Why laugh at the humanoid sheep in the Ghent altarpiece? It is majestic

Let’s all have a good laugh at Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Nearly 600 years ago, the brothers painted a vast multi-panelled altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, that includes the oldest lifelike faces and figures in any western painting and announces the Renaissance. But get a load of that creepy lamb! It’s got freaky “humanoid” eyes!

The painstaking, scientific restoration of the most enigmatic section of the Van Eycks’ masterpiece, which shows saintly hosts gathering to witness the sacrifice of the Holy Lamb, has attracted some bizarre criticism. Take moth dad, who opines on Twitter: “The lamb of the Ghent Altarpiece was a mistake and whoever painted over it was right to do so.”

Thanks for that insight, but I doubt Jan van Eyck ever made a mistake in his life. He was miles ahead of any Italian Renaissance artist, including Leonardo da Vinci. His Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery in London is the earliest painting in single-point perspective, plus he pioneered oil painting to inject flesh tones with subtle life. The Arnolfini merchant has a face half alive, half hidden in shadow – or perhaps that’s a mistake, too? Jan took these new ideas to spectacular heights in finishing the Ghent Altarpiece, which his brother Hubert had planned. So let’s give his lamb the benefit of the doubt, at least.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. Photograph: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

For this knowing, anthropomorphic face is not meant to be just any sheep. It is a symbol of Jesus – and he was more man than baa-lamb. Then again, he was neither. Or both. And God besides. The Ghent Altarpiece deliberately avoids cliched images of Christ. Above the lamb – when you see the full polyptych – sits Christ enthroned in heaven, with a bushy beard and papal gear. This scary vision of Christ’s majesty is contrasted with the doomed lamb that represents the crucifixion.

This lamb is not dumb, as 19th-century restorers made it seem. Now it is revealed as God, man and sacrifice; a medieval idea painted in a modern and uneasy way. What the restorers have done is to recover the weird and wonderful genius of Jan van Eyck.


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