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The Ghent Altarpiece, as never before

Op-Ed

The altarpiece was the first prominent oil painting and a precursor of realism. New photos available online make seeing it a whole new experience.

March 11, 2012|By Noah Charney
  • The Ghent Altarpiece, painted in the 15th century by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert, is usually encased in a glass-and-steel, humidity-controlled box in a chapel at Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.
The Ghent Altarpiece, painted in the 15th century by Jan Van Eyck and his… (Cathedrale de Saint Bavon…)

It's none too easy to get a close-up view of one of history's greatest paintings. The Ghent Altarpiece, painted in the 15th century by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert, is usually encased in a glass-and-steel, humidity-controlled box in a chapel at St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Most pilgrims can get within only about three feet of the 12-paneled masterpiece.

Since 2008, conservators working for the Flemish government, the Getty Foundation and a score of other sponsors have been cleaning and analyzing the artwork. As part of the process, it has been digitally photographed centimeter by centimeter in natural and infrared light, and the photos, 100 billion pixels of them, are now available online. Suddenly, seeing "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" (the work's formal name) is a whole new experience.

The altarpiece was the first prominent oil painting and a precursor of realism. It's Jan van Eyck who is believed to have done most of the work on the 20 images (the altarpiece's two hinged wings have paintings on both sides). He demonstrated the way that pigments mixed with linseed and nut oils could capture microscopic detail and a level of subtlety that the earlier medium of choice, egg-based tempera, simply could not.

From the moment the altarpiece was finished, in 1432, it became a point of pilgrimage for believers, artists and intellectuals throughout Europe. The Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina was said to have studied it in the cathedral until he had learned all he could. He took the oil painting technique home to Italy, and the rest is Renaissance history.

In addition to being, arguably, the most influential painting ever made, the altarpiece has the dubious distinction of being the most frequently stolen artwork in history, the object of 13 crimes in its almost 600-year life span. This is particularly remarkable considering that the entire hinged assembly measures 14.5 feet by 11.5 feet and weighs more than a ton. One painting, the lower left panel of the open altarpiece, was pilfered in 1934 and never recovered; a copy stands in its place.

If the motive behind all this skulduggery was love of the painting, the conservation project's website ought to be a good antidote to further crime. It allows Van Eyck fans to "own" the altarpiece with a mouse click. Anyone can zoom in and out, in incredibly high definition, on any aspect of any part of the altarpiece. Suddenly its astonishing detail (the reflection of water in a horse's eye, botanically identifiable plants) is crystal clear.

When I was researching a book about the altarpiece, there were details hidden in the painting that I was unable to see until the cathedral of St. Bavo kindly presented me with blown-up photographs of the panels. But even those images, gone over with a magnifying glass, don't compare with seeing the painting as the Getty now presents it for free.

Consider the central figure in the open altarpiece: a bearded man wearing luxuriant red and gold robes, seated on a heavenly throne. Art history books are divided as to whether this figure represents God the father or Christ enthroned in heaven. In the first edition of my book, I argued for the former. Christ is normally shown barefoot, displaying the stigmata. This figure has neither characteristic. Christ also appears elsewhere in the altarpiece: In the lower central panel, he is shown in symbolic form, as the "mystic lamb," on an altar, bleeding into a chalice, the Holy Grail.

But the new images of the altarpiece have changed my mind. Zooming in on the panel, I saw that the gilded backdrop to the throne was painted with grapes (a symbol of Christ's blood) and pelicans (another Christological symbol because they were thought to pierce themselves in order to feed their young with their own blood). And just in case I was still in doubt, the words "Iesus Christus" are painted onto the backdrop. Van Eyck surely meant the enthroned figure to be ambiguous, with elements of God and Christ, but it is Christ, undeniably. You couldn't see the evidence in person, though, not by examining the altarpiece on display in Ghent or even scrutinizing images reproduced in books or provided by the cathedral staff. These key elements are too small to find without some serious zooming.

But this raises the question: If you visit the website, can you check off a trip to Ghent and St. Bavo on your bucket list? Not at all. There is no substitute for seeing the real thing, even behind glass and at arm's length. As the great theoretician Walter Benjamin said, art has an almost mystical aura about it that cannot be defined. I can testify to it: In the end, the Van Eyck masterpiece eludes description, duplication and all of science's tricks. It should be experienced.

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