During the holidays I’ve had the opportunity to take a little vacation in a place I really like – almost for just one reason. I’m a fan of 15th/16th century flemish/dutch painters, who paint large pictures as if they were miniatures, and whose interpretation of reality is radically distant from the ones that followed, like Michelangelo or Caravaggio. The flemish painters’ hyper-realism, otherwordly composition, symbolic language and unbelievable technique always leave me breathless. So we (Giulia, who fortunately can bear my enthusiasm, and I) packed up and went to the Flanders (the northern region of Belgium) for a week. We saw Bruges (a mixed experience, very pretty but full of package tourists) and Antwerp (a bizarre mix of Boston and Brussels), we visited Ostende (a frightening northern seaside resort) but most of all we went to Ghent. And not just for the town, which is cute and worth a visit, but to see one the of most important paintings in western art. All Belgian fine art museums are very good; the Groeninge Museum in Bruges opens with this stunner. But the highlight is certainly the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan and Hubertus Van Eyck, completed in 1432 and visible in the location (but not the exact space) it was devised for – the magnificent cathedral of St. Bavo. It’s a gigantic work, 12 panels, 4.6 mt wide and 3.5 mt tall, and it has an amazing history. Since day one it was considered the benchmark for the then new oil painting technique, that allowed for new effects and very precise detail. The van Eyck brothers, especially younger Jan, who went on to become one of the greatest painters in history, were the first to master this technique. For centuries, artists from all over Europe would visit Ghent just to see this painting, much like they did later with Italy and Caravaggio or Bernini. Hitler was also a huge fan (not surprisingly, this being the apex of northern european medieval art): “At the start of the German invasion in 1940, a decision was made in Belgium to send the altarpiece to the Vatican to keep it safe. The painting was in France, en route to the Vatican, when Italy declared war as an Axis power alongside Germany. In 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the painting to be seized and brought to Germany to be stored in the Schloss Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria*. After Allied air raids made the castle too dangerous for the painting, it was stored in the Altaussee salt mines in Austria. The altarpiece was recovered in 1945 by the Allied group Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program.” (from the very informative Wikipedia page)
For me it was a revelation: I had seen Jan van Eyck‘s work before (there are only 20 paintings certainly attributed to him, including this masterpiece I saw in Bruges), but nothing can prepare you for the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb experience. The painting is perfect, magnificent, the composition is flawless, and the whole thing is almost too much. It also suggests quite a lot of later art, from Leonardo to De Chirico, to Dalì. It takes a long time to take this one in (also because it’s shown in a small room, full of tourists who don’t seem too impressed), and just the three top center panels and enough to blow your mind. Even when closed, this thing is moving and magnificent.
I’ve seen a number of masterpieces during this trip (like this gem, at the lovely Memling museum in Bruges) and previously, but this stands out as one of the most memorable artistic experiences of my entire life. This is the art I dream of, in 2017: one that needs no explanation, no previous knowledge, no critical study. An art that takes you literally somewhere else, and in the process repeatedly kicks your ass hard, making you go “whoaa” (which I proudly holler, to the amazement of museum employees worldwide). Unfortunately I seem to be desperately out of fashion.
PS: if you like rude, judgemental, impolite and annoying people, go to the Flanders: they are the champions.
*Of all the extravagant luxuries of dictators, from Cesar to Trump, this is the one I most understand: having this piece of art in your home.