Belgium – The Cathedral Of Ghent

THE local patron saint of Ghent is St. Bavon, a somewhat dubious personage, belonging to the first age of Christianity in Flanders, of whom little is known. Legend describes him as a ” Duke of Brabant ” in the seventh century (of course an anachronism). He seems to have been a nobleman of Hesbaie who spent his life as a soldier ” and in worldly pleasures ; ” but when he was fifty, his wife died, and, overwhelmed with grief, he gave up all his possessions to be distributed among the poor, and entered a cell or monastery in Ghent, of which St. Amand (see later) was the founder. Of this he became abbot. At last, finding the monastic life not sufficiently austere, the new saint took refuge in a hollow tree in a forest, and there spent the remainder of his days. His emblem is a falcon. The monastery of St. Bayou long existed at Ghent; some of its ruins still remain, and will be described hereafter. To this local saint, accordingly, it might seem fitting that the Cathedral of Ghent should be dedicated. But in reality the building was at first a parish church under the invocation of St. John the Baptist, and only received the relics and name of St. Bayou after 1540, when Charles V. destroyed the monastery, as will be described hereafter.

The real interest of the Cathedral centres, however, not in St. Bavon, nor in his picture by Rubens, but in the great polyptych of the Adoration of the Lamb, the masterpiece of Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert, which forms in a certain sense the point of departure for the native art of the Netherlands. This is therefore a convenient place in which to consider the position of these two great painters. They were born at Maaseyck or Eyck-sur-Meuse near Maastricht; Hubert, the elder, about 136o or 1370; Jan, the younger, about 1390. The only undoubted work of Hubert is the altar-piece in St. Bavon, and even this is only his in part, having been completed after his death by his brother Jan. Hubert probably derived his teaching from the School of the Lower Rhine, which first in the North attained any importance, and which had its chief exponents at Maastricht and Cologne. Of this School, he was the final flower. Though not, as commonly said, the inventor of oil-painting, he was the first artist who employed the process in its developed form, and he also made immense advances in naturalness of drawing and truth of spirit. Jan was probably a pupil of Hubert; he lived at Ghent while the great picture of the Adoration of the Lamb was still being completed; later, he was painter by appointment to the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, and had a house at Bruges, where he died in 1440. He was also employed on various missions abroad, accompanying embassies as far as to Portugal. His painting, though less ideal and beautiful than that of his great successor Memling, is marvellous in its truth : it has an extraordinary charm of purity of colour, vividness of delineation, and fine portrayal of character. Indeed, all the early Flemish artists were essentially portrait painters ; they copied with fidelity whatever was set before them, whether it were fabrics, furniture, jewelry, flowers, or the literal faces and figures of men and women.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, however, were not so much in strictness the founders of a school as the culminating point of early German art, to which they gave a new Flemish direction. Their work was almost perfect in its own kind. Their successors did not surpass them : in some respects they even fell short of them.

The Adoration of the Lamb is by far the most important thing to be seen at Ghent. But it is viewed at some disadvantage in the church, and is so full of figures and meaning that it cannot be taken in without long study. I strongly advise you, therefore, to buy a photograph of the entire composition beforehand, and try to understand as much as possible of the picture by comparing it with the account here given, the evening before you visit the picture. You will then be able more readily to grasp the actual work, in form and colour, when you see it.

The Cathedral is open daily ‘(for viewing the pictures, etc.) from ten to twelve, and from four to six. Between twelve and four you can also get in by knocking loudly on the door in the West Front.

Go straight from your hotel to the Cathedral, — built as the parish church of St. John about 1250-1300; rededicated to St. Bavon, 1540; erected into a bishop’s see, 1599. Stand before the West Front at a little distance, to examine the simple but massive architecture of the tower and façade.

The great portal has been robbed of the statues which once adorned its niches. Three have been ” restored : ” they represent, centre, the Saviour; left, the patron, St. Bavon, recognizable by his falcon, his sword as duke, and his book as monk; he wears armour, with a ducal robe and cap above it; right, St. John the Baptist, the earlier patron.

Then, walk, to the right, round the south side, to observe the external architecture of the nave, aisles, and choir. The latter has the characteristic rounded or apsidal termination of Continental Gothic, whereas English Gothic has usually a square end. Enter by the south portal.

