The restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece revealed a lamb’s disturbingly humanoid eyes.
The recent restoration of a world-famous painting of a biblical episode, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), uncovered a startlingly different face for its sacrificial livestock—and the internet is mesmerized.
The artwork commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece, completed by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432 and located in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, is considered to be both the first major oil painting and the first significant Renaissance painting. A restoration to return the painting to its original state was completed in December. The painting’s central panel depicts a mystical lamb, symbolizing Christ, raised on a sacrificial altar surrounded by angels kneeling in tribute to the divine beast. While scraping away layers of paint and varnish, conservators uncovered the lamb’s original face and were bewildered to discover its shockingly human-like features.
A detail of the restored Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium. From February 1 until April 30, 2020 the museum will present an exhibition about the painter Jan van Eyck. Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images.
The conservation team at Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage expressed surprise and awe at the restored masterpiece in a statement:
There are no words to express the result. Liberated from the thick layers of yellow varnish and the coarser overpaints, we can discover the Van Eycks’ sublime virtuosity in abundance.
However, the rest of the world appears both disturbed and amazed by the cleaned-up painting. The 12-paneled artwork—which boasts the distinction of being one of the most frequently stolen paintings of all time—has now achieved a new level of infamy as the latest viral art meme. Social media users have described its appearance as nightmarish, and one side-by-side comparison called attention to the animal’s likeness to the title character from the cult comedy film Zoolander (2001).
The fresh-faced sheep will make its public debut when the altarpiece returns to the cathedral on Friday for an event sensibly titled “The return of the Lamb.” For now, the Ghent Lamb must be content with imparting biblical wisdom to its growing legions of followers on Twitter.