Sunday 20 October 2019

True face of 'Mystic Lamb' revealed after five centuries

A close-up of the restored ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’allowing
A close-up of the restored ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’allowing

James Crisp

THE intense and soulful true face of Belgium's 'Mystic Lamb', the central figure of a world-famous 15th-century Flemish altarpiece, has finally been revealed after almost five centuries.

The 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb', one of the world's most stolen artworks and oldest oil paintings, was created in 1432 by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert, leading artists of the influential Flemish Primitives.

The giant altarpiece, which features hinged panels depicting bible scenes and daily life, is on display in St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent.

It was revealed this week, after a painstaking restoration, that visitors to the cathedral for nearly 500 years have been gazing at a completely different lamb's face from the original.

The lamb's features were overpainted in the 16th century by well-connected artists Lancelot Blondeel and Jan van Scorel to become an "impassive rather neutral figure".

"The head is very different from what we've known since the 16th century.

"It depicts a lamb which is much more intense and expressive, one which connects far more directly with the people, with big eyes," Helene Dubois, restoration leader, said.

Koenraad Jonckheere, professor of Baroque art at Ghent University, said: "Blondeel and van Scorel were very famous artists at the time, who were well-connected to the Habsburg court."

Their careful overpainting campaign subtly adapted the shapes to the taste of the time. To some extent it neutralised the Van Eycks' intense and humanised identification of the lamb into an expressionless animal, seemingly unaffected by what was about to come.

The original, by contrast, has more personality and, according to the restorers, presents "an intense gaze and is characterised by a graphically defined snout and large frontal eyes, drawing onlookers into the ultimate sacrifice scene".

It was not the only time that the 20-panel altarpiece, of which 40pc was overpainted, has suffered an indignity.

A partial restoration in 1951 revealed the lamb's original ears, but techniques were not advanced enough to complete the restoration and the animal was left with four ears for nearly 70 years.

Since its creation the 15 x 10ft masterwork has been split into pieces, seized by Napoleon and the Nazis, and stolen by thieves.

In 1942 the Nazis placed it in an Austrian salt mine until it was returned after World War II.

In a mystery that has baffled detectives for decades, one of its 12 panels is still missing after a robbery in 1934.

A week ago, Ghent's public prosecutor urged people not to dig up the city's cobbled squares after the author of a new book suggested the panel may be buried underneath one of them.

Irish Independent

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