I am traveling in Belgium and Germany visiting cities that have paintings and architecture that I have wanted to see “in situ” for a long time. I feel fortunate to have a large collection of art books that I can reference in my endeavor to learn more about art and artists. My books coupled with the internet make for a large art resource. But this doesn’t come close to matching the experience one has in front of an original piece of artwork. This really hit home yesterday as I visited St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent to see the great Ghent altarpiece painted by the early Flemish artists Hubert and Jan Van Eyck in 1432. (Sint Baafskathedral)
All but one of the 12 panels are original, one panel was stolen, hence a reproduction sits in its’ place. This altarpiece is so exquisitely painted that I was dumbstruck in front of it. The first thing that hit me was that at 579 years old the colors and painted ornamentation are crisp and vibrant while the flesh tones are soft and translucent. Most noticeably different when viewing the altarpiece in person rather than in a book is the trompe-l'oeil effect of the figures of Adam and Eve. Adam especially seems to be a three dimensional being tightly enclosed in a niche. His shoulder rests again the left edge of the niche while his arm and elbow project right out towards the viewer. The effect is enhanced by the illusion that his right foot is hanging over the bottom edge of the niche.
Being able to view this well preserved altarpiece is all the more amazing considering it had to be rescued from Protestant church-wreckers in 1566, parts of it were removed by French soldiers in 1794, some parts were sold in 1816 and then it narrowly escaped a fire in 1822. I now believe in divine intervention!