A Non-Mystic Report on The Trip I Didn’t Take to Ghent

From The Guardian:

“One of the world’s greatest masterpieces, and surely the most stolen piece of art of all time, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has a new €30m (£26m) glass-case home.

While remaining within St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, for which it was painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, the 12-panelled polyptych will be located in the Sacrament chapel, the cathedral’s largest and most easterly chapel, within a bullet-proof display case that is 6-metres high with an interior of 100 cubic metres. . . .

The oft-stolen Altarpiece in its new ultra-secure display case, which cost somewhat north of $35 million dollars.

. . . somewhat understandably, a top priority for those involved in the project has been the masterpiece’s security. During its 588-year history, the Ghent Altarpiece has been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.

It has not survived entirely unscathed. One of its 12 panels remains missing after a daring heist on the evening of 10 April 1934, which has since baffled police detectives, bemused amateur sleuths and driven to despair the Nazi agents ordered by Goebbels to find it as a gift for the German Führer .

[Yes, of course they made a movie about it: The Monuments Men (2014), directed by and starring George Clooney and a cast guaranteed to set middle-aged hearts aflutter. But it was a dud. One typical commenter in the Washington Post called it “a very bad version of Hogan’s Heroes meets The Sound of Music. I kept waiting for someone to break out into song. Pathetic and embarrassing would be a compliment. . . .” He walked out. Left just in time, too, because,  someone in the movie soon did break out into song . . . .]

My friend Douglas Gwyn, a distinguished Quaker theologian, included the Ghent Altarpiece in his new book, Into The Common.

For him, the Ghent altarpiece

. . . is both an astonishing work of art and a panoply for contemplation by the eye of faith. Its vast scope is balanced by its minute detail, down to identifiable species of vegetation: a mind-reeling combination of macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives. The van Eycks were famed miniaturists and the altarpiece constitutes miniaturization on a grand scale. Contemplating it, one intuits the beauty of one’s own obscure place in the epic of divine providence.

The central panel of the Altarpiece, “The Lamb of God”

[The centerpiece features the Lamb of God; from the] wound in its side pours blood into a golden chalice. On the altar are the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Above the Lamb hovers a dove, the Holy Spirit. And above that, the central upper panel depicts God the Father enthroned.

In front of the altar is a fountain flowing with the water of life. Paradoxically, this water is the blood of the Lamb. All these elements form a central vertical axis. In the background of this park-like scene, a skyline of buildings suggests the new Jerusalem (Rev­elation 20) as the setting. The scene extends into two panels on either side of the central one, forming an earthly, horizontal axis.

. . . Fourteen angels kneel in worship closest to the altar. Behind them stand an array of Hebrew prophets, Christian apostles, and pagan philosophers, some with oriental faces. And from the four comers of the panel a multitude of peoples are advancing to­ward the Lamb, balancing the static sense of an eternal, heavenly ecstasy with a moment of historic, earthly fulfillment.

The composition of this panel derives from the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, in particular the seventh chapter. Revelation’s exotic flood of visions and voices from heaven has fascinated, tantalized, or alienated readers for two thousand years.

Well, put me down somewhere between tantalized and alienated. John’s Book of Revelation has continually left me puzzled and unenlightened; and I make apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.

But no question, the Ghent altar piece is best in class of its kind of art. (In its shadow our recent apocalyptic behemoth, the Left Behind series, is left utterly behind.) So in the abstract, I can appreciate Doug Gwyn’s swoon over it.

However, while it’s at the pinnacle, there are many other cathedrals in Europe with relics. How many such churches I don’t know, but it’s probably in the hundreds. And many —I’d guess most — of them have their own art pieces and relics; especially relics, including objects, preserved corpses and even detached body parts of saints and other churchly eminences.

In 2008 I spent several weeks in France. While there, I toured a few cathedrals, in Toulouse & Arles. In one of them, the interior was quite dimly lit, yet I walked along the nave, noting various niches & mini-chapels on either side.

One such niche had a black wrought iron gate across its entrance, with a chain and lock. I paused and peered between the bars. Behind them was thick glass, maybe doors, on which was a film of dust and smoke, indicating years of quietude (aka neglect).

