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Ghent, Belgium: Staint Bavo’s Cathedral & the Ghent Altarpiece

About Saint Bavo’s Cathedral:

This Cathedral is as much art museum as Cathedral.  It contains a rare art collection, with items such as “Saint Bavo enters the Convent at Ghent”, a major work by Peter Paul Rubens and the pulpit of solid oak and black and white marble by Laurent Delvaux.

Huge stained glass windows on both sides as well other features would make this worth the visit in its own right, but of course, it also houses the famous “Ghent Altarpiece”.

About the Ghent Altarpiece:

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Perhaps known best for the panel with “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, the altarpiece is much more than that one panel.  It is an artistic masterpiece completed in 1432  by the Van Eyck brothers. Actually, Hubert van Eyck painted part of the Ghent Altarpiece that includes the Mystic Lamb, but was never able to finish it. His younger brother Jan, is said to have finished it a few years after Hubert’s death. It is considered one of the most influential paintings ever made. It is comprised of 18 panels that show various scenes from the Bible.  Included also are the church warden, Joos Vijd, who commissioned the altarpiece, and his wife Elisabeth Borluut.

And, this masterpiece has an interesting history:  In 1934 two panels, “The Just Judges” and “Saint John the Baptist”, were stolen. The “Saint John the Baptist” panel was returned soon after, but “The Just Judges” panel has never been found.

The Ghent Altarpiece was on its way to Rome for safe keeping after the German conquest of Belgium at the start of World War II, but while it was en-route to Rome, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany and the altarpiece was taken and placed in a salt mine for the duration of the war (where it suffered some damage due to dampness).

Monuments Man Daniel J. Kern & art restorer Karl Sieber looking at panels of Adroration of the Mystic lamb in the Alataussee mine, 1945
Photo courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

It was recovered in 1945 by the famous ‘Monuments Men’ (American art commandos who brought confiscated art back to where it belonged). Shown in the photo at the left are Monuments Man Daniel J. Kern & art restorer Karl Sieber looking at panels of Adroration of the Mystic lamb in the Alataussee mine, 1945.  The movie, “The Monuments Men” begins in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

The altarpiece has undergone restoration and is magnificent.  The central panel of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has been restored to its originasl beauty: 16th century over-painting has been stripped away to reveal much of the detail.

Finding Saint Bavo’s Cathedral:

The Cathedral is right in the center of the city, so it is easy to find.  Be sure to check the hours that the altarpiece will be shown….and there is a small admission fee.

Address:  Hoofdkerkstraat 1 – B-9000 Gent

Tel: +32 (0) 9 225 16 26 of +32 (0) 9 269 20 45

email:  sint-baafskathedraal@kerknet.be

Click here for the official website of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent

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