Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution
Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK)
1 February – 30 April 2020
The Ghent Altarpiece (completed in 1432 and inaugurated in 1435) is as known for its eventful history – as the most frequently stolen work of art, with one panel’s whereabouts remaining unknown since 1934 – as it is for its splendour and precise craftmanship. More recently, it has also become a social media sensation, with the Mystic Lamb (the surprisingly tiny central “figure”, representing Christ as the Lamb of God) even being given its own Instagram account, as the ongoing process of restoration has revealed a completely different – and far more exquisite – painting underneath centuries’ of overpainting and oxidised varnish.
Even after restoration, it still remains a mystery which Van Eyck sibling painted what. The work is thought to have been begun by Jan’s elder brother, Hubert, (c1360/70-1426) about whom little is known, and by whom no further works are thought to exist, and completed by Jan (c1390-1441) after Hubert’s death. There is some suggestion that their two other siblings may also have lent a hand, although only Hubert and Jan are credited in the Latin quatrain on the polyptych’s frame, which calls Hubert the greatest painter there was, and Jan “second in art”. The consensus, however, is that the majority of the work was undertaken by Jan. To celebrate the near completion of this restoration project – which has taken longer than planned due to its unexpected complexity – and the opening, in October, of a new visitors’ centre in St Bavo’s Cathedral, for where the altarpiece was commissioned, and to where it will return, the former capital of Flanders is celebrating a year’s worth of Van Eyck-themed festivities, exhibitions and events, under the (somewhat cringeworthy) header of #OMGVanEyckWasHere. At the heart of this is the exhibition, Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK), which, for the past eight years, has housed a studio for the restoration work, visible at all times to the public.
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