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The Ghent Altarpiece (via Wikimedia Commons)

Within the lexicon of Christian symbology, the lamb represents both the suffering and the triumph of Christ — though a sacrificial animal, it also embodies characteristics of gentleness, innocence, and purity. Perhaps these heady contradictions are to blame for the jarring reveal in the restoration of the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” altarpiece (1432), also knowns as the Ghent Altarpiece, by brothers and Flemish artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The scene is one in a 12-panel work that has been through many a trial and tribulation, historically — a reality apparently foretold by the intense and strange expression conveyed by the central character in the altar. This lamb has seen some things, man.

Not since the days of the “Ecce Homo” mishap, wherein an amateur art restorer Cecilia Giménez utterly violated a 1930s fresco of Jesus in the Misericordia Church sanctuary of small-town Borja, has the internet turned out in such force to comment on a restoration effort gone pear-shaped. In the case of our mystic ruminant, however, the restoration was a €2.2 million (~$2.4 million) effort that has been ongoing since 2012, led by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) and viewable by the public within a specially constructed laboratory at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts, where the piece resides. This means there has been many a witness to the slow-dawning horror, as the lamb’s formerly soft, benevolent, and decidedly ungulate visage transformed into a vision described by Smithsonian Magazine as “alarmingly humanoid.”

Hélène Dubois, head of restoration at the Ghent Museum, described the unveiled face as “cartoonish” and “a shock for everybody” in an interview with the Art Newspaper.

“There are no words to express the result,” said in a statement on the royal institute’s website. Luckily, when words fail, there are always memes.

Curators from Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage removed micro-layers of old paint surgical scalpels and microscopes, identified the overpainting on the image sitting above a layer of original varnish. One cannot help but wonder if the overpainting was perhaps an intentional effort to, you know, make it look more like a lamb and less like an outtake from Black Sheep (2006).

“Liberated from the thick layers of yellow varnish and the coarser overpaints, we can discover the Van Eycks’ sublime virtuosity in abundance,” says the Royal Institute statement. One suspects the statement employs the Kantian concept of the sublime, wherein greatness is conveyed in a way that surpasses calculation, measurement, or in the case of our mystic lamb, prolonged viewing.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

20 replies on “A Nightmarish Restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece Wool Go Down in Meme History”

  1. I don’t agree at all with this article, or with the silly memes that have generated from the restoration. I’m an atheist, but does it not make sense that the original artist would have humanised the face of the lamb to distinguish it from a common animal? The lamb is after all a metaphor for the son of God. And the piercing gaze is surely significant – perhaps it was meant to be unsettling, challenging the anodyne notion of meekness and innocence. it’s absurd to conflate this with disastrous “restorations”. I’m shocked by the statement by the head of restoration at the Ghent Museum, which I find bizarre.

    1. Agree. I think the restored face is quite beautiful, if unsettling, and seems fully in keeping with the Lamb’s place in the gravitational center of the altarpiece.

      1. I agree with both. We might expect devotional images to be sweet and comforting, but this was not necessarily so in the early 15th century. This lamb was surely intended to energize the faithful, not put them to sleep.

    2. Perhaps Hubert and Jan are telling us who is really god: the one who conceives of it and is observable.

  2. Hm,…there’s restoration and then there’s inserting uniformed meaning. Did the restorers perhaps simply reveal the artist’s preliminary layers? Then rationalize their baa-baa boo-boo?

    1. I think the evidence against that is mentioned in the article; conservators removed paint that was on top of the original varnish. This varnish wouldn’t have been applied before the painting was finished and the paint had completely dried.

      1. Again, I repeat my assertion, This artist questions the restoration and think it may have gone too far. Techniques in painting, layering of glazes and revisions by the artist would explain a varnish between one paint layer and the next. These paintings unfold over time and yes, there are varnishes that are indeed applied by the artist with significant time for curing before continuing. Often there are several layers and revisions between as well, but by the artist.

        1. varnishing between layers is a late “innovation” in oil painting technique–no evidence at all that this was ever done in early netherlandish painting. this article is childish. everything about the pretty lamb face that was removed looks like the kind of “correction” that a nineteenth century restoration would do to “improve” an the work of an old master.

  3. Whoever funded this satanic bah-bah is the one who was fleeced. Happily, the world has photographs of the original so that a meaningful and artistic reconstruction can be facilitated.

  4. pull up the image on you screen and have a look at it from 10 feet away and you may approximate something of the correct viewing distance. My initial reaction was very positive.

  5. If that image was the artists’ original intent, what is the problem? Or are we just throwing spitballs in class at the teacher’s back?

  6. Hyperallergic seems to have a suspicion–or is it perhaps a fear?–of art made before the 20th century. Why publish a jokey piece like this when you could have had a well-informed and informative article by someone who actually knew something about the subject? Why should serious readers take the publication seriously when it falls so flat on a subject that could be so interesting to its audience?

  7. This isn’t bad restoration by anyone’s estimation, surely- they have removed the overpainting and now we see what the artist intended. It looks a little strange to some people? Well, it’s a holy sheep, so strange seems quite appropriate to me. Why does everything have to be a joke delivered with a sneer and a wink?

  8. I understand that this article is supposed to be a bit tongue in cheek (and I do enjoy the memes), but the headline–“nightmarish restoration…”–and the “bad restoration” tag are pretty insulting to the restorers/conservators who spent the better part of a decade working on this project. Together they imply that the restoration team made some grave errors, when actually, they were just restoring the work to its original appearance.

    Also, Hélène Dubois’s comment was taken out of context. When she said it was a “shock for everybody,” she was referring to the discovery of the 16th-century overpainting, not the discovery of the original lamb face.

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