The interior, with single aisles and short transepts (early Gothic), is striking for its simple dignity, its massive pillars, and its high arches, though the undeniably noble effect of the whole is somewhat marred to English eyes by the unusual appearance of the unadorned brick walls and vaulting. The pulpit, by Delvaux (1745), partly in oak, partly in marble, represents Truth revealing the Christian Faith to astonished Paganism (figured as an old and outworn man) : it is a model of all that should be avoided in plastic or religious art. The screen which separates the Choir from the Transepts is equally unfortunate. The apsidal end of the Choir, however, with its fine modern stained glass, forms a very pleasing feature in the general coup d’oeil.

Begin the examination in detail with the left or north aisle. The first chapel, that of the Holy Cross, contains a Pietà by Janssens and a Descent from the Cross by Rombouts, good works of the school of Rubens. The third chapel, that of St. Macarius or St. Macaire (an object of local worship whom we shall meet again elsewhere at Ghent), has a modern statue of the saint, and a pleasing decoration in polychrome. The right or south aisle has nothing of importance.

A short flight of steps leads to the ambulatory, whose black and white marble screen, on the side toward the Choir, is not without dignity.

The sacristan opens the locked chapels in the ambulatory (flamboyant), beginning at the steps on the right or south side of the Choir. You will find him in the sacristy, in the north Transept. Do not let him hurry you.

The first chapel contains a tolerable triptych by F. Pourbus (son of Peter), with the Finding of Christ in the Temple for its central subject and the Circumcision and Baptism on the inner wings. Notice in the last the conventional attitudes of the Baptist, the Saviour, and the angel with the towel, as in the Gerard David and all old examples of this subject : but the semi-nude figure undressing in the fore-ground is an unhappy innovation of the Renaissance. Many of the heads in the central picture are portraits : Alva, Charles V., Philip II., and Pourbus himself. On the outer wings is a good * portrait of the donor (Viglius) adoring the Saviour (1571).

Third chapel. Crucifixion, by Gerard van der Meire, of Ghent. On the left wing, Moses striking the Rock, symbolical of the fountain of living water, Christ. On the right wing, the Elevation of the Brazen Serpent, symbolical of the Crucifixion. This is a mystic ” typical ” picture, interesting only for its symbolism. Note the Flemish love of such subjects.

The fourth chapel contains a good tomb of Cornelius Jansen and Willem Lindau, the two first bishops of Ghent (bishopric founded only in 1599) with fair recumbent figures of the early seventeenth century.

Fifth chapel. Coxcie. Lazarus and Dives : a mediocre picture.

Mount the steps to the upper ambulatory.

The sixth chapel (of the Vydts family) contains the famous altar-piece of the ** Adoration of the Lamb, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, to study which is the chief object of a visit to Ghent. See it more than once, and examine it carefully. Ask the sacristan to let you sit before it for some time in quiet, or he will hurry you on. You must observe it in close detail.

As a whole, the work before you is not entirely by the two Van Eycks. The Adam and Eve on the outer upper shutters of the interior (originally by Hubert) have been al-together removed, and are now in the Museum at Brussels, where we shall see them in due course. Their place has been filled, not by copies (for the originals were nude), but by skin-clad representations of the same figures, whose nudity seemed to the Emperor Joseph II. unsuitable for a church. The lower wings, which were principally (it is believed) by Jan van Eyck, have also been removed, and sold to Berlin. They are replaced by very tolerable copies, made in the early sixteenth century by Michael Coxcie. Thus, to form an idea of the detail of the original in its full totality, it is necessary to visit, not only Ghent, but also Brussels and Berlin. Nevertheless, I describe the whole picture here as it stands, as this is the best place to observe its general composition. I shall say a few words later as to variations of this work from the original. There is a good copy of the whole picture in the Museum at Antwerp, where you will be able to inspect it at greater length and under easier conditions. The remaining portions of the original still left here are believed to be for the most part the work of Hubert van Eyck. Jan must rather be studied in many scattered places, — Bruges, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and London.

The altar-piece was commissioned from Hubert van Eyck by Josse Vydts (Latinised as Jodocus), a gentleman of Ghent, and his wife, Isabella, about the year 1420. Hubert died while the polyptych was still unfinished, and Jan completed it in 1432. Too much importance has been attached by critics, I fancy, to the rhyming hexameter inscribed upon it (with the words ” De Eyck ” unmetrically introduced) : ” Pictor Hubertus major quo nemo repertus,” etc. They have been twisted into a deliberate expression of belief on the part of Jan that Hubert was a greater painter than him-self. If so, it seems to me, Jan was a worse critic than painter. They are probably due, however, to a somewhat affected modesty, or more probably still, to a priestly poet who was in straits to find a rhyme for Hubertus.

