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Ghent Altarpiece: one of many reasons to visit Ghent

Yet another reason why Belgium is so worth visiting - the Ghent Altarpiece. This work is said to be on many art historian's list of their top ten paintings in art history.

Though Jan van Eyck did not invent oil painting, "he was the first master art to exploit its true capabilities." (Noah Charney, "Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece." Charney calls it "the most important painting in history."

It was mostly completed 1426-1432. The painting has gone by various names usually have the word "Lamb" in them, from the central panel, but today it's often just called The Ghent Altarpiece (everyone will know which one you mean). It's a massive 20-panel altarpiece in St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent (St. Baaf's in the local language, as Tom pointed out below).

Rick's guidebook describes it as "the most influential painting in art history", as it was arguably the first work by a master done in what might be called the perfected technique of oil painting. This work alone makes Ghent well worth the easy day trip from Brugge, about a 30-minute train ride away. The minute detail in such an enormous painting is just one of the outstanding features.

Posted by
11576 posts

I agree!

Jan van Eyck's "Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele" at the Groeningemuseum is another great reason as well as the Memlings - don't miss "The St John Altarpiece"! - at Sint-Janshospitaal, both in Bruges.

Posted by
248 posts

Kathy,
On our recent trip we were able to see all of those you mentioned.
Belgium may be small, but what a treat for art lovers!
And the beer and frites aren't bad, either.

Posted by
11576 posts

And the beer and frites aren't bad, either.

👍 Yummy! And waffles and Flemish stew!

Posted by
248 posts

Yes! But don't order the waffles for breakfast (the Belgians somehow didn't get the message about waffles being for breakfast).
:-)

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346 posts

It was a bucket list for me after reading the book “Stealing the Mystic Lamb” and learning the history surrounding the Monuments Men. A highlight of Belgium for me.

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248 posts

Renee,
I just bought the book you mentioned! The 1st and 2nd chapters are enlightening for their clarity of presentation of key points.

Posted by
1463 posts

Waffles for breakfast in Belgium is...how can I say that in a.....well you know what I mean, it’s just unthinkable. :)

Totally agree that the Altarpiece is a reason to visit Ghent and the one of Van Eyck Kathy mentions in Bruges too. In Bruges you can come very close to the painting to wonder the details, in Ghent is that lesser the case. I think worth to view is this website to see this masterpiece and other works of art by Van Eyck in detail. http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/

The restauration that is going on reveils more and more details and shows how genious he was. A few years back there was an exhibition in the Caermersklooster in Ghent only about the plants of the painting. They are depicted in such a detail that around 70 different species can be identified. It’s truly a miracle that it survived all the trouble, except the panel of the Just Judges that is still missing.

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11576 posts

But don't order the waffles for breakfast

LOL! We did once, somewhere in Ghent, but heck, they were on the breakfast menu so.... The waitress gave us a wink and said just to ignore any puzzled looks from the locals.

Lovely to be amongst fellow art lovers! If ya'll haven't read "Saving Italy" (same author as the "Monuments Men"), I highly recommend it too. The amount of cultural treasures MFAA and other concerned individuals had to try and protect there was so vast that Edsel devoted a separate book to the subject.

Posted by
2867 posts

And while in Belgium, don’t miss the Art Nouveau architecture in Brussels, and the Horta Museum, which showcases gorgeous examples of A.N. interior decor.

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11576 posts

Ooh, the Zurenborg neighborhood of Antwerp has a wonderful collection of Art Nouveau structures & embellishments too. We did a fun walk on along Cogels-Osylei and surrounding streets one sunny morning.

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6047 posts

I agree that the Ghent Altarpiece is definitely a good reason to go to Belgium. Since I only had 3 days there, I just scratched the surface of the big 4 (Brussels, Bruges, Gent, Antwerp) and wasn't able to get off the beaten tourist track. But I will say that my whole time there was a highlight and I loved everything I experienced - the Gent Altarpiece, the Bruges Madonna, the wonderful museums, the cathedrals, the canals, the waffles, frites, and beer - all of it. Would love to go back again and see more.

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6811 posts

Here's a little something for those of us in awe of Jan van Eyck. It's a close-up, step-by-step examination of another van Eyck painting hanging in the Louvre. If it doesn't show in this link, go to the Louvre site>Learning about Art>A Closer Look>Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin.
http://musee.louvre.fr/oal/viergerolin/indexEN.html

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11576 posts

Just watched it and thanks for that, Bets.

Probably saw that one at Louvre but there was so MUCH there that it's hard to remember it all! Was a droolin' fool over the two Vermeers, and on a mission to locate a certain Holbein that took a third run at the place to finally get to.

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102 posts

Every time I go to Brussels to see a friend who lives there, I make a trip to Ghent just to see the altarpiece. It is a beautiful piece of work, as well as being one of the most important works in art. If you really look at it, you can clearly tell which panel is the replacement one. Van Eyck's work is astounding in its detail, and clarity.

