The Mystical Lamb:
the most beautiful wonder of Ghent
Ghent is known worldwide for many reasons, but if one stands out from all of them, it is the polyptych that is preserved in the Cathedral of Ghent: the Mystic Lamb. Artwork painted by the Van Eyck brothers, which for many travelers is the main reason to visit Ghent. If you want to know Ghent and its imposing historical buildings, as well as artistic ones, sign up for our Free Tour Ghent.
A little history about this wonder. The Mystical Lamb.
The painting was commissioned by a wealthy merchant of the city, Jodocus Vidj, and his wife, Elisabeth Borluut. It was commissioned from Hubert Van Eyck, the eldest of the two brothers, and it was he who began painting the artwork. After Hubert’s death, the painting was completed by the younger brother, Jan, and his workshop in 1432. At which time it was first seen completed in the marriage chapel of the current Cathedral of St. Bavo, at that time the church of St. John.
The work is composed of 24 altarpieces, with biblical representations, only two of them are not religious representations, but are the portraits of the Vijd marriage. Today the work is completely open, but in the Middle Ages and modern era it looked closed and the back panels were what the public saw. Only when it was placed on the altar of the Cathedral or at marked festivals, the painting looked completely open and showed all its beauty.
Composition of the polyptych
As mentioned the polyptych is composed of 24 altarpieces.
We’ll start by describing the back of the frame, what you see when the box is closed. At the top we find four characters, the two women are two prophets, two sibyls, the sibyl of Cumae and the sibyl of Eritrea. Its importance is that in the Middle Ages it was believed that both had announced the arrival of Jesus Christ. On the sides of them are two prophets, Zacarias and Mictas, and both four look at the scene unfolding in the lower altarpieces: the Annunciation. There we find the representation of the Virgin Mary on the left and the Archangel St. Michael on the right. At the ends of the lower panels at the back we see the couple who commissioned the work, Vrij, who are praying on their knees to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.
At the front of the polyptych, which was only shown on special occasions, the main altarpiece is the one that gives the painting its name. There we are shown the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, representing the Son of God and his Eucharist. The composition is based on a passage from the Apocalypse of St. John. The scene takes place in the countryside on the outskirts of Ghent and surrounding it there are four groups worshipping the lamb; a group of Jews, the twelve apostles and representatives of the Church, male martyrs and female martyrs.
We can see at the top of the front composition three images, which are representing the Déesis, Christ in the center with the virgin on his right and John the Baptist on his left. On the sides are singing angels and musicians announcing the New Good. At both ends we have a representation of Adam and Eve. Finally, in the four lower panels around the main one we find the following scenes: the righteous Judges, the knights of Christ, the hermits and the pilgrims; all of them approaching the worship of the Lamb.
The painting has suffered a lot during its more than 500 years of history and it seems a miracle that it has reached us complete to this day. Complete? Same complete not at all. These facts are the most significant:
- In the sixteenth century, during the iconoclastic fury that the region suffered, the painting had to be hidden and the bell tower of the Cathedral was chosen for this purpose. There he was raised and hidden so that he would not be destroyed in that endless fury.
- In 1789 Napoleon and his family decided to take the painting to Paris. After the latter’s defeat at Waterloo, the painting returned to Ghent, but misfortunes would continue to occur.
- In 1816, only a year after returning to the Cathedral, the abbot was in need of money and sold the six exterior panels to an English merchante. Who in turn would sell it to Frederick III, King of Prussia. There it would be exhibited in Vienna for decades until, after the end of the First World War, within the Peace Treaty of Versailles, Belgium would recover its greatest work of art.
- During The Second World War it was also a coveted piece for the Nazis who took it from the Cathedral and moved it to those salt mines in Austria. Overflowing with works of art stolen throughout Europe, and which at the end of the war, lost, tried unsuccessfully to exploit for the fate of universal art. After that he would return home, at last, and Ghent received his jewel with a multidudinary reception, as if it were the highest personality.
- It seems incredible that after so many visicitudes the picture is complete. Well, it is not, since on April 11, 1934 Ghent rose with an unpleasant surprise: two of the panels had disappeared; that of the righteous Judges and that of St. John the Baptist. The latter was returned, but of the latter nothing is known since then, and the one we see now is a copy.
Adam and Eve, dressed or naked?
The Van Eyck brothers painted Adam and Eve completely naked, only covered piously with vine leaves, but in the Cathedral we can see reproductions in which they are fully clothed. Why is that?
The images, in our current eyes, are quite naïve, but when Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg visited the Cathedral in the late eighteenth century, he was greatly offended by these nudes and gave the order that they be removed from the composition and kept in a warehouse. When in the nineteenth century they were shown again, the decision was made that they would be made, but dressed. So two copies of Adam and Eve were painted fully clothed so as not to shock the population of the time.
Something quite striking, since these two nudes are considered the first monumental nudes in history. It is believed that Van Eyck used real models, as they show one of the great characteristics of Flemish painting: naturism. And yet Ghent and everyone who visited it from all over Europe in his time was not shocked and showed himself in his glory.
Restoration and new space
In 2012 it was decided to undertake a massive restoration of the entire polyptych, since the painting, as it was being seen, was not the one that the Van Eyck brothers had bequeathed to us, due to the passage of time and the different layers that had been added to it. Thus, restorers of the Ghent Art Museum carried out this enormous work that ended in 2020.
It was planned that this year the painting would be shown again in its most original version and for this the Cathedral had dedicated itself to undertake works in the religious building to find a new location more in line with its importance. Due to the global health situation, it was postponed for a year, and in 2021 the new space was inaugurated.
Now, in the Romanesque crypt of the Cathedral, we can enjoy a virtual reality tour. In which we are explained how the Cathedral was built and its reforms, how the picture was painted, its most important characteristics. And its influence on the history of the Plastic Arts, and many curiosities about the painting, difficult to see at first sight. After that, you can enjoy the vision of the polyptych, which is exposed in a chapel behind the altar. Here you can find useful information to organize your visit and buy your tickets: https://www.sintbaafskathedraal.be/en/buy-tickets/
If you want to discover more secrets of Ghent, you can sign up for our Hidden Ghent Free Tour.