THE BIG REVIEW | Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution – Museum voor Schone Kunsten (MSK Gent), Ghent

I think one’s ability to clearly differentiate the individual hairs on Adam’s legs is testament enough to the unprecedented opportunity to view the exterior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece as Hubert and Jan van Eyck once did.
Shown in pairs, the 8 restored panels have been scattered across 4 rooms in the 13-room Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution exhibition at MSK Gent. Each pair provides the impetus for a particular theme for further works to complement.

Altarpiece aside, 12 out of 22 autograph van Eyck paintings have been gathered for visitors to marvel and adore, as well as 9 attributed to Jan van Eyck and/or workshop. 6 archival documents relating to the brothers’ lives in Burgundy also greet us near the door.

There are some truly beautiful juxtapositions:

1) Both St Francis Receiving the Stigmata paintings (Galleria Sabauda, Turin, and Philadelphia Museum of Art) have been beautifully paired together. The same room also allows one to see the handwritten provenance details on the back of the Saint Barbara (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp).

2) In one of the strongest rooms, a tripartite dialogue between the Antwerp Madonna at the Fountain (centre; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp), an equally proficient version with the workshop (left; private collection), and Gerard David’s pen-and-ink copy (right; Sammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), formed a strong core for exploring the Madonna and Child theme with sumptuous illuminated manuscripts.

3) The Annunciation panels of the Altarpiece offered a muted counterpoint to the smaller, more colourful Annunciation (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

4) In a section dedicated to imitating alabaster sculpture, the Altarpiece grisailles of Sts John the Baptist and John the Evangelist meet the exquisite Annunciation grisailles from the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, alongside three alabaster apostles by the Master of Rimini from the famous Rimini Crucifixion Altarpiece (Liebieghaus, Frankfurt). The same room also displayed the coveted Turin-Milan Hours (Palazzo Madama, Turin).

5) A minimalist display of 5 small portraits alongside the Altarpiece panels of Joos Vijd and his wife Elisabeth Borluut perfectly demonstrates the simplicity and charming quality of Van Eyck’s portraiture.

Despite the exceptional loans, the themes were forced and messy. The visitor experience was something else entirely.


Although the exhibition offered great dialogues between Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries across various media, one of its flaws was the separation of the exterior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece across multiple rooms with forced concepts. Their spatial relationships in the closed Altarpiece were never reproduced, a major part of understanding some proposed concepts, e.g. architectural space. The panels felt secondary, serving more like ice-breakers than important pillars of their proposed arguments.

13 rooms with 13 topics meant some contained unnecessarily more works to illustrate a point, e.g. multiple Madonna-and-Child or saint sculptures.
Additionally, singular Italian works in 7 rooms were used to single-handedly illustrate the contemporary innovations of Italian art against those being purported by van Eyck and wider Flemish art. We are talking a shocking Italian-Flemish ratio of 1:6-12, insufficient for representing Italian regional innovations, despite loaning Vatican and Uffizi works by Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Masaccio, Domenico Veneziano, Pisanello, Stefano da Verona and Michele Giambono. I felt that the quality of Italian art was being under-represented and shown as unflattering, than as equal counterparts to the same aesthetic challenges. It would have been fine without those works at all.

Additional rooms of note:

1) In attempting to bring van Eyck’s details to life, 4 material objects were placed in a room with a projected slideshow showing similar details from paintings. That was it. They should have joined his paintings for a more immersive experience.

2) The largest room in the show was used solely for a large video ‘about’ the restoration. It was excerpts of conservationists talking about it, set within the shape of the Altarpiece. You couldn’t hear anything unless you had an audio guide. The space could at least have showed images from the restoration!

3) A generally strong room about van Eyck’s legacy and myth-making was abruptly placed in the middle of the show, breaking the three previous rooms’ attempts to immerse visitors in the life of historic Burgundy.

Visitor Experience

In terms of visitor experience, several things bugged me and my companion.⁠

1) The introductory texts for each room’s themes were placed so high up that we began worrying about the fragility of our own necks well before critiquing the coherency of the exhibition’s themes. Although this may have been intended as a crowd-control measure to ensure everyone could read the texts from anywhere in the room, the size of the texts were simply not large enough for ordinary viewers, let alone the many elderly visitors we saw in the exhibition. At least they had benches for most rooms.⁠

2) Unless you opted for an audio guide, you were left to your own devices to interpret the works on display. Other than the introductory texts and basic information for each object, there was absolutely no written interpretation material to consult throughout the entire exhibition. There weren’t even any large-print guides! Sure, you could buy the €15 ‘exhibition guide’, but it’s more like a mini-catalogue with short essays than object-specific catalogue entries; the same is true of the excellent, nearly €70 exhibition catalogue, also consisting of lengthy essays on a myriad of fascinating topics.⁠

