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Ghent Altarpiece study is a delicate art

The 15th century Jan Van Eyck masterpiece is amid an intense Getty Foundation-sponsored analysis that underlines the urgency of keeping notable panel paintings in top form.

July 11, 2010|By Scarlet Cheng, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Ghent, Belgium — —

When Anne van Grevenstein-Kruse was a child, her family made a pilgrimage from Antwerp to Ghent to see "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," the celebrated 15th century altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

"It was still in its original chapel," she recalls, "and I remember very well the old man who was paid to close the altarpiece and open it again."

Made up of 18 painted panels, the work, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is widely considered a treasure of early Northern Renaissance art and an object of veneration in Art History 101. It also boasts a legacy so checkered that it could be lifted from a Dan Brown novel. It has been, at various times, sold off in parts and carried off as war booty.

After half a millennium, the altarpiece is miraculously intact, with only one smaller panel, depicting the "just judges" and stolen in 1934, replaced by a replica in 1945. It is also, remarkably, still in the church for which it was made: Saint Bavo Cathedral, formerly Saint John.

Anne van Grevenstein, an art conservator who teaches at the University of Amsterdam, along with Ronald Spronk, an art historian from Queen's University in Ontario, Canada,head a team of art experts and trainees conducting a detailed technical analysis of the work, a project funded by a $230,000 grant from the Panel Paintings Initiative of the Getty Foundation.

In a side chapel of the church, most of the panels sit inside a protective glass enclosure. Several have been taken down for study, and another, the one of the just judges depicting 10 resplendently cloaked men on horseback, has been sent to Brussels to fix its flaking paint.

Van Grevenstein admits it's ironic that this newest component of the work is falling apart the fastest.

When the team moved in with its equipment in April, the room had to be barricaded, with the only access through heavily reinforced security doors. Now the average visitor can view the altarpiece — and the work being done on it — only through a window. "As you see," says Van Grevenstein, "we're in a bomb-safe bunker."

The Ghent Altarpiece is a complex work presenting the story of the Christian faith, especially that of redemption, told both on the interior with its two tiers (or in art parlance, registers) of panels, and on the exterior, which is seen when the altarpiece is closed. The main story is inside, with the idea of original sin introduced with Adam and Eve on the upper side panels and worship and salvation in the lower register, where groupings of prophets, apostles, martyrs and others gather reverently around the Sacred Lamb, symbol of Christ the Redeemer.

"They're from the Old Testament and the New Testament," says Hugo van der Velden, a Harvard University professor writing a book on the altarpiece. "It's a catalog to all the saints to which people prayed, and all of them venerate the lamb of the Apocalypse."

Jan Van Eyck introduced a new naturalism in the depiction of figures, their clothing and accessories as well as in the fauna and foliage in the background of the lower register. The trees, for example, are so detailed as to be botanically distinguishable — cypresses, olives, pomegranate and orange.

In his time, Jan van Eyck was arguably the most famous artist in Europe, says Van Der Velden. "The scale and the ambition of the painting make it perhaps the most important painting of the early Netherlandish art."

When open, the altarpiece measures 13 feet high by 17 feet wide. It was commissioned by Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut, a wealthy couple who also paid for the construction of a chapel. (They are depicted as piously kneeling figures on the outside panels.) Modern-day visitors see a replica of the altarpiece in that space, while the original altarpiece has been placed in another more secure one.

Even in the Van Eycks' time the fame of the Ghent altarpiece spread through Europe — and it became deeply coveted. In 1794, French soldiers made off with the central panels. They were returned after Napoleon fell from power in 1815, only to have the wing panels pawned by the Diocese of Ghent. These were eventually purchased by the King of Prussia, and for decades they were proudly shown at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. When Germany lost World War I, it was forced to return the panels in the Treaty of Versailles.

The loss was not forgotten. During World War II, Hitler had the altarpiece seized from its temporary storage. The panels sat out the war first in a Bavarian castle, then, when threatened with bombing raids, in a salt mine. At war's end, American troops recovered the altarpiece — and a hoard of other looted art destined for Hitler's dream museum — and, in a royal ceremony, returned it to Belgium.

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