Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Misadventures of the Mystic Lamb

Jan and Hubert van Eyck
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
The Ghent Altarpiece 
oil on panels
Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent


In the upper register of the open polyptych, which is very heterogeneous in composition, we find from left to right: Adam, the Singing Angels, The Virgin Enthroned, Christ Enthroned, St John the Baptist Enthroned, the Musician Angels, and Eve. In the more homogeneous lower register we find the panels of heavenly and earthly groups coming to adore the Lamb of God, namely: the Just Judges (modern copy replacing the missing original), the Knights of Christ, the Adoration of the Lamb, the Holy Hermits, the Holy Pilgrims. The central panels which are not painted on the back, depict the Virgin Enthroned, Christ Enthroned, St John the Baptist Enthroned, and the Adoration. All the other panels, which form the mobile wings of the altarpiece, are painted on the reverse.

Material History  

1432:  completion of the work.

Prior to 1550:  inept cleaning interventions, which may have led to considerable damage of large portions of the polyptych.

1550:  restoration by L. Blondeel and J. van Scorel.

1566-1589:  during the time of religious wars the work is hidden for safety in Ghent, both inside the cathedral and then elsewhere.

1612:  treatment by Novelliers.

1663:  treatment by A. van den Heuvel.

1731:  possible treatment by A. Fontain.

1794-1815: the four central panels are moved to Paris, where they are probably treated between 1795 and 1799.

1816:  all the wings with the exception of Adam and Eve (six panels) are sold to L.J. Nieuwenhuys, who then sells them to E. Solly in 1817. In 1821 they are acquired by the King of Prussia, who then passes them on to the Berlin Museum.

1818-1819:  treatment by Bourdeau of the panels remaing in Ghent.

1822:  fire in the cathedral; significant damage to the central panels, particularly the Adoration.

1825:  treatment by J. Lorent of the panel showing the Virgin.

1828:  treatment by Lorent of the three other central panels.

1858:  treatment by R. Donselaer of the Adam and Eve panels and of their reverse sides.

1859:  treatment by R. Donselaer off the central panels.

1861:  the Adam and Eve panels are sold to the Belgian State, which then transfers them to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

1869:  varnishing by Donselaer of the panels remaining in Ghent.

1894:  the six wing panels at the Berlin Museum are sawn through; the twelve panels thus obtained are cradled and possibly restored.

1914-1918:  the four central panels are hidden for safety during the German Occupation.

1920:  The Belgian government recovers the six wings from Berlin; it entrusts all the panels, including Adam and Eve, to the cathedral of St. Bavon, where van Eyck's work is once again reinstalled in its entirety.

1934:  the panel showing the Just Judges is stolen.

1937:  treatment by J. van der Veken of the Adam and Eve panels.

1940-1945:  the work is moved to Pau (France), then to various locations in Germany (1942) on orders of the Reich; it is returned to Ghent in 1945.

1950-51:  conservation treatment at the Laboratoire Central des musées de Belgique; restorer A. Philippot.

Paul Coremans composed this sad saga of human unworthiness in 1954. David Bomford and Mark Leonard reprinted it in their anthology, Issues in the Conservation of Paintings (Getty, 2004).

The altarpiece is currently undergoing another major conservation effort, elaborately documented online by the Getty Foundation. This project has already lasted several years, with expected completion in 2017.