OMG! Van Eyck Was Here – Ghent

The city of Ghent in Flanders is celebrating the life and works of the 15th-century artist Jan Van Eyck. Peter Morrell reports on the exciting range of activities taking place to honour one of the truly great Flemish Masters.

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The entire community of this superbly preserved medieval city is involved in the staging of OMG! Van Eyck Was Here, a multi-themed celebration of the great artist. There’s a city tour and boat ride, OMG! beer, specially designed chocolates, a sound and light show, a project at the Design Museum, major exhibition and his restored altarpiece in St Bavo’s, the city’s cathedral.

Although Van Eyck didn’t invent oil paints he was the first artist to devise techniques that used them to full effect. He managed to create precise details in his paintings and give them levels of tone, texture and highlights, particularly on jewellery that even today are difficult to emulate.

As a result of pioneering these techniques, he established himself as a highly successful court painter. His final position was with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In the mid-1420s, Van Eyck and his brother Hubert were commissioned by merchant, financier and politician Joost Vijdt and his wife Elisabeth Borluut to paint the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, more commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece.

The brothers set to work on the altarpiece’s creation but Hubert’s untimely death in 1426 left Jan to finish the work on his own. The artwork was finally completed in 1432 and has since become one of the world’s most famous pieces. It also has a history worthy of a Dan Brown novel. It was nearly burnt by Calvinist iconoclasts, dismembered and scattered around Europe and stolen by Napoleon, It was looted by the Nazis in WW2 and was finally rescued from Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria by the Monuments Men before being brought, intact, back to Ghent.

The altarpiece was also extensively overpainted in the 16th century to promote Catholicism against a rising tide of Calvinist sentiment. Since 2012 there has been a project run by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) to restore the altarpiece back to its original state. Phase two of that project is now complete and the altarpiece is on display back at St Bavo’s but now in a humidity-controlled glass cabinet. This reinstatement has been the spark to ignite the city-wide celebrations of Van Eyck’s mastery.

I recently went to Ghent to experience the events that are being staged during 2020, starting at MSK, the Museum of Fine Art. The museum has created a new exhibition, Van Eyck, an Optical Revolution. This is a curation of many aspects of the artist’s works with a myriad of surprises for art lovers. With half of Van Eyck’s existing paintings on show, each of the 13 galleries has at least one keynote work exhibited. On display are the yet to be restored altarpiece panels, Adam and Eve, paintings of the sponsors, Joost and Elisabeth, the Annunciation a rear panel, the Turin-Milan Book of Hours showing Van Eyck’s work as a miniaturist and the newly restored Portrait of a Man from the UK’s National Gallery. There are other works, including copies of the altarpiece panels by 16th-century artist Michiel Coxcie.

After leaving the exhibition I continued my tour of discovery in the historic old centre of the city by paying a visit to the Van Eyck shop located under the Belfry, the tallest in Belgium. Here you can buy specially brewed OMG! Van Eyck Was Here beer, spice mixes that would have been used in the 15th century and a range of craft products from Ghent based artisans.

The shop is the starting point for the Seven Senses Tour, a multi-faceted walking and boat tour around the city. From the shop, the next stop was the Ghent Design Museum. The staff have been working on a project related to colour and the way it is perceived. This was part of Van Eyck’s skill to layers colours with clear varnish to achieve the brightness and clarity observed by the viewer.

The museum was a short walk to the boarding point for the canal boat segment of the tour. From the vantage point of the water the visitor can see the city from a totally different perspective and one of the highlights is the digital projection display in the canal tunnel under François Laurentplein Square.

Disembarkation was at a pier by the new, and highly impressive Ghent Library to see another attraction. From a walkway next to the library a specially commissioned mural by Argentinian artist Pastel can be viewed across a canal. His painting references the landscapes and flowers seen in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Close to the library is the artisan chocolate shop Yuzu. Owner Nicolas Vanaise has created six delicious chocolates to reflect elements of the altarpiece. Some are decorated to emulate jewels in the painting, and the ingredients would have been known to Van Eyck, with combinations like strawberry and roses, and quince with malted barley.

These were just a selection of the experiences on the tour, in addition, there are other artisans to meet, a look at the city’s guild houses and a visit to the Castle of the Devil.

As part of the celebrations, the church of St Nicolas is the venue for an immersive music and light experience, Lights on Van Eyck. The cavernous nave has been cleared and the focal point of the performance is four huge LED screens mounted on robotic arms. As the music, specially composed by Mat Collishaw, started the arms moved to emulate the opening and closing of the altarpiece. It was a highly professional and stimulating experience.

During dinner that evening the OMG! beer flowed, not only did it rank as an excellent Belgian brew but the tripel version had a kick like a donkey.

The next morning it was time to see the newly restored altarpiece in St Bravo’s cathedral. I first visited the small chapel where it was originally kept before seeing the real thing. Despite seeing pictures of the altarpiece many times nothing quite prepared me for the real thing. It was very large, breathtakingly beautiful and has been so well restored, with vibrant colours and great detail. Gone is the old, yellow varnish and the 16th century overpainting.

The main focus is the Lamb of God standing on the altar during its sacrifice. One revelation of the restoration is the almost human face of the Lamb with its calm expression and piercing eyes. The Lamb’s adoration comes from four groups and the entire scene is full of Catholic symbolism. In the distance is a city, its skyline is part medieval Ghent but also with the unmistakable silhouette of the Dom Tower in Utrecht. You don’t need to be religious to be moved by the sheer emotion of the entire piece.

In the Bishop’s House adjoining the cathedral, a grand building in its own right, Hélène Dubois, chief restorer from KIK-IRPA gave a presentation on the technology used to see a sectional view of the paint layers, and the difficulties of removing the overpainting, which was literally done flake by flake to reveal the original. Also presenting was Philippe Depotter from Bressers Architecten, who has designed the space where the altarpiece is displayed and the new visitor centre, due to open in October 2020. He spoke about the challenges of access, for example, the route to the altarpiece is wheelchair friendly.

Visitors to the city will be impressed by the people of Ghent who have wholeheartedly embraced this celebration of Van Eyck. The city is very atmospheric and there is a lot to see and do. Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts is worth a visit, as is Graslei, from where the boat tour departs, it was the original town quay with its gabled merchant houses which are now bars and restaurants. It’s close by the Great Butcher’s Hall, where Ganda Hams, the local speciality, hang from the attractive oak-beamed ceiling as they cure. You can pop in to sample the ham, eat it with Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard, another local culinary favourite.

In 2020, as well as Van Eyck being here make sure you are there as well, you won’t be disappointed. A combination of cultural attractions, medieval architecture, and good food and beer will ensure that you are nourished both physically and spiritually.

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