The Ghent Altarpiece, otherwise known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is a 15th-century altarpiece painting created by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It is one of the most important works of European art and a must-see when visiting Ghent, Belgium.
You will find The Ghent Altarpiece inside St Bavos Cathedral, the oldest parish church in Ghent.
It sits upon the site of two older churches, one of which was dedicated to St John the Baptist. It was that church for which the Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned.
The Ghent Altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece comprises twelve painted panels in two registers, each hinged to fold in or out.
The upper register of the inner panels represents heavenly redemption. Central is God, who is flanked by The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
The outer panels feature choirs of angels playing music with Adam and Eve on either end.
The lower register centerpiece captures the Eucharistic sacrifice of the lamb of God (symbol for Christ).
The sacrificial lamb is placed on an altar in a meadow surrounded by angels. The angels behind the altar hold the instruments of the Passion: the cross, sponge, nails and lance.
Four groups make their way to adore the lamb: bishops & cardinals, female martyrs, prophets, pagans & scholars and finally, the apostles and other clergies.
The side panels on the lower register show each of the following in different panels: The Judges, The Knights, Pilgrims & Hermits led by St. Christopher.
The artist’s innovation in the use of symbolism to convey religious meaning was not something widely done at the time and became highly influential for later Flemish artists.
Who Painted The Ghent Altarpiece?
After careful restoration, it was found that Hubert van Eyck started the altarpiece and after his death, his brother Jan completed it.
The lower registers, including The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, were painted by Hubert and upper registers were completed by Jan.
The Ghent Alterpiece connection to WWII
What makes this religious painting even more interesting is that it was stolen during WWII.
The Nazis plundered art throughout Europe and the Ghent Altarpiece was one of those pieces. Fortunately, all but one panel (that of the judges) was retrieved in 1945 by the Allied Forces.
The story behind the retrieval of The Ghent Altarpiece plays an important role in the film Monuments Men starring George Clooney. I would suggest that you watch that before visiting Belgium as a whole (Belgium plays a prominent role in the movie).
Best Way to See the Ghent Altarpiece
Today, visitors can view the altarpiece at St. Bavo’s Cathedral in its original grandeur. In addition to viewing the artistic masterpiece itself, visitors can view both St. Bavo’s Cathedral and the altarpiece through augmented reality.
The augmented reality tour is inside the crypt of St. Bavo’s and gives you the history of Ghent, the cathedral, and the painting.
Having done the augmented reality experience prior to actually seeing the real piece made me appreciate its significance even more.
After doing the augmented reality portion, you are able to go and see the newly restored panels in the upper church.
Overall, when you are visiting Ghent, you really should take the time to visit Saint Bavo Cathedral.
Outside of the magnificent Ghent Altarpiece, the interior of the church is also amazing to see.