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The Gent From Ghent

In the first of the four volumes of Thomas Nugent’s Grand Tour of 1749, that hefty guidebook required of aristocratic British travelers to the continent, the city of Ghent (now in Belgium, which didn’t exist when Nugent was writing) is praised for its “healthful air,” its 100 bridges and many canals.  Nugent describes it as “one of the biggest cities in Europe”: for him size meant geographical area not population. Ghent was a whopping fifteen miles in circumference, Nugent tells us. Much of that area—half of it inside the ancient walls, the rest outside them—was farmland.  Two-hundred fifty years on, such local forms of agricultural production seem visionary rather than antiquated.  Last month Belgian farmers, angry at the government’s plans to reduce nitrogen pollution, hanged the country’s environment minister in effigy.

The English spelling adds the H to the Flemish Gent; the French—that tongue being, along with German and Dutch, one of Belgium’s three official languages—go with Gand: Grand without the R. That’s the way urban historians tend to think of the place—its grandeur a thing of the Late Gothic Past.  The city was one of Europe’s largest—in our modern sense—by the 13th century, housing as many as 60,000 within its limits. North of the Alps only Paris was bigger.

History likes to tell us that Alexandria was surpassed by Rome then by Paris … then New York and Mumbai and Shanghai, and soon the Martian megalopolis of Muskotopia. Global perspectives throw in Mexico City back when the Aztecs ran the place. But even though ancient Ghent had one percent the population of contemporary Houston, Ghent produced more art.  Bigger doesn’t mean better.

Size does matter to Nugent when it comes to the prestigious buildings of church and state.  He informs us that Ghent’s Cathedral dedicated to St. Bavo is just as large as Canterbury Cathedral, though the former is “better adorned within.”  Nugent is not chiefly concerned with art, even if many of his picture-hunting readers were eager to acquire paintings and sculptures for their enormous houses in the English countryside.  The reference to the richly adorned interior of St. Bavo’s is the closet Nugent comes to telling us about its most revered work of art, indeed one of the most famous in the world:  known by the Flemish as the Lam Gods, referred to in English as the Ghent Altarpiece.

For its mastery of perspective, realistic representation of human faces (and humanized face of that central sheep), and its application of the then-revolutionary technology of oil paints and their vibrant colors, the Altarpiece is hailed as one of the greatest artistic masterpieces of the European tradition. It boasts the UNESCO imprimatur.  That status brings the tourists.

Nowadays Ghent has the feeling of picturesque and not-quite-quaint Belgian city, the historic center graced by gabled Golden Age houses along canals and soaring churches that speak of an illustrious past in which the display of wealth and artistic skill could serve God and self.

Tourists make their way here, but at this point in the summer just as the European school holidays begin, Ghent doesn’t seem beset by tour buses and mobs of sightseers herded by megaphone-wielding guides.  Nugent describes Ghent as a lively commercial center and isn’t concerned that its preeminence as trade and textile hub had been eroded even before the European ships of “Discovery” had been launched.

Many of the large “houses well built of brick” praised by Nugent are still standing and present a painterly cityscape along the central canal formed by the River Leie. From the niches high on the impressive faced of National Theater in Ghent, completed in the last year of the nineteenth in a sumptuous neo-renaissance style, statues of city fathers look down at the modern follies below.  On Tuesday a man was blowing giant bubbles for the tourists: the wobbly spheres floated up past the disapproving stone gazes to the deep blue sky, cloudless but for the matrix of scudding contrails.

Alongside the theater, but literally towering above it, is the Cathedral of Saint Bavo.  If a scrum of modern tourists is to be expected it is in this church with its celebrated Altarpiece.

