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St-Baafskathedraal

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The best place to start an exploration of the city is the mainly Gothic St-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral), squeezed into the eastern corner of St-Baafsplein. The third church on this site, and 250 years in the making, the cathedral is a tad lop-sided, but there’s no gainsaying the imposing beauty of the west tower, with its long, elegant windows and perky corner turrets. Some 82m high, the tower was the last major part of the church to be completed, topped off in 1554 – just before the outbreak of the religious wars that were to wrack the country for the next one hundred years.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

Inside the cathedral, in a small chapel to the left of the entrance is Ghent’s greatest treasure, a winged altarpiece known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (De Aanbidding van het Lam Gods), a seminal work of the early 1430s, though of dubious provenance. Since the discovery of a Latin verse on its frame in the nineteenth century, academics have been arguing about who actually painted it. The inscription reads that Hubert van Eyck “than whom none was greater” began, and Jan van Eyck, “second in art”, completed the work, but as nothing else is known of Hubert, some art historians doubt his existence. They argue that Jan, who lived and worked in several cities (including Ghent) was entirely responsible for the painting and that only later, after Jan had firmly rooted himself in the rival city of Bruges, did the citizens of Ghent invent “Hubert” to counter his fame. No one knows the altarpiece’s authorship for sure, but what is certain is that in his manipulation of the technique of oil painting the artist – or artists – was able to capture a needle-sharp, luminous realism that must have stunned his contemporaries.

The altarpiece is now displayed with its panels open, though originally these were kept closed and the painting only revealed on high days and holidays. Consequently, it’s actually best to begin round the back with the cover screens, which hold a beautiful Annunciation scene with the Archangel Gabriel’s wings reaching up to the timbered ceiling of a Flemish house, the streets of a town visible through the windows. In a brilliant coup of lighting, the shadows of the angel dapple the room, emphasizing the reality of the apparition – a technique repeated on the opposite cover panel around the figure of Mary. Below, the donor and his wife, a certain Joos Vydt and Isabella Borluut, kneel piously alongside statues of the saints.

By design, the restrained exterior was but a foretaste of what lies within – a striking, visionary work of art whose brilliant colours and precise draughtsmanship still take the breath away. On the upper level sit God the Father (some say Christ Triumphant), the Virgin and John the Baptist in gleaming clarity; to the right are musician-angels and a nude, pregnant Eve; and on the left is Adam plus a group of singing angels, who strain to read their music. The celebrated sixteenth-century Flemish art critic Karel van Mander argued that the singers were so artfully painted that he could discern the different pitches of their voices – and true or not, it is the detail that impresses, especially the richly embroidered trimmings on the cloaks. In the lower central panel the Lamb, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, is depicted in a heavenly paradise – “the first evolved landscape in European painting”, suggested Kenneth Clark – seen as a sort of idealized Low Countries. The Lamb stands on an altar whose rim is minutely inscribed with a quotation from the Gospel of St John, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world”. Four groups converge on the Lamb from the corners of the central panel. In the bottom right are a group of male saints and up above them are their female equivalents; the bottom left shows the patriarchs of the Old Testament and above them are an assortment of bishops, dressed in blue vestments and carrying palm branches.

On the side panels, approaching the Lamb across symbolically rough and stony ground, are more saintly figures. On the right-hand side are two groups, the first being St Anthony and his hermits, the second St Christopher, shown here as a giant with a band of pilgrims. On the left side panel come the horsemen, the inner group symbolizing the Warriors of Christ – including St George bearing a shield with a red cross – and the outer group showing the Just Judges, each of whom is dressed in fancy Flemish attire. The Just Judges panel is not, however, authentic. It was added during the 1950s to replace the original, which was stolen in 1934 and never recovered. The lost panel features in Albert Camus’s novel The Fall, whose protagonist keeps it in a cupboard, declining to return it for a complex of reasons, one of which is “because those judges are on their way to meet the Lamb …[but]…there is no lamb or innocence any longer”. Naturally enough, there has been endless speculation as to who stole the panel and why with suspicion ultimately resting on a certain Arsène Goedertier, a stockbroker and conservative politician from just outside of Ghent, who made a deathbed confession in 1934. Whether he was acting alone or as an agent for others is still hotly contested – some argue that the Knights Templar orchestrated the theft, others accuse the Nazis, but no one really knows.

The theft was just one of many dramatic events to befall the painting – indeed it’s remarkable that the altarpiece has survived at all. The Calvinists wanted to destroy it; Philip II of Spain tried to acquire it; the Emperor Joseph II disapproved of the painting so violently that he replaced the nude Adam and Eve with a clothed version of 1784 (exhibited today on a column at the start of the nave just inside the church entrance); and near the end of World War II the Germans hid it in an Austrian salt mine, where it remained until American soldiers rescued it in 1945.