I proceed to a detailed explanation of the picture.

The subject, in its entirety, is the Adoration of the Lamb that was Slain, and it is mainly based on the passage in the Apocalypse: ” I looked, and lo, a Lamb stood on the Mount Zion, and with Him an hundred and forty and four thousand, having His Father’s name writ-ten in their foreheads. . . . And I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps.” Elsewhere we read : ” I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. . . . These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God; and He shall feed them, and shall lead them to living fountains of waters, and shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” Much of the imagery, however, I believe, is also taken from the Te Deum.

Lower Tier.

The central panel (original: attributed to Hubert) represents in its middle the altar, hung with red damask, and covered with a white cloth, on which the Lamb of God is standing. His blood flows into a crystal chalice. (This part is clearly symbolical of the Eucharist.) Upon Him, from above, descends the Holy Ghost, in the form of a dove, sent out by the Eternal Father, who occupies the central panel on top. Around the altar are grouped adoring angels, with many-coloured wings, holding the instruments of the Passion — the Cross, the Spear, the Sponge, and the Column to which Christ was fastened for flagellation. In front of it, two angels swing censers. The flowery foreground is occupied by the Fountain of Life, from which pure water flows limpid, to irrigate the smiling fields of Paradise. Four bands of worshippers converge toward this centre. On the left-hand side, stand, kneel, or ride, a group of worshippers representing, as a whole, the secular aspect of the Christian Church — the laity. The foreground of this group is occupied by the precursors of Christ. Conspicuous among them the Jewish prophets in front and then the Greek poets and philosophers, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, — whom mediæval charity regarded as inspired in a secondary degree by the Spirit of Wisdom. Homer, in white, is crowned with laurel. The group also includes kings and other important secular personages. The right-hand side, opposite, is occupied by representatives of the Church, showing the religious as opposed to the secular half of the Christian world. In the front rank kneel fourteen per-sons, the Twelve Apostles (with Paul and Matthias) in simple robes, barefooted; behind them are ranged all the orders of the hierarchy — canonized popes, with their attendant deacons ; archbishops, bishops, and other dignitaries.

The background shows two other groups, one of which (to the left) consists of the martyrs, bearing their palms of martyrdom, and including in their number popes, cardinals, bishops, and other ecclesiastics. The inner meaning of this group is further emphasized by the symbolical presence of a palm-tree behind them. To balance them on the right advance the Virgins, conspicuous among whom are St. Agnes with her lamp, St. Barbara with her tower, St. Catherine, and St. Dorothy with her roses : many of them carry palms of martyr-dom. These various groups thus illustrate the words of the Te Deum, representing ” the glorious company of the apostles,” ” the goodly fellowship of the prophets,” ” the noble army of martyrs,” ” the Holy Church throughout all the world,” etc., in adoration of the Lamb that was Slain. (A chorus of Apostles, of Prophets, of Martyrs, of Virgins is common in art.)

The more distant background is occupied by towered cities, typifying perhaps the new Jerusalem, but adorned with Flemish or Rhenish turrets and domes, and painted with Flemish minuteness and exactitude.

On the front of the altar are written in Latin the words, ” Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.”

The Left Wings (inferior copy by Coxcie: originals, probably by Jan, now at Berlin) form a continuation of the scene of the Prophets and the secular side of Christendom in the central panel, and represent, in the First or Inner Half, the Orders of Chivalry and the mediæval knighthood riding, as on a crusade or pilgrimage, toward the Lamb that was Slain. At their head go the soldier saints, St. George, St. Adrian, St. Maurice, and St. Charlemagne (for the great emperor Karl is also a canonized person). The action of the horses throughout is admirable. The Second or Outer Half (ill described as the Just Judges “) represents the Merchants and Burgesses, among whom two portraits in the foreground are pointed out by tradition as those of Hubert and Jan van Eyck (Hubert in front, on a white horse: Jan behind, in a dark brown dress, trimmed with fur). But this detail is unimportant: what matters is the colour and composition on one hand, the idea on the other. These two panels, therefore, with the group in front of them, are to be taken as representing the Secular World — learned, noble, knightly, or mercantile— in adoration of the central truth of Christianity as manifested in the Holy Eucharist.

