The Adoration of the Lamb. Restored. Detail of the altarpiece in Ghent. © KIK-IRPA

Portrait of a Victorious Lamb

The Mystic Lamb is at the centre of the famous Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. Recently restored, it challenges us to a moral combat

Saying with a loud voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying: Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
Revelation 5:12-13

The Ghent Altarpiece is a unique piece of art. Admired, coveted, forged, stolen and restored, it keeps moving visitors in the St. Bevo Cathedral in Ghent. Since 2012, the altarpiece, which was completed in 1432 by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck has undergone intensive restoration to the sum of more then €2,2 mill .

Recently, some of the restorative work carried out on the central figure, the mystical lamb, has given cause to an international uproar.

It appears the Lamb was painted over by some artists in the mid 16thcentury, altering its anthropomorphic character. With its white and fluffy woollen coat, a new pair of close-set eyes, top full pink lips and flared nostrils, the intensity of the visionary lamb seems to have frightened or at least provoked onlookers in the 16thcentury. Much in the same way as curators in the Vatican around the same time became scandalised by the nudity of Christ in the Sistine Chapel, and provided “pants” to cover up the provocation of Michelangelo, restorers in Ghent turned the evocative lamb into an ordinary sheep.

To be sure: the restored face of the lamb differs markedly from the hyper-realism, we tend to register in the paintings of van Eyck. Minute details of objects, artefacts, utensils, and wrinkles abound, turning us confident as to the faithful rendition, the artist is aiming for. A sheep – as any sheep dog knows – runs when the dog is behind, slowing down when the dog runs up beside. Finally, the flock of sheep stops totally, when the dog with its teeth confront the animal head-on.

The mysterious lamb is not such a meek sheep. Rather, it challenges us haughtily and in a confrontational manner to take part in the absolute adoration of its sacrificial atonement of our sins.

Collage of the Lamb from the van Eyck Altarpiece in Ghent - three versions: ca 1550, ca. 1432, ca. 2020
Collage of the Lamb from the van Eyck Altarpiece in Ghent – three versions: ca 1550, ca. 1432, instagram ca. 2020. The original, human-like face of the lamb (in the middle) in the Ghent Altarpiece was disguised by a 16th-century overpainting that “neutralized” its expression (left). Already, instagrammers have re-touched the painting. St Bavo’s Cathedral, © Lukasweb. Photo: KIK-IRPA. Restorers: © KIK-IRPA

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