Published: 15 March 2020
We got a dent in Ghent first time we went. And then another. Twenty years ago you could buy new cars more cheaply in Europe, and so it was Judith’s glistening new Peugeot 205 that I backed into an unseen stanchion in a cobbled courtyard. Chastened, I drove with extra caution the next morning through the drab suburbs searching for the ring road in a damp, dismal mist. Two children poised on their toes in the middle of the road, looking the other way. Their body language signalled they were about to spin about and dash in front of the car. They did. My foot was already stretching for the brake pedal. The car slammed to a halt and two pale frightened faces passed inches in front of the bonnet. At the same instant we were jolted out of our seats. The car behind us had slammed into our rear. An angry driver emerged, ranting in fractured French. We understood enough to grasp that we had damaged his new car (he meant recently purchased, as it was a jalopy), but if we gave him a large number of Belgian francs he would say no more.
Miraculously, a police car happened by. The gendarmes endorsed what I had been trying to tell him: in a rear-end collision the following vehicle is always at fault. It turned out that the driver a) was from Moldavia, without papers, b) had no driver’s licence and c) had no insurance. We passed this information along to our insurers and privately wished them luck, whilst allowing them to draw the conclusion that both of our dents were the result of this subsequent encounter.
What had diverted us to Ghent on the drive home from Amsterdam in our new car was Van Eyck’s fabled altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Some argue that it is the most influential painting ever created. We almost didn’t get to see it. It is displayed in St Bavo’s Cathedral and when we visited in 1999 we couldn’t produce the modest entrance fee. The previous night, when the waiter presented our bill, he would not accept credit cards. We cobbled together enough Belgian francs, French francs, Dutch guilders and pounds sterling to avoid washing the dishes. But the next morning we could produce only a few Belgian francs, enough to pay for one entry to see the ‘Lamb’, but not enough for two. While we dithered, the man in the cashier’s booth scooped up the coins I’d laid on his counter and waved us through. He didn’t issue us with tickets, so we suppose this compassionate gesture enhanced his own pocket as well as ours.
On that dank morning we were the only visitors and the images on the 24 panels of the huge, gloomy altarpiece lurked behind dull layers of yellowing varnish. Today the panels that are exposed when the side wings are opened have been restored and their vivid colours shine in the murky side-chamber of St Bavo’s. Eight other newly restored panels, the ones that you can see when the wings of the altarpiece are closed, were retained at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts, where this year they formed the core of a major exhibition.
Jan Van Eyck (c 1390-1441) was an early master; he worked a century before Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. It was long thought that he invented oil painting, though that’s doubtful. He was certainly an early adopter and developed the technique to perfection. Now that 600 years of clumsy overpainting and smoky varnish have been removed, his masterpiece is bright as a new penny and it’s apparent why the work represents a milestone in the development of art.
Oils enabled artists to achieve far more subtle tonal variation and Van Eyck used them to introduce the secular into the sacred. His images are convincing and fully rounded, with blushes and blemishes and time-worn faces. So, in 1432 real people appeared in art for the first time. The angels on the front panels may have heavenly complexions but on a rear panel kneels the man who paid for the altarpiece and his wife. His face sprouts warts, hers is plain and sour. A towel hanging on a peg in the next panel looks as though they’ve just used it. The face of the mayor of Ghent, who commissioned the piece, is scarred with the pox. In his glowing review* of the exhibition Waldemar Januszczak writes that he could feel their “convincing human breath.” This was a seismic change. Van Eyck was the first artist to show the world as it is. His legacy is an accurate slice of life in the low countries half a millennium ago.
“In 1432 real people appeared in art for the first time.”
Apart from the altarpiece, just 22 paintings by Van Eyck survive. The most famous is the Arnolfini Marriage, which is not included here (it’s at the National Gallery), but thirteen others are. They, too are vivid human testaments. Van Eyck has been rather neglected by the art world, and so the exhibition offered a great deal of information about him. He travelled more widely, perhaps, than any artist before him and, like Rubens in England, was probably employed as a spy by his patron, the powerful Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. The ‘Lamb’ has an engrossing history**, too, even before it was retrieved from the Nazis by George Clooney in The Monuments Men.
Displayed alongside various works by his contemporaries of the early Renaissance it was clear, even to this untutored viewer, how far ahead of the game he was. Even works by Fra Angelico and other revered Italian masters, using egg tempera, looked dead in comparison with oils.
Twenty years on and post-Brexit, once again wandering around the steep gabled merchants’ houses looming over the canals and the rainswept cobbled streets and of Ghent, we felt oddly melancholy, no longer part of Europe. Jostling with throngs of others from all over the world, it turned out to be our last public outing,. Two days after we returned home the exhibition closed down, doors began shutting all over Europe, and London locked down.
Someday you will be able to board a train again and travel to a foreign land. The Van Eyck exhibition is history, but the marvellous, freshly scrubbed Adoration of the Lamb awaits you in St Bavo’s cathedral. Not far away, in one of those teetering old merchants’ houses, tall doors opening directly onto the street identify the Hotel Erasmus. You have to ring a bell. Inside, a clutter of antique furniture stands against dark wainscoting. There’s no lift and the rooms upstairs are simple. One middle-aged man runs it; he is the receptionist and he serves you breakfast in the drawing room. A large painting in a gilt frame depicts the King and Queen riding in a carriage in a procession celebrating the the 50th anniversary of the Belgian state in 1880. Through the window there’s a view of a knot garden of miniature hedges. Around the corner from the Hotel Erasmus in the smart Bodo restaurant you can sit by the window with a view of the slumbering Castle of Counts and eat fennel soup with chunks of chorizo, and Liege meatballs with pumpkin sauce. And you can take strong beers and plates of dark bread and cheese and paté in the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a cosy pub lodged on the edge of a canal. Someday. Not soon.