Among the many enduring mysteries surrounding The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, which is both the most frequently stolen painting in history and arguably the single most influential painting of all time, is an odd trivia question with an intriguing answer: Why does the Mystic Lamb have four ears?
In 1822, a fire broke out inside Saint Bavo Cathedral, where the famous altarpiece is housed. The fire damaged and destroyed many artworks in the cathedral’s collection. Only through the rapid intervention of the cathedral staff and the local fire fighters were the panels that remained in the cathedral preserved from harm. Not all of the twelve large oak panels that comprise the altarpiece were still in the cathedral at the time of the fire. The wing panels had been deaccessioned by the Church Fabric committee in 1816 and had been sold by Vicar Le Surre to an unscrupulous Brussels art dealer, L. J. Nieuwenhuys. So when the fire struck in 1822, only the central panels of the altarpiece, featuring the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” an angelic choir, and Mary, Christ, and John the Baptist, remained on display.
There was considerable damage to the central panels from both smoke and ash, which had fallen on the altarpiece. The ash had caused a crack to form across the middle of the central panel, called “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” which shows a large crowd of saints, prophets, popes, and others in Heaven making their way to pay homage to Christ, in the allegorical form of a lamb standing upon an altar and bleeding into a chalice, the Holy Grail.
This panel had to be partially repainted after the crack in the wood was repaired. The crack may still be seen today in the central panel. The repainted section included the Lamb of God itself. If you look closely at the head of the Lamb of God, you can see, quite clearly, that it has four ears.
The two ears that look more ghostly are pentimenti, the original ears painted by van Eyck which were then painted over when the entire lamb was repainted and moved slightly from its original position. The conservator who repainted the lamb placed the ears in the appropriate location on the lamb’s head and covered over van Eyck’s painted ears. But after more than 150 years, the covering layer has faded, resulting in van Eyck’s ears “ghosting” through.
Noah Charney’s international best-selling book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, tells the complete story of van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He is preparing a second edition now with newly-discovered information, including the possible location of the stolen Judges panel. For more on the story, click here.
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