The corresponding Right Wings (copy by Coxcie : originals, probably by Jan, at Berlin) show respectively the Hermits and Pilgrims – the contemplative and ascetic complement of the ecclesiastical group in front of them : the monastic as opposed to the beneficed clerics. The First or Inner Half shows the Eremites, amongst whom are notable St. Anthony with his crutch, and, in the background, St. Mary Magdalen with her box of ointment, emerging from her cave (the Sainte Baume), in Provence, in her character as the Penitent in the Desert. On the Second or Outer Half, the body of Pilgrims is led by the gigantic form of St. Christopher, with his staff and bare legs for wading; behind whom is a pilgrim with a scallop-shell, and many other figures, not all of them (to me) identifiable. Here again the presence of palms in the background marks the esoteric idea of martyrdom.

I need not call attention throughout to the limpid sky, the fleecy clouds, the lovely trees, the exquisite detail of architecture and landscape.

Upper tier.

The three central panels (original) are attributed to Hubert. That in the middle represents, not (I feel sure) as is commonly said, Christ, but God the Father (” Therefore they are before the throne of God “) wearing the triple crown (like the Pope), holding the sceptre, and with his right hand raised in the attitude of benediction. His face is majestic, grave, passionless : his dress kingly : a gorgeous morse fastens his jewelled robe of regal red. At his feet lies the crown of earthly sovereignty. He seems to discharge the Holy Ghost on the Lamb beneath him. The word Sabaoth, embroidered on his garments, marks him, I think, as the Father : indeed, the Son

The Cathedral of Ghent could hardly preside at the sacrifice of the Lamb, even in the Eucharist.

On the right of the Father, in the panel to the spectator’s left (Hubert : original), Our Lady, crowned, as Queen of Heaven, sits reading in her blue robe. Her face is far more graceful than is usual in Flemish art: indeed, she is the most charming of Flemish Madonnas. Behind her is stretched a hanging of fine brocade.

The panel to the right (Hubert: original) shows St. John the Baptist, with his camel-hair garment, covered by a flowing green mantle. The folds of all these draperies in Hubert’s three figures, though simple, have great grandeur.

The Outer Wing to the left (substituted clothed figure, not a copy : original, by Hubert, at Brussels) has Adam, as typical (with Eve) of unregenerate humanity : a sense further marked by the Offerings of Cain and Abel above it.

The Outer Wing to the right has an Eve with the apple (similarly clad, not copied from the original, by Hubert, now at Brussels) : above it, the First Murder.

The Inner Left Wing (copy : the original, attributed to Jan, is at Berlin) has a beautiful group of singing angels.

The inner right wing (copy: the original, likewise attributed to Jan, is also at Berlin) has an angel (not St. Cecilia) playing an organ, with other angels accompanying on various musical instruments.

Taking it in its entirety, then, the altar-piece, when opened, is a great mystical poem of the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Lamb, with the Christian folk, both Church and World, adoring. It was in order to prepare your mind for recognition of this marked strain of mysticism in the otherwise prosaic and practical Flemish temperament, that I called your attention at Bruges to several mystic or type-emphasizing pictures, in themselves of comparatively small æsthetic value.

The composition contains over two hundred figures. Many of them, which I have not here identified, can be detected by a closer inspection, which, however, I will leave to the reader.

Now, ask the sacristan to shut the wings. They are painted on the outer side (all a copy) mainly in grisaille, or in very low tones of colour, as is usual in such cases, so as to allow the jewel-like brilliancy of the internal picture to burst upon the observer the moment the altar-piece is opened.

The lower wings have (in this copy) representations of the Four Evangelists, in niches, in imitation of statuary. Observe the half-classical pose and costume of Luke, the Beloved Physician. These figures, however, were not so arranged in the original, as I shall after-ward explain.

The upper wings represent on their first or lowest tier, the Annunciation, a frequent subject for such divided shutters. In the centre is the usual arcade, giving a glimpse of the town of Ghent where Hubert painted it. (The scene is said to be Hubert’s own studio, which stood on the site of the Café des Arcades in the Place d’Armes : the view is that which he saw from his own windows.) To the left, as always, is the angel Gabriel, with the Annunciation lily ; to the right is Our Lady, reading. The Dove descends upon her head. The ordinary accessories of furniture are present — prie-dieu, curtain, bed-chamber, etc. Note this arrangement of the personages of the

Annunciation, with the empty space between Our Lady and the angel : it will recur in many other pictures. Observe also the Flemish real-ism of the painter, who places the scene in his own town at his own period : and contrast it with the mysticism of the entire conception.

