Mystic lamb’s humanoid face shocks art world

Ghent Altarpiece: Hubert and Jan Van Eyck’s 1432 masterpiece has captivated the art world for centuries.

Does restoration ruin art? One of the world’s most famous paintings has been described as “a shock for everybody” after a clean-up revealed a sheep with extremely human-like eyes.

Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage thought it would be a moment of triumph.

After painstaking work by restorers using surgical scalpels and microscopes, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck could be shown to the world again. “There are no words to express the result,” the institute’s website crowed. The process had “brought back the original vividness, richness of detail and brilliant colours for all to see”.

But expert reaction to the restoration was one of shock and disbelief.

The lamb at the centre of the 15th-Century altarpiece – representing Jesus Christ – had acquired what the Smithsonian Magazine called “alarmingly humanoid” eyes. Even the head restorer, Hélène Dubois, admits that it looks “cartoonish”.

Plenty of other restorations have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. A painting in a Spanish church was nicknamed “The Monkey Christ” after a clumsy local artist worked on it, while a statue of the baby Jesus in Canada was compared to Maggie in The Simpsons when a sculptor gave it a new head.

There is no suggestion, however, that the Belgian team got anything wrong. They simply revealed what the artists wanted people to see – which looks weird to us, but may have impressed their contemporaries in the 15th Century.

But what an artist intended, and how he or she achieved it, is not always clear. One of the most controversial restoration projects ever was that of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling at the end of the last century.

Cleaning it revealed unexpectedly bright colours: “It is like opening a window in a dark room and seeing it flooded with light,” one expert declared.

Others, though, said that the restorers had misunderstood Michelangelo’s methods and taken the cleaning too far, so that it showed a version of the ceiling before the artist had put the final touches to it.

They argued that he had started with bright colours, but then toned them down. What the restorers thought was soot from candles was actually a darker layer which he had added deliberately. By removing it, precious details had been lost.

Does restoration ruin art?

Restoration drama

No. Some people say that it is essential to restore works of art if we are to appreciate them fully. Centuries of dust and pollution can spoil a painting’s original colours and hide some details altogether; so can the varnish that was supposed to protect it. Nobody would hesitate to repair a work damaged by accident or an act of vandalism; repairing the damage done by time is not so very different.

Yes. Others argue that paintings often deteriorate because they were badly restored in earlier times by people using crude techniques. We may have more advanced methods now but, in years to come, problems could emerge with those too. By the time a work of art needs restoration, the artist will probably be dead, so no one can be sure exactly how it was supposed to look.

You Decide

  1. If you could make any ruined building as good as new, which one would you choose?
  2. Is there any point to realistic paintings when we can capture things so easily in photographs?

Activities

  1. Make a copy of Van Gogh’s painting Sunflowers, which you can find online. Then change the colours to make it look as different as possible.
  2. Artists like Hubert and Jan van Eyck often produced paintings made up of several separate scenes. Design a picture with seven different scenes, summing up a day at your school.

Some People Say...

“Nothing is a masterpiece – a real masterpiece – till it’s about 200 years old.”

Joyce Cary (1888-1957), Anglo-Irish novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Adoration of the Lamb is one of 12 panels in an altarpiece in Ghent painted by the brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, starting in the 1420s. It has just been restored by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. The restorers were led by Hélène Dubois, and they used scalpels and microscopes. Some people were shocked by the changes to the lamb’s face. The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was painted by Michelangelo. It underwent a controversial restoration at the end of the last century.
What do we not know?
Which of the Van Eyck brothers painted the lamb, or whether they both had a hand in it. We don’t know who altered the lamb’s face, and when. It is unknown if Michelangelo intended the Sistine Chapel ceiling to have the bright colours found by restorers, or whether he toned them down after painting them. We don’t know if the restoration methods used now will eventually turn out to be faulty.

Word Watch

Painstaking
Involving a lot of care and effort.
Scalpels
A knife with a very thin and sharp blade.
Adoration
In religious contexts, an act of worship; otherwise, great love.
Jan van Eyck
A leading Flemish painter, famous for realistic portraits such as The Arnolfini Marriage. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was probably started by his brother Hubert, and finished by Jan after Hubert’s death in 1426. It is thought to be the first important painting done in oil paints.
Crowed
Talk in a proud way about something you have done.
Sistine Chapel
The main chapel in the Vatican in Rome. The ceiling was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, and is regarded as one of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
Deteriorate
Become spoilt.

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