On Remembrance Sunday, this week’s painting is The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The hardy survivor of two World Wars, it owes its remarkably intact condition to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The Ghent altarpiece, as it is also known, is in the church for which it was commissioned more than five and a half centuries ago. This can give the misleading impression that Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece has led a cloistered existence. But it is hard to think of a painting that has lived more dangerously. Over the course of its life it has been split up, sold off, reassembled, hidden away and taken prisoner of war by the Nazis, who stashed it at the bottom of an Austrian salt-mine at Altaussee.
Arguably the single most influential work of the Northern Renaissance, the Ghent altarpiece was one of the first pictures fully to exploit the relatively untried medium of oil paint. The Van Eycks taught a whole generation of artists how oils could be used to conjure flesh and blood, to imitate man-made fabrics, the natural world and the play of light and shade, with unprecedented fidelity. The Adoration of the Lamb was their demonstration piece. Its very renown led to many of the vicissitudes that it has suffered.
The altarpiece’s trials began in the sixteenth century when clumsy restorers accidentally destroyed its predella, which included a lively representation of hell. Then came a virulent outburst of Protestant iconoclasm, and the painting was hidden away in the cathedral tower. The Calvinists expelled it from St Bavo’s altogether, keeping it in the town hall and attempting unsuccessfully to sell it to an agent acting on behalf of Elizabeth I.
Following the French Revolution Napoleon’s troops hauled it off to Paris, where it had a profound effect on Jacques-Louis David and his pupil, Ingres, who painted a brilliant but mesmerically strange portrait of the French Emperor based on the figure of Christ the Priest in the central upper panel. (Napoleon hated Ingres’s portrait and gave it to a military hospital in the Invalides, subsequently converted into the Musee de l’Armee, where it can still be sought out today). After Waterloo the altarpiece returned to Ghent, where an ill-advised Vicar-general of the diocese promptly sold its folding shutters, complete with all their painted panels, to a dealer. The daringly unidealised figures of Adam and Eve went to the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The rest were sold as a job lot to the King of Prussia and ended up in Berlin.
Perhaps the most dramatic episode in the life of the altarpiece – or at least those parts of it then remaining in Ghent – came during the First World War, when the canon of St Bavo’s braved the wrath of occupying German forces by whisking it away to secrecy. In 1925 the art magazine Apollo contained a colourful account of the heroic Canon Van Gheyn’s actions:
“The opportunity was seized one day during the lunch hour, when the Cathedral was closed, to quickly take down the precious work and convey it to the Bishop’s Palace. The empty frame was then closed as usual, and veiled by the customary curtain… In the meantime four wooden cases had been prepared… In due time came a plain cart belonging to an old ironmonger of the town, containing a heap of broken funnels and rusty iron plates. The four cases were loaded on to the cart and the iron plates, funnels, old pieces of timber, and worn-out carpets thrown carelessly over them, and out went the cart into streets thronged with people, and crowded with traffic of all kinds. Who could have guessed that paintings worth millions of frances were being borne through the town in that poor-looking cart?”
The boxes were taken to prearranged hiding places, where they remained undisturbed for the rest of the war. In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles stipulated that the panels in Berlin and Brussels be returned to Ghent. By 1920 the altarpiece was complete once more. Despite its brief hi-jacking by the Nazis, and the theft of the extreme left-hand panel in the lower tier – stolen in mysterious circumstances in 1934 and currently replaced by a copy – that is how it remains.
It is important to see the work whole, rather than in museumed fragments, to appreciate its integrity of conception and execution. Flanked by John and Mary, choirs of angels and the naked Adam and Eve, whose sins he washes clean, Jesus presides over the Eternal Mass taking place in the New Jerusalem. Below him the chosen congregate in paradise fields, before them on the altar the vision of the adoration of the lamb described in the Book of Revelations. The blessed are envisaged as courtiers, their rich clothes and jewels depicted with hypnotising skill. Intense materialism and profound spirituality are inextricably intertwined in the art of the van Eycks. Created to celebrate the sacred mystery of man’s redemption through the sacrifice of Christ, “the lamb of God”, the picture’s survival, almost complete, must itself be counted something of a miracle.