Ghent Altarpiece in LA Times

The Secret History of Art has an Op-Ed article in today’s LA Times about The Ghent Altarpiece and the beautiful new Getty digital imaging project that allows it to be seen in miraculous detail.

The version of the article published in the LA Times is half the length of the original article, which is reproduced here in full.

Getty Conservation of The Ghent Altarpiece Solves Mysteries, Symbolic and Literal

Noah Charney

On 24 February, the Getty Foundation announced the launch of a new website that revolutionizes the way that scholars, and the general public, can access and explore what is arguably the single most influential painting ever made.

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as The Ghent Altarpiece, was the first major painting by the 15th century Flemish master, Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), who is widely regarded as having been the first great artist of the Renaissance (with apologies to Giotto down in Italy).  The Ghent Altarpiece, which Jan painted with his brother, Hubert van Eyck, is the first prominent oil painting in history—while it did not establish the medium (oil painting had been around for several centuries), it was the first oil painting to truly show the possibility of the medium, which allowed for microscopic detail and a level of subtlety that was all but impossible to achieve with the prior most popular medium, egg-based tempera paint.

The altarpiece, and its painter, achieved international renown.  From the moment it was finished, in 1432, it became a point of pilgrimage for artists and intellectuals throughout Europe.  The Sicilian painter, Antonello da Messina, was said to have learned the oil painting technique by studying The Ghent Altarpiece in the cathedral of Saint Bavo, in Ghent, Belgium.  Having learned all he could, Antonello then imported the technique to Italy.  From the 1430s through the 20th century, mixing pigments with linseed and nut oil became the preferred medium of painters.

In addition to being, arguably, the most important painting ever made, The Ghent Altarpiece also has the dubious distinction of being the most frequently stolen artwork in history, the object of thirteen crimes over its 600-year lifespan.  This is particularly remarkable considering that the entire altarpiece, which consists of twelve panels in a hinged framework, is 14.5 x 11.5 feet and weighs over a ton.

The Getty Foundation, in conjunction with the Flemish government, has been cleaning and analyzing the altarpiece over the past few years, and they plan to continue for several more.  As part of the process, the conservators have taken extremely high-quality digital photographs of all of the panels, front and back, including the use of x-radiography, infrared macrophotography, and infrared reflectography.  Such technologies allow scholars to see beneath the painting, to excavate under-layers that are invisible to the naked eye.  The use of these techniques is not new.  What is new is that the results of this process have been made available to the public, free of charge.

The conservation project’s website allows users to “zoom” in on any aspect of any part of the altarpiece.  It is difficult to over-state just how valuable the ultra high-quality images are for art historians, as well as a pleasure for casual viewers.  The Ghent Altarpiece will never have been seen in this level of detail by any but a small handful of scholars.  Through the necessities of conservation and security (no one wants to risk the altarpiece’s victimization in a fourteenth crime), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is displayed inside a large glass and steel, humidity-controlled box.  It is perfectly safe from theft, and the ravages of time are held at bay—one cannot get closer than about a meter or so away.  But because the altarpiece is so large, and yet contains such astonishing microscopic detail (the reflection of water in a horse’s eye, botanically-identifiable plants, a group scene with over one-hundred figures with portrait-like faces), it is very difficult to see all aspects of the work.  I spent years writing a book about the altarpiece, and yet there were details hidden in the painting that I was simply unable to see until the cathedral of Saint Bavo kindly presented me with blown-up photographs of the panels.  The images that appear in books and are available online were too small for a scholar, even armed with a magnifying glass, to notice certain key elements, elements that I am now reconsidering as I prepare a second edition of this book.

One example will suffice to demonstrate the advantages, indeed the necessity, of scholars having access to a level of detail that, in this case, cannot even be accessed when one visits the altarpiece in person.

When the hinged framework of the altarpiece is open (as it was traditionally for holidays), a large central figure is depicted: a bearded man wearing luxuriant robes, seated on a heavenly throne.  Art history books are divided as to whether this figure represents God, or Christ enthroned in Heaven.  Christ is normally shown barefoot, displaying the wounds of the stigmata.  This figure has neither characteristic.  Christ also appears elsewhere in the altarpiece—in the lower central panel, Christ is shown in symbolic form, as a sacrificial lamb on an altar, bleeding into a chalice, the Holy Grail.  In the first edition of my book, I argued that this central, enthroned figure was God the Father, since Christ was already present in the altarpiece, in the allegorical form of the “mystic lamb.”