I paused, leaned into the gate and squinted. Behind the glass were reliquaries, their shapes unmistakable and their intricate, dull gilt decoration just detectable.

Not one, or a few; dozens. And not on shelves or in alcoves, nooks or crannies.

In fact, a heap. A jumbled pile. Yes, I’ll go there—
— A  junk pile; sacred maybe, but junk. The cathedral’s essentially clandestine holy dustbin.

I stood for a few minutes, continuing to squint, sorry my pocket camera wouldn’t work in that half-light. There was no signage, not even in French, to advise about what mix of once-revered clerics, third-tier saints, obscure visionaries and supernumerary martyrs had been downsized into consecrated cathedral detritus.

Protect us?? Who protected him?

I came out blinking and musing into the afternoon light. I recalled that some prominent names from my Catholic boyhood (looking at you, St. Christopher) had been officially debunked and declared to be pious myths as part of the updating (repackaging?) by the 1960s Second Vatican Council.

But I hadn’t thought that others, evidently many more, had quietly been, to filch a more tasteful British phrase, made redundant. How many miracles had been consigned to the church’s version of internal dumpsters? There had to be truckloads.

Some weighty sociologists of religion have written of the “routinization of charisma” in religion. This notion could arguably be corroborated by the fact that, just in this one cathedral, Catholic masses had been performed, probably daily, for near a millennium.

At the center of each performance, doctrine says, a miracle is evoked and repeated. As this ritual goes on in Catholic churches worldwide, the miracle recurs at all hours seven days a week, century after century, more like clockwork than clocks.

Miracle it might be, the sociologists argue, but how could it not thereby become also routine? And how could the associated paraphernalia not fall prey to the changes of fortune and fashion?

One rebuttal to such questioning is to point to masterpieces like that in Ghent. The Van Eycks’ achievement leaps beyond superb technique, they say, to become a renewer of the divine mysteries that doctrine says underlie the ritual.

The defenders may have something there. Yet masterpieces are rare. There are so many churches to fill; hence much art, religious and secular alike, is imitative, and slides down a slope through kitsch, into self-parody and ends up deservedly as, well, trash.

The doctrinal mysteries, being invisible, may endure; but can the same decline overtake the remnants of obscure holiness? Arles gave a slight but unmistakable nod of reply. For my part, in years as a Quaker, I have absorbed much of the early Friends’ iconoclastic attitudes: I prefer my cathedral to be a plain meetinghouse, unadorned but by the Light Within. It is our own special brand of philistinism, and we are quite humbly proud of it.

Yet what will happen to that mound of old reliquaries?

The cathedral has stood for many centuries. It would be no big deal to let these gilded priestly discards lie in that niche for a few more generations, as the thickening dust becomes opaque and the last faithful who remember them die off.

Then — well, the honorable denouement would involve chanting processions and pointed mitres and incense and special crypts.

But one can also imagine an ever-increasingly anemic church, now bleeding for billions from the overdue costs of priestly pedophilia, being forced to send a nameless team to unlock the chain, likely under cover of darkness, pry open the squealing iron gates, brusquely check relic boxes for precious metals and jewels, and dump their other contents into some common container.

Then an unmarked truck heads for a compliant, close-mouthed funeral director’s crematory, which is fired up before dawn, with little more than a parting splash of holy water if they’re lucky.

Douglas Gwyn, author of “Into the Common.”

Presumably in Heaven the rewards of their honorees are secure. But here I saw, as a non-mystic visitor, that alongside the ancient motto of Sic Transit Gloria Mundi needs to stand another, Sic Transit Sanctus Mundi (Goodbye to yesterday’s holiness) as well. And maybe even a third, if only as a footnote, that not even an ornate gilded urn will do more than slow the eventual passing. Oh, wait: “Dust to dust” (Genesis 3); they already have it.

As you see, my cathedral stop was no masterpiece, but memorable all the same. I wonder how different It would have been had I been able to take a weekend side trip to Ghent. Much better if Doug Gwyn and I had gone together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.