Genius is a word thrown around all too loosely, but that is how the pioneering Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck is regarded by scholars. His majestic, mesmeric Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432, changed art forever. While he did not invent oil painting, his consummate mastery of the then-novel form was so awe-inspiring that it might have been ascribed to medieval alchemy. Even after six centuries, his paintings can be exhilarating, blending exquisite details and uncanny realism with vibrant colors and twinkling luster. And if there was any doubt about Van Eyck’s virtuosity, the extraordinary exhibition at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts that opened on February 1 should confirm his status as the true father of the Renaissance painting.
The museum show, ‘Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution’, is the largest ever display of his works, gathering 13 of his 23 known pictures. It is part of a mega celebration of Van Eyck by the city of Ghent, with a series of events to mark the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The 31 projects include exhibitions linking Van Eyck to contemporary artists and designers, musical interpretations, and inevitably for Belgium, a Van Eyck beer was made with bedstraw and yarrow, two herbs depicted in the Altarpiece.
Sometimes described as a Flemish Primitive or Early Netherlandish, Van Eyck was the first true Renaissance artist, pioneering a new form of painting. Using transparent layers of paint, bound by oil, he conjured up textures and surfaces, details and colors more realistically than anything ever seen before.
Little is known for certain about Van Eyck’s actual life. He was born around 1390, probably in the Flemish town of Maaseik. At that time, Flanders covered parts of Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France. It was a cockpit of power, commerce, culture and intrigue, with Game of Thrones-style plots amongst the kings, princes and dukes. Van Eyck worked for John III the Pitiless and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He travelled to Italy, the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Land and Portugal – the latter a mission to paint a portrait of a princess for the duke.
These travels may have informed the exotic nature found in Van Eyck's paintings. Botanists have identified 75 plant species in the Altarpiece, geologists note the strata in the rocks, and paleontologists spot fossils in the stones. Van Eyck also studied science, notably Arabic-Islamic principles of geometry and optics which helped him understand light, shadows, and reflections.
The museum exhibition is centered around the Altarpiece, a 15 x 10ft, two-ton structure with four central oak panels flanked by eight double-sided panels. It was conceived in 1426 by Jan’s older brother Hubert, although he died within a year. Ghent Mayor Mathias De Clercq says it has a totemic significance. “Van Eyck’s legacy is in the DNA of the city,” he says. “The Ghent Altarpiece is to our city what the Mona Lisa is to Paris.”
The exhibition includes five of the Altarpiece’s double-sided panels, shown outside the walls of St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, where it is normally housed. The restored panels, shown at eye level, include four that form an Annunciation scene, where the vivacious hues and sparkling reflections look almost freshly painted. Adam and Eve, from the outer panels, have realistic bodies with sagging, translucent skin and pubic hair —a clever trompe-l’œil suggests that Adam is stepping out of his frame.
The exhibition includes other van Eyck paintings, like Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon, loaned from a Romania’s Brukenthal National Museum, his 1436 portrait of Jan de Leeuw, a Bruges goldsmith, and his Annunciation from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. And they are shown alongside other art from the period like manuscripts, sculptures, tapestries, metalwork, and ceramics.
The museum exhibition is centered around the Altarpiece, a 15 x 10ft, two-ton structure with 12 hinged oak panels. The Altarpiece’s home is St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, but the exhibition includes 10 of its restored panels, showing at eye level. These panels depict scenes from both the Bible and daily life in 15th-century Flanders. The central panel shows Jesus Christ transformed into the Lamb of God, surrounded by martyrs and other saintly figures who he will save on Judgement Day. Blood from the lamb’s breast is flowing into a chalice. Above them is Christ Enthroned (or perhaps God the Father), with Mary and John the Baptist at each side.
The scale and drama in the Altarpiece made it one of the most stolen pieces artworks ever. In 1794, a French general snatched them for the Louvre in Paris—but they were returned by the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo. A priest sold some panels in 1816 to the King of Prussia. Others were taken by Germans in World War One, but the Treaty of Versailles explicitly ordered their return. In 1934, a panel was stolen and has never been recovered, its space is now occupied by a copy. The whole Altarpiece was taken by the Nazis in 1940: Adolf Hitler wanted it for his planned Führermuseum. It was eventually recovered from Austria’s Altaussee salt mine by the Monuments Men (a moment dramatized in the 2014 George Clooney movie).
But after almost six centuries, it was time for a clean and the multimillion-dollar restoration has been astonishing. The Museum of Fine Arts began the process in 2012, meticulously stripping layers of dust, grime, varnish, and overpainting to reveal aspects hidden from view for centuries. Removing the mustard-colored varnish restored the original effervescent colors. But the biggest surprise was with the overpainting, which covered up to 70% of the panels.
The earliest overpainting is thought to date from 1550 when a Ghent chronicle records that two painters “washed” and “kissed” the altarpiece, a phrase thought to mean cleaning and correcting. But this medieval Photoshop often meant they just painted sky over faded or flaked away cityscapes rather than to try to recreate them.
Restorers could remove the overpainting without damaging the original as an earlier layer of varnish “acted as a buffer between the two,” says Hélène Dubois, who heads the restoration project for Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. Working in public view behind a glass screen in a specially constructed studio, they used solvents and surgical scalpels to dissolve the layers or painstakingly chip them away.
Among the discoveries are that the original lamb has eerily intense humanoid eyes—which was perhaps why he was painted over. The two paintings of statues, originally thought to depict sandstone, revealed veins that proved it was marble. Birds, buttons, folds in the clothes, and lines on faces have all emerged. “We discovered buildings that no one has seen for at least 500 years,” says Dubois.
It means that Altarpiece, already stunning before this restoration, is now almost miraculous. The divine and human images are given an allure and intimacy, while the central panel is cinematographic in its scale and scope. “Van Eyck had a unique combination of the eye and hand, giving him the ability to paint exactly what he saw,” says Maximiliaan Martens, Art History Professor at Ghent University and co-curator of the exhibition. Now Van Eyck’s art can be seen just like he painted it.
Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, from 1 February until 30 April