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.