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Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece (also called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or The Lamb of God, Dutch: Het Lam Gods) is a very large and complex early 15th century Early Flemish polyptych panel painting. The altarpiece is composed of 12 panels, eight of which are hinged shutters. These wings are painted on both sides, giving two very distinct views depending on whether they are open or closed. Outside of Sundays and festive holidays, the outer wings were closed and often covered with a cloth. It was commissioned from Hubert van Eyck, about whom little is known. He was most likely responsible for the overall design, but died in 1426. It seems to have been principally executed and completed by his younger and better known brother Jan van Eyck between 1430–32. Although there have been extensive attempts over the centuries to isolate the passages attributable to either brother, no separation has been convincingly established. Today, most accept that the work was probably designed and constructed by Hubert and that the individual panels were painted by Jan after his return from diplomatic duties in Spain.

The altarpiece was commissioned by the merchant, financier and politician, Joost Vijdt, then holding a position in Ghent similar to city mayor. It was designed for the chapel he and his wife acted as benefactors for, today’s Saint Bavo Cathedral, at the time the parochial church of John the Baptist, protectorate to the city. It was officially installed on 6 May 1432 to coincide with an official ceremony for Philip the Good. It was later moved for security reasons to the principal cathedral chapel, where it remains. While indebted to the International Gothic as well as both Byzantine and Romanic traditions, the altarpiece represented a “new conception of art”, in which the idealization of the medieval tradition gave way to an exacting observation of nature and unidealised human representation. A now lost inscription on the frame stated that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck – calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art) – completed it in 1432. The original, very ornate carved outer frame and surround, presumably harmonizing with the painted tracery, was destroyed during the Reformation; there has been speculation that it may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music.

The outer panels contain two vertically stacked registers (rows). The upper rows show scenes from the Annunciation of Mary. The four lower-register panels are divided into two pairs; sculptural grisaille paintings of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, and on the two outer panels, donor portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut. The upper register of the opened view shows a Deësis of God the Father, Whose overarching supremacy is denoted by papal regalia, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. They, in turn, are flanked by images of angels singing and playing music, and, on the outermost panels, Adam and Eve. The lower register of the central panel continues the trinitarian theme by showing the adoration of Jesus Christ, God the Son, as the Lamb of God, the Lamb that was Slain as suggested by the Book of Revelation, with several groups in attendance or streaming in to worship, overseen by the divine Dove, symbolic of God the Holy Spirit.

Since its creation the altarpiece has been considered one of Northern European art’s masterpieces and one of the world’s treasures. Over the centuries the panels have come close to destruction during outbreaks of iconoclasm, or damage by fire. Some panels were sold and others looted during wars. The panels that had been taken away by the German occupying forces were returned to St. Bavo’s Cathedral after World War I. In 1934 two panels, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist, were stolen. The panel of Saint John the Baptist was returned by the thief soon after, but the ‘The Just Judges’ panel is still missing. In 1945, the altarpiece was returned from Germany after spending much of World War II hidden in a salt mine, which greatly damaged the paint and varnish. The Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken produced a copy of the stolen panel ‘The Just Judges’, as part of an overall restoration effort.

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Naoto Hattori

"My vision is like a dream, whether it’s a sweet dream, a nightmare, or just a trippy dream. I try to see what’s really going on in my mind, and that’s a practice to increase my awareness in stream-of-consciousness creativity. I try not to label or think about what is supposed to be, just take it in as it is and paint whatever I see in my mind with no compromise. That way, I create my own vision."

~ Naoto Hattori


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