The Ghent Altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece
"Hubert van Eyck, the greatest painter ever, started this work; his brother Jan, who came second in painting, completed this arduous task at the request of Joos Vijd. He entrusts this work to you on 6 May 1432. Admire what they have accomplished.“
The quatrain on the frame of the central panel contains essential information about the polyptych. It is still not clear which part was painted by Hubert and which part was painted by Jan van Eyck. On May 6, 1432, the polyptych was first set up in the chapel of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut, two prominent inhabitants of Ghent.
The tumultuous history of the Ghent Altarpiece has been one of wars, fire and theft. After the Second World War, the Ghent Altarpiece returned to the Vijd chapel in Saint Bavo's Cathedral and in 1986 the polyptych moved to the Villa Chapel.
In 2012, extensive restoration treatment was required that will last until the end of 2024. Carried out in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage and with financial support from the Flemish Government and the Baillet-Latour Fund, the old hardened varnish layers and overpaintings were painstakingly removed.
Thanks to the restoration, it is therefore the first time since the 16th century that the original paint layer of Van Eyck can be viewed.
Inscription riddle solved after centuries
Following the restoration, the inscription on the cloths of honour behind Mary and John the Baptist has finally been deciphered. This was achieved by close study of X-ray images at three places where the inscription is well preserved. Surprisingly, the name of Lubrect (old alternative spelling for ‘Hubrecht’) and the date of his death appear in them! From this it can be deduced that Jan Van Eyck painted the upper register as a tribute to his deceased brother. Mary and John the Baptist pray with Christ not only for humanity, but also for the soul of Jan’s brother. The upper register, the wooden structure of which is conceived differently from the lower one, is an extension by Jan Van Eyck of the lower register, that Hubrecht had left unfinished. Thus we have two altarpieces, a witness to brotherly love. You can read here the scientific study by Helene Verougstraete and Wim Verbaal: 'The Ghent Altarpiece and the Inscription on the Cloths of Honour behind Mary and John the Baptist'.
Helene Verougstraete and Wim Verbaal, The Ghent Altarpiece and the Inscription on the Cloths of Honour behind Mary and John the Baptist, Ghent, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, 2022, 44 pp.