Though I’ve been fascinated by the Altarpiece—one of its many panels in particular—for 40 years, I at last made it the 50 kilometers across Flanders from Bruges, where I’ve played several concerts over the years and where Jan van Eyck died in in 1441 on July 9th—580 years ago tomorrow. Finding myself at last in Ghent on Tuesday, I visited the Altarpiece in the early afternoon and again the next morning soon after the cathedral opened at 9:30. I encountered perhaps a dozen other visitors on Tuesday during the hour-and-a-half I spent in the chapel that houses the masterpiece.

My reprise coda the next day lasted twenty minutes in front of the Altarpiece (and behind it, since the backsides of the outer panels are also painted). On the recommendation of a friend, I had bought a ticket for the “immersive” Virtual Reality experience in the crypt. For that privilege you pay 16 Euros; it’s 12 to see only the Altarpiece.

On entering the crypt a staff member straps a bulky headset on you and sends you on your way from station to station under the hulking arches. At the first of these, the cathedral springs up before you, the labor and ambition of centuries taking shape in the invisible air in seconds. There follows a meeting with the donors of the Altarpiece and then a visit to the van Eyck brothers’ workshop. The masters dab paint on their pictures as their apprentices grind pigment.  The tour concludes with a brisk trot through  turbulent subsequent itinerary of the paintings: its rescue from the Calvinist image-wreckers of 1566, when the panels were taken from the frame and hoisted up into the tour and hidden there; the confiscation by Napoleon’s troops; the sale to the German Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV in the nineteenth century, and the repatriation after the First World War; the Nazi’s theft and the subsequent return thanks to the Monument Men. In this way we are made to understand the highly contingent—you might even say miracle—of Altarpiece’s survival.

The virtual tour was informative, but one realizes as the program hiccups through its chapters and the bandy-legged human figures jerk and jive that we are still a long way from the Metaverse.  The virtual guide does make clear, however, the potential for an “enhanced experience” when one of the stations takes you close into the painting, millimeters from the pigment, to examine incredible details such as the seventy species of plants and trees from across Europe that make up the green field at the center of the painting with the Lamb. This meadow alone is an artistic, botanical triumph.

A modern staircase encased in glass—also equipped with an elevator—rises up along the exterior of the wall of the cathedral and takes you some fifty feet above the crypt to the chapel in the apse where the Altarpiece now stands.  The paintings are also encased in glass—a necessary protective measure but one that works in dissonant counterpoint with the pictures themselves and the baroque chapel in which they are now displayed.

Early Modern within the Modern with in the Baroque within the Gothic.

The original frame and hinges (back in the van Eycks’ day and the centuries that followed the Altarpiece was opened only on Feast Days) were works of tremendous skill and were adorned with inscriptions, including one that praised the older brother Hubert as the greater artist than his now far-more famous younger brother, Jan. The frame was destroyed by the intruders of 1566. Hubert died before the Altarpiece was finished in 1432 after nearly a decade of labor.

Much of my attention was devoted to the second panel from the right, which depicts the most famous organist in the long history of the history. X-ray studies showed that the hand position of the organist and keyboard were repainted to show the latest expansion of the compass and the exact number of keys available in the 1430s. Along with the clock, the organ was then the most sophisticated technology, and important innovations in ergonomics and mechanics were then being pursued, especially by Flemish builders and inventors.  The van Eyck studio wanted be in step with the latest update. It was as if a modern-day painter had retouched Barack Obama’s wrist to show the most recent model of Apple Watch. Such was the dedication of the Ghent Altarpiece artists to depicting their current reality, even augmenting it in their unprecedented way.

When left alone with the chapel, I took selfies in front of the organist, snapping shots of my hand and its attempts to replicate the shape of hers.

The pamphlet assures that the musicians on the pair of panels placed symmetrically to either side on the top tier are to be identified as angels even if though don’t have wings.

Whatever the organist’s true nature, I decided that her depiction by the Van Eycks and that of the entire Altar was a product of what I baptized as “Impressivism.” Hymned by the organist, The Lamb of God is a work of astounding realism and research, technical skill and dedication that brought new visions into the world.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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