EIt’s like time travel. You can have the best tourist guide, the best weather and the best attractions, but all too often the feeling of coming closer to the past does not want to arise. The magical moment when you think you can catch a glimpse of the past cannot be forced. A lot has to come together – like in Bruges.
On this cool afternoon, the otherwise crowded medieval old town is deserted. The way to the Beguinage leads over the cat-humped bridge that spans a lake called Minnewater. Swans glide across the water.
In the Beguinage, this jewel of world cultural heritage, previously unmarried women lived together who valued a self-determined life in the city. Today the refuge is inhabited by sisters of the Benedictine order and other single women.
Whitewashed gables behind trees that cast long shadows. The sky turns red. A sister makes her way through rustling leaves. Otherwise it is silent.
At this moment you may really think everything is possible. Even that the painter Jan van Eyck, who lived in the West Flemish city in the first half of the 15th century, bends around the corner with his bordeaux-red headdress reminiscent of a turban and takes a critical look at time travelers from the 21st century.
Flanders honors the painter Jan van Eyck
2020 is Jan van Eyck’s year in Flanders. Bruges’ neighboring city of Ghent does not exactly promise “the largest Jan van Eyck exhibition that has ever existed”, although the museum is currently closed due to the corona virus.
The program planned in Ghent in honor of Jan van Eyck bears the youthful motto “OMG! Van Eyck was here ”, it alludes to the signature“ Johannes de Eyck fuit hic ”(Jan van Eyck was here). It is emblazoned on the famous painting “The Arnolfini Wedding”, which is exhibited today in the National Gallery in London. Van Eyck was the first artist to leave anonymity at the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Van Eyck died in Bruges in 1441. The West Flemish city keeps two of his paintings in its Groeninge Museum – and thus already owns ten percent of his total oeuvre, which consists of no more than 20 works.
Realistic painting styles arouse the interest of doctors
One of the two pictures is a portrait of Jan van Eyck’s wife Margareta at the age of 33. With a hint of a smile and a slightly mocking look, she looks down at the viewer.
She has plucked eyebrows and a very idiosyncratic hairstyle in which the hair has been stuffed into two wire horns. After the artist’s death, Margareta continued to run the studio with several students for years, reports city guide Pol Mulier. So she seems to have been very self-confident, and this is exactly what the portrait conveys.
The other picture is a major work of the painter, his largest painting after the Ghent Altarpiece: the “Madonna of the Canon Joris van der Paele”. It shows the client Joris van der Paele, a canon who is as old as he is full of stones, in a seemingly familiar chat with the Blessed Virgin Mary together with the baby Jesus, a guardian angel and a parish saint.
The fascinating thing about it is the extremely realistic way of painting, which has even aroused the interest of non-specialist researchers. “There are doctors who have examined what diseases van der Paele had,” says Mulier. “You have found five or six ailments.”
The most striking are a thick vein on the temple and a cramp-like finger position, which indicates rheumatism. In the armor of the patron saint, Jan van Eyck standing in front of himself is reflected very small.
The beauty of Bruges and Ghent lasted for centuries
The painter spent his life in a country that has long ceased to exist: the fairytale Duchy of Burgundy. It was one of the most powerful countries in Europe and ranged from the Dutch Wadden Islands to the French Alps in the 15th century.
The heart of this empire was today’s Belgium with the largest cities in Northern Europe after Paris. Ghent, for example, had 64,000 inhabitants, while the largest German city of Cologne had only 40,000. While Cologne fell into ruins during the Second World War, the beauty of Bruges and Ghent lasted for centuries.
Van Eyck’s main work, the Ghent Altarpiece, is still in the church where he was inaugurated in 1432, the Ghent Cathedral of St. Bavo. The technology that Van Eyck used here was so revolutionary that the altar is sometimes celebrated as the founding act of modern painting. Van Eyck was a pioneer in many fields, making him one of the first – if not the first – landscape painter.
Albrecht Dürer visited the altar as a tourist
“One of the most delicious, very sensible consort,” said Albrecht Dürer, who visited the altar in 1521 as a normal tourist. The effect on people at that time has to be imagined as if they had suddenly been shown a high-resolution photo from the 21st century.
The closer you get to the altogether 20 picture panels that make up the altar, the smaller miniatures they dissolve. Around the fountain of life depicted on the main table, for example, 42 different plant species grow on a piece of meadow, including some subtropical ones, as Jan van Eyck might have seen them as emissary of the Prince of Burgundy Philip the Good on his trip to Portugal.
The complexity of the content comes to the stylistic mastery in the form of a theological picture program, which has not yet been completely deciphered – one of the great riddles of art history.
“When I was a little boy I used to sing in the choir,” says tourist guide Guido De Schrijver. “And when the sun was shining, we just ran in and looked at the work a few centimeters away.”
A new visitor center for the altar is currently being built in the back of the cathedral and is scheduled to open in October 2020. The cathedral and its masterpiece will then be brought to life with simulations and interactive modules. Visitors get virtual reality glasses and see everything like Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries, Astrid Van Ingelgom, project manager of the Van Eyck Year in Ghent, promises.
Napoleon and Hitler dragged the altar away
The biggest event of the theme year is the currently closed exhibition “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution ”in the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent. It brings together ten paintings by the master, half of the entire work. There are also around 100 works from his studio, copies of lost works and those of his late medieval contemporaries.
The focus of the show is on the restored outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. At the start of the restoration project that started in 2012, the experts had determined that 70 percent of the altarpieces had been painted over during previous restorations.
Fortunately, the original color layer was still underneath, reports the head of the project, Hélène Dubois. The restoration of the original state not only made the colors appear much stronger and more radiant, but also revealed more details and resulted in a greater depth effect. As a result, the work can now be seen for the first time in centuries as van Eyck and his contemporaries presented it.
The “Lamb of God” itself, the main figure of the altar, suddenly has a much more human head after the painting has been removed, it finally symbolizes Jesus. Van Eyck’s original version was repainted in the 16th century, probably to meet the demands of radical Calvinists who considered the representation of God to be blasphemy – similar to today’s Islamic fundamentalists.
The Calvinists destroyed most of the church art in a “picture storm”, but the altar could be hidden in time in the town hall. He was later abducted by Napoleon and Hitler, among others, but miraculously found his way back to where he came from. Today it is a national shrine.
The city skyline in Belgium remains the same to this day
“Van Eyck had incredible powers of observation, he saw everything,” explains Frederica Van Dam, one of the curators of the exhibition. The reflection on the pearls of the Lamb of God is precisely tailored to the lighting conditions in the side chapel, which was intended as the location of the altar. “To do this, van Eyck had to come back to the chapel for months at the same time of day.”
The exhibition makes it clear that at the Burgundian court, van Eyck was in contact with other artists, but also with scientists, intellectuals and technicians from various disciplines, and that their know-how was incorporated into his pictures. “The farm was a cultural melting pot,” said Van Dam. “His environment was extremely important.”
The fascinating thing is that this environment has been largely preserved to this day. When Van Eyck returned, he would find his way around Bruges just as easily as in Ghent.
In the background the main panel of the altar with the “Lamb of God” shows the Ghent “skyline”. Visitors can see for themselves that it is virtually unchanged after almost 600 years. And that’s really quite unique.
Information desk: visitflanders.de