nazis and was taken to Austria and hidden at Altaussee in a salt mine that was later bombed by the Allies. The so-called Monuments Men salvaged it.

Until the 1980s, it remained in the chapel for which it was made, but, since 1985, it has been housed in a viewing chamber inside the west doors of the cathedral. After the current restoration programme, which began in 2012, the central panel was returned to the cathedral in January. On 8 October, the whole will be reassembled in a newly created, climate-controlled space in the cathedral.

The central panels and lower registers have been fully restored; the upper panels will be, when finance allows. Removing layers of varnish, Hélène Dubois and her team found that the overpainting of the 1550s covered more than 70 per cent of the altarpiece. As that paint layer had been applied over earlier layers of varnish, it has proved possible, albeit painstakingly, to get back to the original oil painting of the Van Eyck brothers.

Last year, I was fortunate to spend a morning in the workshop as Dr Dubois explained both her methodology and what the team had discovered. The detail is astonishing, and can be seen on the outer panels that are displayed in this exhibition: the hairs on Adam’s legs, the clear depiction of marble statuary, the reliefs of Cain and Abel, set above their parents below, the light refracting through a glass cruet on the window ledge behind the Virgin at prayer.

The exhibition champions the revolution in optics which Jan Van Eyck seems to have understood. Whereas many painters in Italy approached the 15th century with an understanding of algebra and of linear perspectives, Van Eyck’s approach came from geometry and optics. The exhibition includes paintings by Fra Angelico and Masaccio to underscore the point.

The Duke of Burgundy, for whom Van Eyck worked in Bruges, rated him for his incredible “art and science”, and, if Vasari was wrong to credit him in 1550 with the invention of oil painting, one can understand a pardonable error. Here was a lettered artist who knew the effect of light on the optic nerve and, therefore, painted the world as he saw it with an intensity unknown before.

He is the first artist to paint snow-capped mountains, and, in two almost identical panels of St Francis receiving the Stigmata (Philadelphia and Turin), which were presumably painted side by side, geologists can recognise the rock formations.

Again and again, it is the close detail that is the most striking element of his work, as if sharing in the vision of God: De Visione Dei is the telling phrase that appears on the Virgin’s open book in the Ghent altarpiece. To see the world was to look into the heart of God’s creation, against which van Eyck played out his knowledge of the classics, in particular Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. In this world, we see only reflected reality, but after death we will have an indirect view of God, and at the resurrection we will be transformed so that we can see God eye to eye.

© KIK-IRPA, BrusselsJan Van Eyck’s Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, c.1435, on loan from the Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin

The altar of the Mystic Lamb, surrounded by the great company of saints and martyrs, soldiers of Christ and confessors, envisaged in the Revelation of St John, stands in a field of flowers, intended to suggest the Garden of Paradise to which we are drawn in the eucharist. At the elevation, the sacred elements would obscure the painted lamb, but, as the priest lowered the chalice and Host, the blood from the side of the sacrificial lamb would become all too apparent to the true believer.

The accuracy of his botanical observation is as extraordinary as it is wide-ranging. Rose campion, Syrian oregano, meadow saxifrage, male peony, and common yarrow are among seventy identifiable flowers and botanicals. A contemporary artist, Lies Caeyeres, has used microscopic details of the seeds of these five plants for a striking artwork, Als Ich Can, currently in another chapel in the cathedral.

Many painters littered the skies at Calvary with cirrus clouds, but Van Eyck adds stratus, altocumulus, cirrocumulus, and cirrus uncinus, or so I am told.

More significantly, above the milites Christi in the Ghent altarpiece is a moon seen in the first quarter. Leonardo is always credited with the first drawing of the lunar surface in the pre-telescopic age, in a drawing that is in the Milan Codex Atlanticus and dates to 1513/14. Here, Van Eyck includes nine of the seas that he can have seen with his naked eye only one afternoon or evening more than a century earlier. The Mare Serinitatis, Tranquilltatis, Crisium, Fecunditatis, Nectaris, Vaporum, Nubium, Frigoris, and part of Mare Imbrium can all be made out.

An optical revolution was under way. We gather this, too, from the famous painting The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1434), which is at the core of another exhibition, at the Groeningemuseum in Van Eyck’s native Bruges until 12 July.

Joris van der Paele was the son of a priest and of a noblewoman. He carved out his own career at the Curia in Rome at the time when popes and anti-popes contested the powers of Europe. He was a canon of the Collegiate Church of St Donatian in Bruges, where Van Eyck was buried in 1441. He was involved in the negotiations surrounding the Hundred Years’ War, he made his money in Rome, and he wore glasses. Indeed, the way in which he holds his spectacles attracts the Christ Child’s undivided attention. Even the gesture with which St George presents his namesake before the throne of grace draws notice to them.

Muzeul National Brukenthal, SibiuJan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon, c.1428-30, on loan from the Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu, in Romania

The extensive catalogue (500 pages, weighing in at 3kg) is a treasury quite as rich and varied as the exhibition, which includes illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and archival papers, alongside the drawings and more than half of Van Eyck’s known paintings.

Although London has not loaned either the Arnolfini portrait nor the 1433 self-portrait of the artist in a red turban, it has cleaned its other portrait, Léal Souvenir, which stands out alongside the other portraits here: the warts-and-all painting of Baudouin de Lannoy (Berlin), who wears the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece and a tunic decorated with pomegranates which looks like flock wallpaper; and the seductive Man in a Blue Chaperon (Sibiu, Romania), who holds out what is probably his engagement ring.

In the aftermath of the First World War, Muirhead Guide-Books Limited in association with Hachette published the first Blue Guide to Belgium and the Western Front (1920), cashing in on the railway classes who travelled to walk the devastated fields of Flanders and to honour the Fallen.

Enthusiastic visitors to the various exhibitions planned for “OMG! Van Eyck Was Here” might persuade the publishers of the Blue Guides to issue a centenary facsimile of that first guidebook as just one more good reason to visit Flanders.


“Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution” is at MSK (Museum vor Schoone Kunsten) Gent, Fernand Scribedreef 1, Ghent, Belgium, until 30 April. Phone 00 32 9 210 10 32. hvaneyck2020.be

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