In her House of Niccolo series, Dorothy Dunnett has a funny subplot involving the theft of some of the panels - and given the setting of the books probably based on the first theft.

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7693 posts

Bets, thanks so much for that link. I learned a lot!

Looking forward to seeing the Altarpiece next year!

Posted by
248 posts

Yes, this is a painting that takes some time to study, not one you walk by in a museum and pause for 15 seconds. Each of the 12 panels (20 panels if the other side is open) have a story. To get more out of the experience of encountering the painting, I've read that some people go back for a 2nd time, maybe a 1/2 hour or a couple of hours later, or the next day if they're sleeping in Ghent.

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7693 posts

Ok, this may be a bizarre question but how far away are you from the altarpiece? I travel with my small binoculars for a bit of birding but also for church ceilings, statues that are in a high place, etc. Should I make sure I’ve got them with me for viewing here?

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248 posts

Pam,
Yours is a good question. The Ghent Altarpiece is at ground level and so you're able to get close, no binoculars needed.

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11576 posts

Tickled that you're going next year, Pam! Belgium was a revelation - we didn't expect to love it as much as we did - and the forum is sadly light on questions for that one so it's fun to get all excited for RS fellows about to make the trip! 🤩

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3141 posts

I took a course in 15th Century Netherlandish painting in college and the Ghent Altarpiece was something we studied at length. One of these days I will visit Ghent JUST to see that altarpiece. It is more than a painting; it's a double-sided triptych! It's been in restoration for quite some time.

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248 posts

Here's just one example of how the regular contributors to this Travel Forum provide such a helpful service to travelers:

After I wrote this Trip Report on the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, Renee, in a subsequent post, recommended a book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb (see her post above), which I added to my Kindle and am now avidly reading.

Okay, now on the same trip where I saw the Ghent Altarpiece by van Eyck, on a separate day I saw Vermeer's famous Girl With a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis at The Hague. So I think it's neat to realize that in reading the book recommendation I got on this Travel Forum, I now understand something about how the two paintings are linked in an interesting way, which is: two hundred years after van Eyck painted the Ghent Altarpiece, Vermeer (apparently, see discussion below) traveled to Ghent and studied the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the technique van Eyck used to paint the pearls in God's crown; and Vermeer then used that knowledge to paint the pearl in "the girl's" ear (of course Hollywood has solved the mystery of the girl's identity, and she really does look like Scarlett Johansson).

Seriously, when I was looking at these paintings, on separate days, I of course had no knowledge of the above. Now, in my post-trip research, I can now reimagine standing in front of the Ghent Altarpiece and realizing that two hundred years later Vermeer was standing there studying van Eyck's technique, and then being at the Mauritshuis and seeing Vermeer's rendering of the pearl.

I wouldn't have known that, or a lot of other things, without the contributions that each of you makes to this Travel Forum.
So thank you to each of you.

Posted by
1308 posts

What a great thread!

I want to say that a visit to Ghent is worthwhile for many other reasons. It's a fabulous city to explore, with many sights worth seeing. But seeing the altarpiece was certainly a special experience. (I seem to recall someone on this forum saying that Ghent is entirely skippable except for the altarpiece; I respectfully but vehemently disagree!)

Curious Traveler, I too visited the Mauritshuis a few days after my visit to Ghent and was unaware that Vermeer studied the altarpiece and used what he learned. Not having read the book, I wonder if the author cites any source material. Did Vermeer write anything to indicate this? Or have art historians surmised this from their study of the two works? It's a fascinating nugget of art history. Thanks for sharing and for starting this thread!

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248 posts

Lane,
Thank you for your warm reply to my latest post.
To answer one of your questions, the author of this book, which is intended for non-specialists, does not cite source material for the statement in question. For clarification, the statement is made on page 34 of Dr. Noah Charney's "Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece."
I emphatically agree with your statement that Ghent is not just about the Ghent Altarpiece. Just a few of the other sights are:
Church of St. Nicholas
Belfort
Castle of the Counts
Design Museum Ghent
Huis van Alijn
Ambience of the entire historic quarter
And many other sights/attractions

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7693 posts

Did you happen to visit the Botanical Gardens in Ghent?

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7693 posts

Hahaha..well, I haven't been yet.

I'm doing the RS Belgium and Holland tour in April, then in September if things work out right I'm doing a Road Scholar program on Art History in Belgium and Holland which also stays in Ghent. That one is in Ghent for 5 or 6 nights. The Rick Steves tour is in Ghent for 2 nights but I'm going 2 days early so I'll have a full day and part of another day, plus a free afternoon. Just trying to make some lists of things to do and rank them if possible. What I don't see the first time I can pick up the 2nd time. It will also depend if it is an early or late spring. Going in Early April I realize things might not be blooming yet so if not, would probably skip the Botanical Gardens.

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248 posts

Pam,
You mentioned early April. If you want to see what the weather can be like in March, watch the blockbuster film In Bruges, which was filmed in March (it's Bruges but close enough). Hint: March looks cold and rainy. Don't know about April, never been there then.