After speaking with the leading Belgian expert on van Eyck, and examining blown-up photographs of the background behind the enthroned figure, I have changed my mind.  With a level of detail only available in these zoomed-in images, I saw that the gilded backdrop to the throne was painted with grapes (a symbol of Christ’s blood), and pelicans (thought to pierce themselves in order to feed their young with their own blood, analogous to Christ), both Christological symbols.  And just in case I was still in doubt, the words “Iesus Christus” were also painted on the backdrop.  Van Eyck had meant the enthroned figure to be ambiguous, with elements of God and Christ, but it was Christ, undeniably.  These details are perfectly clear on the new Getty website, but they could not be seen, either in person examining the altarpiece on display in Ghent, or scrutinizing images reproduced in books.

In addition to iconographic mysteries, the Getty analysis has also shed light on a criminal puzzle.

Officially, the altarpiece is 11/12ths complete.  Eleven of twelve panels are the van Eyck originals.  The twelfth panel that is present today, referred to as the Righteous Judges, is a copy of the original, which was stolen in 1934 and never recovered.  It was painted by the renowned conservator, and noted art forger, Jef van der Veken, and installed officially with the rest of the altarpiece shortly after the Second World War.

In the 1970s a conservator who had cleaned the altarpiece regularly suddenly did a double-take: over the course of one year, he thought that Judges panel had aged by several centuries, and that he was now looking at the original, not the van der Veken copy.  Other conservators concurred, but when tests were run, the bishopric announced that, alas, this was the modern copy, and the original was therefore still missing.  But the test results were never made public, fueling conspiracy theorists.  The question was: could van der Veken have been involved in the 1934 theft and, when ransom demands had failed, might he have painted over the stolen original, in order to surreptitiously re-insert it into the altarpiece?

This was a legitimate question that the Getty conservation effort has finally set to rest.  When one visits the altarpiece it is clear that, however good the van der Veken copy may be, it is different in all its qualities from the other panels.  But the Getty finally determined, scientifically, that this panel is the modern van der Veken.  There is nothing hidden underneath.

With the closure of one mystery, another remains open, and ever wider.  This means that the original Judges panel is still missing.

Thanks to the efforts of the Getty and the Flemish Government, critically-important images of van Eyck’s wonderful painting are available to the world, free of charge.  Art historians who have dealt with the altarpiece may have to reconsider their conclusions, as even direct personal access will not have revealed all of the information now generously made public on this website.

While all of this is wonderfully useful from a scholarly and investigative standpoint, it does strike a personal note of concern.  I recall a line from the film Good Will Hunting, in which Robin Williams castigates Matt Damon for thinking that he knows all there is to know, because he has read all that there is to read.  Williams’ character says,  “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him…  But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”

This is an absolutely critical point that our awe and welcome of technology threatens to push aside.  There is no substitute for the experience of seeing an artwork in person.  As the great theoretician Walter Benjamin described, art has an almost mystical aura about it that cannot be defined, a scientific explanation of which eludes us.  While digital images are a great boon to the scholarly analysis of art, no quantity of dots-per-inch can replicate the feeling of standing before The Ghent Altarpiece in Saint Bavo Cathedral and feeling its presence.  No video, no photograph, no book can reproduce the physical, soul-stirring excitement of confronting great art face-to-face.  Watching an ultrasound of a fetus may be interesting, but it doesn’t hold a candle to holding the child in your arms.  For this reason, scientific advances should be praised and embraced for what they offer—unprecedented opportunities for analysis, and access for scholars who cannot travel to see works of art in person.  But they cannot replace the personal experience of art.

There is even something to be said for viewing art in a setting in which it cannot be seen as clearly as we might like.  Keep in mind that no painting made prior to the 18th century could have been intended for a museum.  Modern museums make art easy to see, transporting altarpieces from dim and shadowy chapels into bright, neon-lit open spaces.  But that is an entirely anachronistic way of viewing these works.

Even the use of electric lights on objects that are still in their original locations is questionable.  When I teach art history in Rome, I take students to churches to see paintings, and I urge them not to insert the coins that turn on automatic light boxes, present to make the art easier for tourists to see.  When Caravaggio painted an altarpiece, he could never have intended it to be seen with electric lights.  It would have been seen by sunlight or by candle or lamp alone.  Within these constraints, the darkness in his paintings is that much more dramatic, murky, an intentional kingdom of shadows.  That is the only way his work was meant to be seen, with our eyes squinting and straining to catch hold of fleeting details.

While there is a case to be made for experiencing art without the aid of modern conveniences like electric lights, and while nothing replaces the feeling of standing in front of an original work of art, there is a welcome place for digital technology, particularly when it reveals aspects of a work that may not even be visible when examining the work in person.  Art historians and art lovers the world over should be grateful to the Getty for its presentation of The Ghent Altarpiece.

We would certainly benefit from a similar treatment applied to other masterpieces.  For who knows what further secrets lie in hidden painted corners, waiting to be seen?

Noah Charney is the best-selling author of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.  He teaches art history and art crime for Brown University and on the ARCA Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies.

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