Colors gleam like gemstones in $1.3 million Ghent Altarpiece restoration

It’s part of the conditioned reflexes. Whenever people talk about the Lamb of God in the Baafs Cathedral in Belgium, the first thing they mention is that it is the most frequently stolen work of art in the world – only seven times. It’s not that the thieves don’t have a good reason.

Large opening

As noted by the New York Daily News, which reported on the $35 million armored display case, the altarpiece is widely considered one of the world’s greatest masterpieces. It’s easy to see why. The twelve-layer work, painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers Hubert and Jan, is characterised by a high level of detail. According to the Guardian, the image is an A to Z of Christianity. So here’s the thing.

Recently restored at a cost of $1.3 million and now safe in a new display case, the altarpiece is ready for worship, according to the Wall Street Journal. But I’m not ready. Apart from its splendour and the full written history it tells, none of the wonders of this work conceals the xenophobic and doctrinaire view that Van Eyck is having an affair with Eve, the first woman.

Writing the story

The figures of Adam and Eve – almost life-size nudes – stand with bowed heads in the dark corners of the altar space. Of course, these characters were conceived with a medieval sensibility, and I see them with a 21st century mindset. I understand that this work refers to a time when people thought differently about sin.

But this does not mean that modern thinking supports medieval thinking. British art critic Edwin Mullins, who has broadcast more than 100 documentaries on art and art history, has embraced the Gothic consciousness. (We’ll come back to this in a moment).

Hard hatches

Look at employment first. See how the Van Eyck brothers marginalise Adam and Eve by placing them in the shadow of their works and implying that they ate of the forbidden fruit.

To deepen the sin, the brothers show the two characters embracing their lower anatomy to illustrate the self-consciousness of the state of disguise caused by eating from the tree of knowledge. So far, so good.

My distaste begins with Eve being portrayed as evil and Adam as the innocent. Mullens noted this difference in his book The Painted Witch (1985).

It’s sad, but he believes what the Van Eyck brothers believed: Eve was furious and described her as pregnant, with wavy hair and the face of a whore. Such views were common in the Middle Ages, but in 1985? How can you make a picture of a pregnant woman look like a slut, even with mustaches?

Truth distortion

Wait, there’s more. Mullins notes that Eva has placed one of her hands on her lower body and claims that she is covering her guilty genitals. Incredibly, he goes on to say that although Eve is the mother of us all, she is – and I quote – a bad woman; and that by her presence in the picture she attracts all male feelings of sexual repulsion.

Adam’s hair, on the other hand, is not stringy, and he has an inattentive expression on his face. In other words, the burden of her transgressions rests on Eve.

Why? No one forced him to eat the forbidden fruit. Doesn’t it sound like a criminal defense to say: This was not my idea. The way the Van Eyckes saw Eve is bad enough, but at least they had an excuse – a sign of their times. What’s Mullins’ excuse?

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