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7693 posts

Thanks! Yeah, I’m expecting cold and rainy or worse lol. It just turned out that was the best time for me to go.

Also thanks for reminding me about that film!

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11576 posts

...watch the blockbuster film In Bruges, which was filmed in March

Oooh, that's sort of a dark flick but fun if you've been to Bruges.

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7693 posts

Watched In Bruges last night as I noticed it is on Netflix. I am not much for dark comedy but I knew the story line, read the full synopsis so I wasn't surprised and have to say I enjoyed it. I particularly do not want to be one of the elephant Americans who try to go up in the tower. I watched it 1.5 times because I realized I was missing some of the dialogue with their accents so had to fumble until I remembered how to get closed captioning up, hahaha!! Then went back to the beginning to see the first part with the captions on.

I loved the photography of the Bruges scenes. Absolutely gorgeous, which I guess was supposed to be a contrast to the hit men characters.

Thanks so much for the reminder of this movie. And yes, if it was filmed in March, then I'll be ready. It seems like the weather we currently have in the Inland NW, lol!! Altho I didn't note any frozen fog.....

Apparently my to-do list for both Ghent and Bruges is longer than I will have time for!

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248 posts

Pam,
I think it was a Wikipedia article that confirmed it was filmed in Bruges in March, if not Wikipedia, then one of the other film websites. The co-owner of Quasimodo Tours (tours of Flanders Fields battlefield from Bruges) told us the film helped Bruges tourist businesses.
I, too, enjoyed the film. It was set in December, in the story, but as I said above, Wikipedia said filming actually occurred in March, so it gives you some idea of what the weather is like that time of the year.

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1308 posts

To Curious Traveler (and anyone else who's curious, a group in which I definitely include myself):

I decided to follow up on the story from Noah Charney's book, so I wrote to him via his website (https://noahcharney.smugmug.com/). I asked him how we know Vermeer studied the Ghent altarpiece.

His reply:

Hi Lane

Thanks for writing and reading my work. I think you might have
misremembered. I’m not sure if Vermeer visited the altarpiece (he may
have), but I wrote about Durer visiting it—he wrote about it in a book
about his travels.

Best wishes!

Dr Noah Charney

Fortunately I had a page number to go on, so I went to the Seattle Public Library main branch and found the book and looked on page 34. Here's the exact quote:

A close examination of the pearls on [God's] crown reveals that most
were painted in exactly three brush strokes. A dark sweep for the body
of the pearl, a white lower edge to indicate the reflective curvature
of the pearl's underside, and one dollop of bright white for the light
caught in the pearlescent surface. Vermeer would study van Eyck's
technique two hundred years later and go one better, painting the
single pearl in his Girl with a Pearl Earring with exactly one
brushstroke.

So I wrote him back, quoting this. And he replied:

I hadn’t even remembered writing that. I’m afraid I won’t be so
helpful, as the book was published in 2010 and researched years
before, so I don’t have the answer to hand. Suffice to say that the
most famous painted pearls in art history were in the Ghent Altarpiece
prior to Vermeer’s painting, and since he was so close to Ghent, and
Ghent was a point of pilgrimage for artists, it would have been odd if
he had not visited it.

I'm sure he's much more knowledgeable than I in matters of art history (by an exponential order of magnitude), but I couldn't find anything about Vermeer to indicate he ever traveled anywhere from Delft farther than The Hague. So I'm skeptical. It's 100 miles from Delft to Ghent, 4-5 days travel in Vermeer's time. And he was very poor. But I suppose it's possible, since much about Vermeer's life is unknown.

Anyway, I'm just fascinated by the exploration of this kind of historical trivia. I hope I'm not the only one.

Posted by
7693 posts

Wow Lane! You get a 3-stroke painted pearl for your crown for going the extra measure on research! How very interesting.

Posted by
248 posts

Lane,
Great research, your dialogue with Dr. Charney and the other research you did. Thanks for providing the details.

I'm now half way through Dr. Charney's book (my Kindle says page 167), it's the chapter that tells the intriguing story of the 1934 theft of the lower left panel of the Altarpiece (the Righteous Judges panel), which was stolen and has never been recovered. That panel was repainted/copied in 1945 and the copy is what you see when you now visit the Altarpiece.

In my earlier post, I'd merely assumed that, in the mid-1600's, Vermeer would have had to personally view the Altarpiece to be able to see the level of detail described in Dr. Charney's book of the Altarpiece's technique of painting the pearls in God's crown--unless Vermeer had personally viewed (and closely viewed) the Altarpiece.

But this was merely as assumption on my part, since I don't know what kind of reproductions of the Altarpiece, if any, would have been available to Vermeer in the mid-1600's. (maybe Vermeer just logged onto the web).

Posted by
1463 posts

Thanks Lane for your thorough research, it makes for me everything clear, thanks you don't take things for granted, even from writers.