I would have forgiven the lack of interpretation material on the displays themselves if they at least made a little paper guide or digital app with all the captions and interpretive texts on it, but they didn’t even do that! From an accessibility standpoint, I would feel very sorry for those visitors with hearing issues or sight problems.⁠

3) Speaking of audio guides, visitors were required to activate the corresponding commentary on their devices by placing it near a touch sensor beside each object; it would make a beep each time. Although I found it quite innovative at first, it quickly became a nuisance.⁠

4) As addressed previously, they really should have reproduced the closed view of the Ghent Altarpiece near the exhibited panels, to allow visitors to recall their relative spatial arrangements, as most of the Altarpiece ‘pairs’ are not in fact adjacent when complete.⁠

A mixed experience overall.⁠

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution ran from 1 February to 30 April 2020 at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (MSK Gent), Ghent,

The Ghent Altarpiece

Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is Belgium’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa. Yet, unlike its Italian sister, it draws in a different kind of crowd., one of a more personal nature.⁠

The people of Ghent are immensely proud of their cultural heritage. Before the restoration, the Altarpiece could be seen for free in a small room to the left of the entrance, behind glass of course; my colleague never fails to tell me all the times she visits it when she’s back home. Until the new visitor centre opens later this year, this little room remains the permanent home of the Altarpiece. Currently, the interior panels can be seen in there for a €4 fee, completely worth it to behold one of art history’s earliest true masterpieces.⁠

I was expecting to be completely overwhelmed by its sheer scale and ambition; I got there in the end, but it took some time. It wasn’t quite the chapel-like experience I was hoping for. For that, you’d need to visit its original home, the Vijd Chapel, located near the back of the cathedral to the right, where a full-sized reproduction sits on a stone altar in a silent, naturally-lit space. But this glare-heavy reproduction conveys very little of the original’s vibrancy.⁠

It isn’t immediately clear which panels have been restored; the five upper panels have not. We also don’t have a proper understanding of the state of the Altarpiece when Hubert died in 1426, from whence the commission was handed over and completed by Jan over the next six years. Regardless, what is evidently clear is the painter’s penchance for colouristic rhythm and visual clarity.⁠

From afar, it is impossible to ignore the delightful symmetry of the Altarpiece; this includes the spatial allocation of blocks of single colour or ornamented surfaces. But up close, one realises that there is a microcosm of the same approach. Certainly with the central panel featuring the Mystic Lamb, I was impressed by how the alternating coloured robes of the upper right and lower left figure groups were counterbalanced in the opposite corners by groups of figures all wearing the same colours.⁠

Madonna and Child with Canon van der Paele

For art historians, the first time seeing a frequently-reproduced work is a particularly memorable one.⁠

First, there is the build-up phase. Sometimes this is a drawn-out process that begins from the moment you’ve finalised your plans. Sometimes, there is no build up at all; it catches you by surprise instead.⁠

This leads to the second phase: the realisation. ‘Oh! It’s here! It’s actually here!’. One enters a unique, quickfire mental state of disillusionment where your brain gathers up all its resources to confirm that what you see in front of you is the same thing you’ve been seeing in all those books all those years.⁠
For me, my eyes tend to open so wide it’s as if I’d seen a ghost, followed shortly by a warm feeling of euphoria. Like a man on a mission, I approach it like an excited child, stopping on my tippy toes. ‘Hello sweetie’, I would say softly.⁠

This was exactly how I felt when I approached Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Child with Canon van der Paele (1436) in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges, one of several ‘firsts’ during my recent trip to Ghent and Bruges. As I entered the dark, empty room, the panel seduced me like a moth to a flame.⁠

Its original location was opposite the Town Hall, in the now-demolished St Donatian’s Cathedral where van Eyck was buried in 1441.⁠

I didn’t used to care much for this painting; van Eyck had more interesting works to captivate my younger self. But when I started to pour over every brushstroke with my face inches away from its surface, it became undeniable that it would become one of my new favourite paintings, due to its many unnecessary, but welcome details.⁠

The search for these subtle details is akin to an excavation or treasure hunt. Unlike a Brueghel painting, where every detail is expected and out for show, the details here are as shy as a mouse. I had not anticipated seeing physical damage rendered where the carpet bends over the steps, its frayed edges, or even the polite gesture of a raised helmet from St George. A potential self-portrait can be found on his shield.⁠


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