Flem­ish ‘Mys­tic Lamb’ mas­ter­piece re­stored af­ter chaotic past

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Apainstak­ing restora­tion of a 15th-cen­tury Flem­ish mas­ter­piece is re­veal­ing the lon­glost de­tail and splen­dor that helped make the al­tar­piece one of the world’s most stolen art­works.”The Ado­ra­tion of the Mys­tic Lamb” by the Van Eyck broth­ers was un­veiled 600 years ago at Saint Bavo’s Cathe­dral in Ghent, but since then its full glory has dimmed, af­ter be­ing split into pieces, seized by Napoleon, then the Nazis, and nabbed by thieves. “You could say it is like the re­dis­cov­ery of Michelan­gelo’s Sis­tine Chapel af­ter its restora­tion,” Marie Postec of Bel­gium’s Royal In­sti­tute for Cul­tural Her­itage told AFP.

“The orig­i­nal was hid­den by lay­ers of dirt and al­ter­ations, the colours had com­pletely faded. To­day, the same thing is hap­pen­ing here, and we have the chance to wit­ness its re­birth,” Postec said. The gi­ant al­tar­piece, which mea­sures 4.4 me­ters by 3.4 me­ters (15 feet by 10 feet), is at­trib­uted to Hubert Van Eyck and his bet­ter-known brother Jan, and was com­pleted in 1432 when Ghent in mod­ern-day north­ern Bel­gium was the wealthy pow­er­house of the Euro­pean wool cloth trade. The “Mys­tic Lamb” de­picted on the lower cen­tral in­ter­nal panel rep­re­sents Je­sus, and also refers to the em­blem of the wool mer­chants guild which played a hugely im­por­tant role in the city.

Nazis, Napoleon and a salt mine

Re­turn­ing a re­stored “Mys­tic Lamb” to St Bavo’s Cathe­dral is nearly the end of the story but there is­lit­er­ally-one piece still miss­ing. In 1934, thieves stole two of the work’s 12 pan­els. One was re­cov­ered but the other, that of “The Just Judges”, re­mains unac­counted for to this day. That capped an in­cred­i­ble his­tory of up­heaval for the art­work that be­gan in the Re­for­ma­tion, when it was hauled up the cathe­dral tower to pro­tect it from at­tack­ing Protes­tants.

Two cen­turies later, pan­els that had been seized by the French were re­turned to the church by the Duke of Wellington af­ter his vic­tory at Water­loo against Napoleon. Then in World War II, the al­tar­piece was sent to the Vat­i­can for pro­tec­tion but again ended up in France and was seized by the Nazis who hid the pan­els in an Aus­trian salt mine. The US army even­tu­ally saved them.

The com­plex work in­cludes hinged pan­els that can be opened and closed to of­fer wor­ship­pers two very dif­fer­ent views. At the heart, or in­te­rior, of the work, there are three vi­brant scenes, each one made up of four painted pan­els. The two outer scenes can be closed, meet­ing in the mid­dle to cover up the cen­tral scene. On the re­verse, or ex­te­rior, these pan­els are painted with more somber im­agery. Be­gun in 2012, restora­tion work has so far been com­pleted on the ex­te­rior pan­els, which wor­ship­pers saw most of­ten as the al­tar­piece would have been kept closed, ex­cept for ma­jor holy days and fes­ti­vals.

In rel­a­tively muted tones-com­pared with the splen­dor and rich­ness of the in­te­rior-they show the An­nun­ci­a­tion, John the Bap­tist, the pa­tron saint of Ghent-and the wealthy mer­chant and church war­den Joos Vidjt and his wife Lys­bette who do­nated the work to the cathe­dral. But even these ex­ter­nal pan­els show new­found life af­ter the re­moval of a yel­low­ish sheen which had drained the colours of their vi­brancy. The paint­ing is com­plex, densely de­tailed and full of sym­bols re­lat­ing to pas­sages in the Bi­ble and daily life at a time when Ghent was ruled by the Dukes of Bur­gundy, whose court was among the most flam­boy­ant and re­fined in late me­dieval Europe.

Restor­ing space, light, color

Dur­ing the work, the team of 10 re­stor­ers have had to very del­i­cately chip away, cen­time­ter by cen­time­ter, at lay­ers of dis­col­ored var­nish and the “re­paint­ing” of early preser­va­tion ef­forts, some of which may date back to the 1500s. “Nowa­days, we would not cover over the orig­i­nal work but then, re­stor­ers would really have been painters them­selves who would have re­painted the whole thing, rather than just minutely re­touch it bit by bit,” Postec said. “Be­fore, there was just a uni­form black back­ground but we have found space, light,” she said.

“We have also found folds (in the clothes) from the 15th cen­tury which were sim­ply painted over and (this sort of de­tail) really changes how you see the pic­ture.” Restora­tion work will now be­gin on the in­ter­nal pan­els at the nearby Ghent Fine Arts Mu­seum with the aim of fin­ish­ing by 2020, when there will be a celebratory year ded­i­cated to Van Eyck paint­ings. Un­til then, re­pro­duc­tions will have to suf­fice for the thou­sands of vis­i­tors who come to Ghent to see a paint­ing many con­sider sec­ond only to Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in artis­tic achieve­ment and cul­tural im­por­tance.

— AFP photos

Of­fi­cials un­veil the re­stored ex­te­rior pan­els of ‘The Ado­ra­tion of the Mys­tic Lamb’, an al­tar piece painted by the Van Eyck broth­ers in 1432, at Saint Bavo Cathe­dral in Ghent.

Vis­i­tors look at the newly un­veiled re­stored ex­te­rior pan­els of ‘The Ado­ra­tion of the Mys­tic Lamb’, an al­tar piece painted by the Van Eyck broth­ers in 1432, at Saint Bavo Cathe­dral in Ghent.

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