Ghent altarpiece. Source: Closer to Van Eyck

Ghent Altarpiece

In 1432, Jan and Hubert Van Eyck completed the famous altarpiece in Ghent, Recently restored, a beautiful website invites us to get “Get Closer to Jan van Eyck on the internet”

Ghent Alatarpiece. Detail: Panel with pilgrims. Source: Wikipedia
Ghent Alatarpiece. Detail: Panel with pilgrims. Source: Wikipedia

What a beautiful opportunity. Looking at a piece of art like the Ghent Altarpiece can be a real frustration. Every detail seems precious and only people with a photographic memory are actually able to remember the incredible bits and pieces. Sometime it is even impossible to enjoy the art itself, because it is protected by bulletproof glass or otherwise cordoned off.

Around the world, museum and church curators are slowly catching up and producing exhibitions on the Internet. One of the latest instalments is the reproduction of the Ghent Altarpiece by the brethren van Eyck, the result of an in-depth investigation, which lasted from April 2010 until June 2012. The exploration has resulted in a plan for a major restoration, which scheduled to begin in the autumn 2012. But it has also offered the foundation for a luxurious website on this major piece of world art.

Suddenly it is possible to see in detail the hairy legs of Adam, the tiny carved prophets on the musical lectionary, the strained faces of the angels trying (probably) to sing polyphonic music, the pelican in the brocade behind the enthroned deity busy “vulning” herself to feed her chicks or the stern faces of the donators, Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut. Joost Vijd was a typical late medieval nobleman turned medieval businessman. Although he lived in Ghent, he owned a manor in Walle, land in Waasmunster as well as fisheries. In Pamael, which he was lord of, he owned a number of houses and tenements. Finally he owned ships and had extensive income from shipping and trading.

Vijd was active in the city’s administration, functioned as churchwarden, and even served as first alderman. The altarpiece was commisioned for a chapel, which restoration the couple financed in the parish church of St. John, now St. Bavo cathedral. It was dedicated the same day as Vijd acted as godfather at the christening of Joos, a son of the Duke Philip the Good and his wife Isabella of Portugal. With the donation Joost Vijd secured a daily mass for himself, his wife and his parents. The couple died childless.

The Ghent Altarpiece by van Hubert and Jan van Eyck was completed in 1432. It is a huge polyptych measuring 3,40 x4,40 metres and is unparalleled. It is the largest surviving fifteenth-century altarpiece in Northern Europe with a highly complex iconography and composition. That it survives is in itself a miracle. It is simply the most frequently stolen piece of art in European history. Since its completion in 1432 it has been dismembered, forged, smuggled, hidden, sold, censored, attacked, hunted, ransomed and rescued. Today, however, it has returned to the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent for which it was originally produced. Though not exhibited in its original location, plans are underway to let it finally rest in the Vijdt chapel in the perambulatory of the church. This is however yet to be decided.

One question which is also to be decided, is whether the left buttom panel depicting the just judges, which was stolen in 1934 and presumably never returned, actually is the original and not just a copy made by Jef Vanderveken during WW 2.


Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. Note: The Judges panel on the lower left is a modern copy (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)


 Closer to Ghent Altarpiece: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece


Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece. Essay by Dr. Sally Hickson.





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