The Ghent Altarpiece in Person
Some people travel to new countries to expand the percentage of the world they’ve seen. Some less adventurous but equally ambitious travelers try to visit all 50 US States, all the Major League baseball parks or some other coherent list of places. Personally, I travel to see art. Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece was high on my “To Do List”. Sadly, efforts to protect and preserve the work really interfered with my enjoyment of the painting, making this art pilgrimage a little disappointing.
After reading Noah Cherney’s book last Fall, the Ghent Altarpiece had been nudging me for a visit. Arguably one of the greatest pieces of Western Art and stolen on several occasions, this mystic and complex piece seemed to deserve a closer look in person (even if incredible high resolution photographs were available online). So in planning my March trip to Amsterdam and Normandy, France, I made sure we stopped in Ghent, Belgium. We were there for maybe 3 hours which was enough time to park, run around the old town, walk through St. Bavo Cathedral and spend some time with Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece. And that’s all we did in Ghent!
Housed in a small chapel to the left of the entrance of St. Bavo Cathedral, the Ghent Altarpiece is sealed in a huge glass case which makes it very difficult to view. Ideally one would like to observe this finely detailed Van Eyck at nose-length, not through greasy, fingerprint covered glass. The panels were also very poorly lit such that the upper register was in noticeable shadows. My three favorite figures, clothed in radiant jewels, were hard to see in the upper central panels. At that point, I was really thankful I could get so close to Van Eyck’s other masterpiece in Bruges.
The chapel was also incredibly crowded. Tour group after tour group pressed in, pushed their way in a slow lap around the case and left in a few minutes. Guides aren’t allowed to talk in the chapel so they prep their groups in St. Bavo and then rush them through. Luckily the church stops letting visitors in 30min before the Chapel closes so the throng did eventually clear out. An important point for visitors, the Altarpiece has separate hours and closes before the Cathedral does. I noticed some forlorn travelers outside who apparently didn’t know this and weren’t allowed to enter.
I knew before we arrived that several of the panels would not be on display as the whole work was undergoing cleaning piece by piece. Upon entering I saw that the Adam and Eve panels were grayed reproductions indicating that these were removed. I can manage that I thought, but then I was disappointed to see that all of the front panels had been removed – the Annunciation, the donors, and the lovely trompe l’oeil stone saints. Since the altarpiece spent the majority of its existence in the closed format, these panels are critical to understand the historical experience of the piece. I was also looking forward to seeing the stone-like saints which I’ve read have a very subtle limestone coloration and are not simply grisaille paintings – and definitely not black and white.
A pair of repainted, modest Adam and Eve panels are hung much closer to eye level outside the chapel in St. Bavo itself. The foreshortening, especially on Adam, is really striking when you have the image in front of you. I suppose you can see this in reproductions of the image but it is very dramatic at full size.
There was some upside to being in St. Bavo at least. There is a reproduction of the Altarpiece in the side chapel it originally occupied. It was hilarious how huge and unsuited for this space the altarpiece is. You can just barely enter the chapel with the wings opened. The windows are to the upper right of the piece so it was cool to see the shadows falling in line with the natural light source. There are also a couple Ghent Altarpiece liturgical items in the Cathedral treasury which were fun to find.
Noah Cherney posits that the missing “Righteous Judges” panel may have been or may still be hidden in St. Bavo’s. I certainly thought about this as I walked through the Cathedral contemplating which stone slab or chapel could have or may still be concealing the lost image.
In the end, I’m glad I stopped in Ghent to see Jan van Eyck’s Altarpiece. I still experienced that moment of awe when I first walked in and saw the entire open piece before me. I’m thankful for that. With the upper figure panels darkened, I spent a lot of time looking at the angel panels which I’d never given much attention to but are really beautiful as well.
I love seeing art in situ but given the history of this piece, the extensive glass case may actually be warranted. Much like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the fame and crowds that the Ghent Altarpiece attracts were ultimately a huge and unfortunate distraction. Then again, I’d be willing to give it another chance – provided all the panels are on display and its a slow day for visitors.