Cathedrals and the Gorgeous City Center- Ghent, Belgium

St. Bavo’s Cathedral under scaffolding
St. Bavo’s Cathedral was on my short list of things to see in Ghent. This cathedral was undergoing external renovations, and pictures were not allowed inside, so above is my only picture from our time there.
The whole piece, open, with a neat article here
One of the main reasons I wanted to visit St. Bavo’s was to visit the altar piece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by the Van Eyck brothers. Hubert Van Eyck was commissioned to do the painting, and then Jan, the younger, more famous brother, finished it after his brother’s death. Their paintings are very rare, and this specific piece has been through a lot since it was painted in the 1400’s. It is a giant altar piece with many panels. Landon was getting fussy and needing a nap, so Austin, being a wonderful husband, took him for a walk in the stroller while I purchased the extra ticket to get in to see the altar piece. With ticket purchase came a free audio guide in English that talked mostly about the meaning of each of the panels. While it was informative, I think the most interesting part of this altar piece is its physical history.  So let’s start there.

View with panels closed, from here

This piece was completed in 1432, and placed in St. Bavo’s. It was paid for by a rich merchant who was a benefactor of the Cathedral. It stayed there until it had to be hidden away during the Protestant Iconoclasm, where Protestants broke down the door of the cathedral with a battering ram with the intention of burning the altar piece. It was dismantled and hidden in the church tower and suffered no damage. It was taken to Paris as a victim of plunder during the Napoleonic wars and put on display at the Louvre. It was returned to the Ghent in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated. The side portions of the paintings were pawned by the diocese of Ghent in 1815 and sold to an art dealer after they could not purchase them back. The King of Prussia bought them and they were on display in a palace for a long time. The panels still in Ghent were damaged in a fire. Adam and Eve panels on the far left and right were sent to a museum in Brussels. So by the 1900’s, the panels were all over the place in Germany and several different parts of Belgium! How could they ever come back together?

Picture credit here

Germany seized the entire altar piece in WWI, and had to return it to Ghent as part of the Treaty of Versailles. The whole altar piece made it back to Ghent! The poor painting was not out of the woods yet, though. In 1934, two side pieces were stolen from the Cathedral! The thief wanted a large ransom for one of the panels, and dropped the other panel off at a train station as a goodwill offering. The other panel was never recovered, but at a meeting of the business leaders that helped the Cathedral, a man suffered a massive heart attack and his final words were something about where to find a key to unlock the place that hid the altar piece. It still has not been found to this day, and a reproduction stands in its place. During the first part of WWII, they were afraid that the Germans were going to come get the painting again because they resented having to give it back after WWI. So, they put it in a cart and shipped it off to the Vatican. Unfortunately, Italy joined the war on Germany’s side, and so the shipment was stopped in Paris. It was stored there until Adolf Hitler ordered it brought to a castle in Germany. Because of the risk of bombings at the castle, it was one of the pieces stored in the salt mines that the “Monument Men” discovered. Officially called the “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives” program, this group of Allied forces was responsible for trying to preserve art during and after the war. I liked how they were portrayed in the movie, The Monuments Men, although I guess it didn’t do too well with the critics.

Recovery from the salt mine after WWII

So now that we know how much this piece has been through, I’ll just say I really like this piece of art. At first, I thought it might be a little sacrilegious that these throngs of people are worshiping a lamb, but in the context of the whole painting it makes more sense. I also viewed this the day before Easter, so it was special to reflect on the reason for celebrating Easter as I enjoyed the painting. It is housed in a little room in the back of the cathedral, and it was stuffy and completely full of people clambering to see it, so it was not a super comfortable experience, but one I will always remember. On the top left and right of the painting are Adam and Eve, to remind the viewers that because of their choice to eat of the forbidden fruit and become mortal, an Atonement had to be made. Jesus Christ was prepared as the one who would suffer and die for the sins and shortcomings of mankind. I just thought it was poignant that they were included in this specific collection of paintings. 

Across the top of the piece are two side paintings of a heavenly choir and musical accompaniment. On the left, there are the singers, who are making different faces to indicate what part they are singing. On the right are angels playing musical instruments. In the middle is Jesus Christ (or the trinity in one person as some interpret) sitting on a throne in glory, with Mary, mother of Jesus on the left and John the Baptist on the right. 
Below them, all of the panels work together to form one great scene. People are coming from all over to adore the “Lamb of God” which is depicted here as an actual lamb on an altar. This is supposed to symbolize the 2nd Coming, with the lamb symbolizing Christ. There is a chest wound dripping blood into a chalice, representing Christ’s sacrifice. In the foreground is a fountain of living water, another symbol of Christ. Coming in from the different edges of the painting are just judges, crusaders who fought in the name of God, hermits and pilgrims, Old testament prophets, righteous women, and church figures. I appreciated that it showed all sorts of people coming to worship- including philosophers and people from all over the world. All to worship Christ. It is a powerful painting (and HUGE). A big shout-out to wikipedia for helping me remember details of the painting, as well as for the pictures. 
St. Bavo’s is the first Catholic church I have visited this trip to Europe. Unlike the plain decor of most Protestant churches, this church had all the bells and whistles as far as decor and beauty. Stained glass everywhere, little alcoves for different saints, a great organ and altar. I try to respect the “no photos” signs so we’re photo-less but it was a beautiful church. 
Belfry tower of Ghent
Back outside in Ghent, we relished taking a walk along the city streets while Landon finished up his nap. We purchased hot chocolate and Easter treats at Leonidas chocolates, a famous Belgian chocolate shop. The hot chocolate was literally hot chocolate- they had a vat of melted chocolate and they ladled a big ladle of that into a cup, then put warm milk and milk foam over the top of that. The worker explained that we needed to stir it well before drinking because all of the chocolate was on the bottom! It was really rich and really yummy hot chocolate!
One thing that was frustrating about being in Ghent is that I had done limited research on things to do. I had my short list, but as we walked, we would ask ourselves, “I wonder what this building is?” take a picture of it, and then move on. If I had done more research, I feel like I would have had a better time there. 
St. Michael’s church from St. Michael’s bridge
For example, the Belfry tower of Ghent. It was a watch tower and bell tower from medieval times. The bells were for music as well as warning bells in case of fire or raid. 

Austin and the city center
Gorgeous city center from St. Michael’s bridge
Organ at St. Michael’s
Me and the cute buildings
We had some time, so we also looked at St. Michael’s church. We could take pictures inside so I snapped a few, although it was not quite as big or as grand as St. Bavo’s cathedral down the street. We ended our time in Ghent by walking around and admiring the beautiful buildings and colors of the city. It was a little chilly, so when we got too cold we headed back for the car to drive to Brussels!
Even after a search of prominent buildings in Ghent, I still don’t know what this building is for…
I just loved the color of this row home


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