The uppermost tier of all is occupied by figures of two Sibyls (universally believed in the Middle Ages to have prophesied of Christ), as well as two half-length figures of the prophets Zachariah and Micah (also as fore-tellers of the Virgin birth).

In several details the outer shutters in this copy differ markedly from the originals at Berlin. Jan’s picture had, below, outer panels (when shut), portraits of Josse Vydts and his wife: inner panels, imitated statues (in grisaille) of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, patrons at that time of this church. If you are going on to Berlin, you will see them : if back to London, then go to the Basement Floor of the National Gallery, where you will find the water-colour copy done for the Arundel Society, which will give you an excellent idea of the work in its original condition.

A few words must be given to the external history of this great altar-piece. It was begun by Hubert about 1420. His death in 1426 interrupted the work. Jan probably continued to paint at it till 1428, when he went to Portugal. On his return, he must have carried it to Bruges, where he next lived, and there completed it in 1432. It was then placed in this the family chapel of Josse Vydts. During the troubles of the Reformation it was carried to the Hôtel-de-Ville, but after the capitulation to the Duke of Parma it was restored to the chapel of the Vydts family. Philip II. wished to carry it off, but had to content himself with a copy by Coxcie, the wings of which are now in this chapel. The panels with Adam and Eve were removed in 1784, after Joseph II. had disapproved of them, and hidden in the sacristy. In 1794, the remaining panels were carried to Paris : after the peace, they were returned, but only the central portions were replaced in the chapel. The wings, save Adam and Eve, were sold to a Brussels dealer, and finally bought by the King of Prussia, which accounts for their presence at Berlin. As for Adam and Eve, the church exchanged them with the Brussels Museum for the wings of Coxcie’s copy. These various vicissitudes will explain the existing condition of the compound picture.

Do not be content with seeing it once. Go home, re-read this description, and come again to study it afresh tomorrow.

The chapel of the Holy Sacrament, in the apse, has very ugly rococo monuments to bishops of the eighteenth century, in the worst style of the debased Renaissance, and other monstrosities.

The tenth chapel has a famous altar-piece by Rubens, St. Bavon renouncing his worldly goods to embrace the monastic life. The Saint is seen, attired as a Duke of Brabant of the seventeenth century, in his armour and ducal robes, attended by his pages, making his profession at the door of a stately Renaissance church, such as certainly did not exist in the North in his time, and received with acclamation by a dignified body of nobly-robed ecclesiastics, including St. Amand (see later, under the monastery of St. Bavon). The features of the patron saint are said to be those of Rubens; they certainly resemble his portrait of himself at Florence. The foreground is occupied by a group of poor, to whom St. Bavon’s worldly goods are being profusely scattered. On the left are two ladies, in somewhat extravagant courtly costumes, who are apparently moved to follow the Saint’s example. They are said to be the painter’s two wives, but the re-semblance to their known portraits is feeble. This is a fine specimen of Rubens’s grandiose and princely manner, of his feeling for space, and of his large sense of colour ; but it is certainly not a sacred picture. It was appropriately painted for the High Altar in the Choir (1624), after the church was dedicated to St. Bavon and erected into a cathedral, but was removed from that place of honour in the eighteenth century to make room for a vulgar abomination by Verbruggen. (I defer consideration of Rubens and his school till we reach Brussels and Antwerp.) Fair monument of a seventeenth century bishop.

Descend the steps again. Enter the choir, a very fine piece of architecture, cleared of the monstrosities of the last century : it has beautiful gray stone arches (about 1300 ), a handsome triforium, and excellent brick vaulting. The lower portion, however, is still disfigured by black-and-white marble screens and several incongruous rococo tombs, some of which have individual merit. (That to the left, Bishop Triest by Duquesnoy, is excellent in its own style). Over the High Altar flutters a peculiarly annoying and fly-away seventeenth century figure of the Apotheosis of St. Bavon, the patron saint of the Cathedral, who of course thus occupies the place of honour. It is by Verbruggen. The huge copper candlesticks, bearing the royal arms of England, as used by Charles I., belonged to his private oratory in Old St. Paul’s in London, and were sold by order of Cromwell. Impressive view down the nave from this point.

Tip the sacristan at the rate of one franc per head of your party.