OMG, I came closer to Jan van Eyck! An optical revolution in Gent, Belgium


Walk in Bruges – Your private guide in Bruges

February 3, 2020

This year ‘Gent’ and ‘Jan van Eyck’ will often be named in the same breath. The restoration of the lower and back panels of the Ghent altarpiece, also known as ‘The adoration of the mystic lamb’, that started in 2012 is finally finished and this calls for a celebration. It will be a festive year in Gent with several exhibitions, events, a music piece, a multimedia spectacle, a floral event and several tours with Van Eyck as inspiration.

As a city guide living in Bruges, where Jan van Eyck lived and worked a large part of his life, I was looking forward to the exhibition: ‘Van Eyck. An optical revolution’. I booked a ticket for the first weekday after the opening of the exhibition, Monday February 3rd, and was blessed with a very quiet and relaxed visit of the museum. Once the exhibition opens, good reviews will nudge many towards buying tickets, and the the exhibition will become increasingly crowded.

Don’t panic, the exhibition is not yet sold out. You still have time until the end of April to visit the exhibition, but don’t wait till the last weeks, when there will be a rush on the remaining tickets. Book your ticket online and save 3 euro on the ticket price. (25 euro instead of 28)

Of the 23 works accredited to Jan Van Eyck preserved worldwide, 13 have traveled to Gent and are shown together with paintings from his workshop. They are set against works by his contemporaries and some of his followers. (like Fra Angelico, Pisanello, Masaccio, Gerard David and Petrus Christus just to name a few) Unlike the Italian painters, the theory of the mathematical perspective stayed elusive to Jan van Eyck, but he could suggest depth and three-dimensionality in his paintings through an exceptional use of color and light creating a kind of trompe l’oeil effect.

Now what makes Jan van Eyck such an exceptional painter? Three words: realism, illusionism and symbolism. There is his innovative use of oil paint, the realism and the amount of detail on his paintings, even if they are only the size of a postcard. Looking at ‘Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata’ you cannot but wonder how he managed to paint such detail on such a small surface. He was the first to paint lifelike portraits of friends, family members and himself. In his time these kind of portraits were reserved for kings, queens and nobels. And then there are the many mysteries that still shroud the life and work of Van Eyck. Mystery is a powerful marketing tool. Questions like ‘Was it Hubert or Jan or an assistant?’, ‘Why was the lamb painted over?’, ‘Where was Jan really born?’, ‘Where is the panel of The righteous judges?’, ‘Is it a self-portrait?’ stay unanswered today.

Should you visit the exhibition? Oh yes you have to!! The paintings are put on eye level, beautifully lighted, behind glas so that you can come really close with no risk of touching the works. You can see the luminous colors that make jewels shine. You can study the incredible microscopic details, hairs, warts, folds in the clothing, embroidery that almost look photographically real. Marvel at the way he uses light on his subjects and how he creates depth and three-dimensionality with what the narrators of the audio guide call ‘intuitive or atmospheric perspective’.

In his time people must have had the feeling they came closer to god when seeing his religious scenes. The light he paints seems to come from another world, a godly world. He paints alabaster statues in what we today would call augmented reality. The faces of angels are soft and sweet, with an almost cheeky smile, simply angelic. The bright rainbow colors of the angles’ wings are luminous and would not be out of place on the decors of Tomorrowland. They seem to invite you to a heavenly party. And set against the paintings of his Italian contemporaries makes his paintings even more refined. The miniature in the The Turin-Milan Book of Hours, is not like other miniatures, it is in fact a microscopic painting in a book.

Jan van Eyck’s motto ‘Als ich can’ can be translated as ‘As good as I can’. His ‘good’ is today appreciated as quite exceptional and the word Primitive doesn’t do justice to the highly skilled painter Van Eyck was!

The painting ‘Portrait of Margareta van Eyck’ will only be on show in Gent until March 9th, after which it will return to the Groeninge museum in Bruges for the Van Eyck exhibition aptly named ‘Van Eyck in Bruges’ from March 12th to July 12th. The exhibition in Bruges is devoted to two masterpieces: ‘Madonna with Canon Joris Van der Paele’ and ‘Portrait of his wife Margaretha van Eyck’.

On the ticket they advise a visit of about 1,5 hours, we stayed 2,5 hours and it didn’t seem a minute too long. The exhibition is very well designed, the walls painted in dark tones on which the lighted paintings contrast beautifully. They almost stand out like little jewels. Having seen the paintings as reproductions before I was surprised by the small sizes of many paintings. The audio guide, which is very informative and pleasant to listen to, alternates with video and text on the walls of the museum. Each one of the 13 room is built up around 2 or 3 paintings of Van Eyck, focusing on a different themes like the adoration of Mary, Adam and Eve, miniatures or sculptures.

When in Ghent you can combine a visit to the exhibition ‘Van Eyck. An optical revolution’, with a visit to the Saint Bavo cathedral to see the inner panels of the Ghent altarpiece after the restoration of the lower panels, and look the mystic lamb in the eye.

Works by Van Eyck on show in Ghent:

The Madonna by the Fountain, 1439, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp,
Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, c.1435, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin,
The Annunciation diptych, c. 1433 – 1435, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid,
Portrait of a Man with Blue Chaperon, c. 1428−1430, Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu (Romania),
Saint Barbara of Nicomedia, 1437, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp,
The Annunciation, c. 1434-1436, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC,
The Turin-Milan Book of Hours, c. 1420-1440, Palazzo Madama, Turin,
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1430-1435, Sabauda Gallery, Turin ,
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1430-1432, Museum of art, Philadelphia,
Portrait of Jan de Leeuw, 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Gemäldegalerie
Portrait of Margareta van Eyck, 1439, Musea Brugge, Groeningemuseum, Bruges
Portrait of a man (Léal souvenir of Tymotheos), 1432, The National Gallery, London
The eight restored exterior panels and Adam and Eve of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, a highly exceptional loan from St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent.

Some of these paintings have been restored like the Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, The Turin-Milan Book of Hours and Portrait of a man (Léal souvenir of Tymotheos).

Works by the studio of Van Eyck on show in Ghent. Some were made while Jan van Eyck was still alive, others were made after the masters’ death in 1441:

The Madonna at the Fountain, c. 1440 (Private Collectioni,
The Crucifixion, c. 1430 (Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin)
The Crucifixion, c. 1445 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
The Three Marys at the Tomb, c. 1440 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
St Jerome in his Study, c. 1442 (Detroit Institute of Art)
The Crucifixion, c. 1445 (Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro, Venezia)
The Twelve Apostles, c. 1445 (Grafische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna)
Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist, c. 1440 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Portrait of a Man with a Chaperon, fifteenth century (Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques, Paris)

4 thoughts on “OMG, I came closer to Jan van Eyck! An optical revolution in Gent, Belgium

  1. Ik kan Pascal alleen maar bijtreden, heel mooi beschreven ! De goesting om de tentoonstelling te bezoeken is alleen maar groter geworden 😉

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