Word has it the charming Belgian city of Ghent will catch the world’s attention this year as it celebrates the genius of Jan van Eyck — particularly at the unveiling next week of a painstaking restoration of his greatest work.
Born around 1390 in nearby Maaseik, the Flemish artist revolutionised painting through his masterly use of oils, reflection and perspective to create minutely detailed, hyper-realistic works. These include the famous and enigmatic Arnolfini Portrait that now hangs in the National Gallery, London.
Eyck’s ultimate masterpiece was The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb — also known as The Ghent Altarpiece because it was commissioned for St Bavo’s Cathedral in the city.
Picture perfect: The charming Belgian city of Ghent, which will catch the world’s attention this year as it celebrates the genius of artist Jan van Eyck
It is enormous — more than 14ft long with 12 oak panels weighing around two tons — but this hasn’t prevented it becoming one of the world’s most frequently stolen works of art.
Attacked by rioting Calvinists, seized by French revolutionaries, coveted by the King of Prussia, hidden in an Austrian salt mine by the Nazis — Belgium’s national treasure has been through the wars. The altarpiece only made it back to St Bavo’s in 1945, but it is still missing one panel that was stolen back in 1934.
Why is this work so prized? And can a single piece of art really be worth a special trip? Oh yes, and not just because of this action-packed back story.
The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb is an engrossing masterpiece rich with tricks, symbols and technical brilliance — from upside-down writing to pearls exquisitely painted with just three brush strokes. Van Eyck’s brother, Hubert, also a painter, is said to have helped.
Since 2012, Belgian restorers have patiently brought its hundred-plus characters — singing angels, knights in armour, a lamb with near-human eyes — back to life after centuries of neglect, mishandling and overpainting. Next Friday, the five central panels will go on show in St Bavo’s.
The following weekend a companion exhibition opens at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts — the largest ever devoted to Van Eyck — which will offer a unique chance to get a close look at eight back-panels from The Adoration that were restored in 2016.
This three-month exhibition is expected to draw 250,000 visitors — but that’s not all.
Throughout the year, Ghent is going Van Eyck crazy, putting on concerts, plays, walking tours and even a marathon inspired by the artist. The most intriguing initiative is a restaurant menu using medieval ingredients, created by Michelin-starred chef Olly Ceulenaere.
Pictured is part of Van Eyck’s painting Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – also known as The Ghent Altarpiece because it was commissioned for St Bavo’s Cathedral in the city
The Adoration features 75 edible plants, herbs and fruit, so get ready to enjoy dishes flavoured with tansy, marigold and fennel.
Fortunately, breakfast at my hotel doesn’t hark back to the 15th century — just a bountiful spread of cheese, charcuterie and pastries. Occupying the upper levels of what was once a grand city centre post office, 1898 The Post is a dark, cosseting and enjoyably themed bolthole. The smallest of its 37 rooms is The Stamp, followed by The Postcard and The Envelope, and all come dressed with stationery and postal ephemera.
‘We still get people turning up with parcels,’ says general manager Sven Steijvers — but these days most visitors head for its classy Cobbler cocktail bar. Suitably fortified, I’m pleased to find Ghent is easily explored on foot.
Belgium’s second largest city has the largest pedestrian-friendly area in Europe but don’t get complacent as you stroll the cobblestones. It’s quite easy to get mown down by a bicycle ridden by one of its many students. The centre is a pretty jumble of historic buildings with ornate facades and stepped gables, and a good way to admire them is on a 45-minute canal cruise.
Ghent, pictured, is Belgium’s second largest city and has the largest pedestrian-friendly area in Europe
Mine comes with a guide who feeds us entertaining nuggets of history, for example who knew that the term ‘stroppy’ originates in Ghent? In 1540 the Spanish King Charles V forced rebellious city leaders to parade the streets wearing a hangman’s noose, which in Flemish is known as a ‘strop’.
For another view, take the lift to the top of the 298ft-high Belfort, a 14th century belfry in Sint-Baafsplein. Looking out over the city, it is easy to imagine the day in 1432 when Van Eyck’s breakthrough work was unveiled in the neighbouring cathedral.
Back then, its captivating central panels could only be seen on Sundays and feast days but now we can admire them year-round, looking as splendid as they did almost 600 years ago.
In October The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb will move to a new visitor centre in St Bavo’s — providing a final and, no doubt, highly secure resting place for one of the great wonders of the art world.
Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, from February 1 to April 30, 2020 (mskgent.be). Eurostar from London St Pancras costs from £58 return (eurostar.com, 0343 218 6186). Trains from Brussels airport take 65 minutes.