Editor's Note, July 31, 2020: A new study published in the journal Science Advances confirms that a viral—and widely mocked—restoration of Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece adheres to the artists’ original intentions.
“The Eyckian face of the [Mystic] Lamb had forward-gazing eyes and effectively a shorter muzzle than the 16th-century restorer’s overpainted face,” the study explains. “During the recent conservation treatment that was completed in 2019, conservators were able to safely remove the 16th-century overpaint that completely obscured the head and patches of the body in the Lamb of God. The head of the Lamb that emerged has many of the facial features that previously could be elucidated from analysis of the chemical imaging data.”
Read more about the restoration below.
Long considered one of the most influential artworks in history, the Ghent Altarpiece has its fair share of memorable features. Completed in 1432 by brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, each of its 12 panels feature intricately rendered biblical figures—some of the earliest subjects painted with oils—frozen in iconic scenes from Christianity. In the nearly six centuries since its creation, the painting has been forged, dismantled, stolen and rescued many times over, each heist further increasing its global renown.
But for some, the Ghent Altarpiece’s most haunting attribute may be one only recently revealed by restoration: the alarmingly humanoid face that once adorned the painting’s central sacrificial lamb.
To be fair, the lamb—which features prominently in a panel appropriately titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—is meant to represent Christ himself. But perched atop its fluffy woolly-white body, the penetrating, close-set eyes, full pink lips and flared nostrils of the original lamb are, at a minimum, eye-catching, if not alarmingly anthropomorphic. Its “cartoonish” appearance is a marked departure from the serene, naturalistic style characterizing the rest of the scene surrounding it, as well as the other panels, Hélène Dubois, the head of the Royal Institute’s restoration project, tells Hannah McGivern at the Art Newspaper.
For that reason, during the century or so that the painting hung in its full, unadulterated glory, onlookers gazing upon the lamb probably got a more “intense interaction” than they bargained for, Dubois suggests.
Perhaps the anomalous nature of this riveting stare was part of the motivation behind a spate of modifications to the painting in 1550, when a second set of artists swapped the lamb’s soul-penetrating gaze for a more “impassive and ... neutral” expression, restorers explained in a statement, as reported by Flanders Today’s Lisa Bradshaw in 2018.
Ostensibly intended to retouch the centuries-old painting, which had dulled and blistered with use at Belgium’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the overpainting process also adapted the painting “to the taste of the time,” Koenraad Jonckheere, a scholar of Baroque art at Ghent University, told Bradshaw. In the process, the lamb ended up somewhat “neutralized”—and for the next 500 years, its true personality remained hidden.
A few years ago, Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage invested $2.44 million into meticulously chipping the artwork’s top layer of oils away. The second phase of the restoration, completed in 2017, helped uncover the young sheep and its eerie eyes for what they truly were.
Exactly why the Van Eycks first depicted the sheep’s stare this way remains to be seen. But its expression wasn’t the only aspect of the painting modified in the 16th-century overpainting process: Conservators found that roughly 70 percent of the altarpiece’s original panels had been obscured by the 1550 paint job, McGivern reports. Also hidden, for instance, were several small buildings lost behind the addition of a blue hill.
The restoration’s third phase, targeting the upper sequence of interior panels, has yet to commence. But the parts of the painting that have already passed through the hands of conservators will be returning to St. Bavo’s Cathedral early next year. For now, they remain on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent—meaning there are still plenty of opportunities to come face-to-face with this woolly wonder exactly the way the Van Eycks originally intended.