Restoration buries relic symbol

Detail from the restored panel, Knights of Christ, on the opened section of the Ghent Altarpiece.

News from Belgium this week is that the second stage of restoring the Ghent Altarpiece (the five lower panels when opened) is finished. Before and after examples have been distributed to the media worldwide. Some of these can be seen at the-low-countries website.

However, I did note with some disappointment that one particular area in the Knights of Christ panel has been very poorly treated (if the published reproduction is accurate). In fact the subtle detail devised by Jan van Eyck and which refers to an important narrative in the altarpiece has been practically obliterated.

The figure in question is the central knight leading the group of other knights and royals in the crusade against the Hussites in 1427. He is Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Beaufort also features in the Just Judges panel and the main panel depicting the Adoration of the Lamb. He was in fact present in Ghent for the installation of the altarpiece in 1432.

The area where detail has been lost in restoration is the red upper section of Beaufort’s right arm. Previously the folds in this had been highlighted for a particular reason. Now they have disappeared. The folds were meant to define a Christian relic, and Van Eyck was stressing the fact that Beaufort had at some time possession of this relic.

But now, seemingly, this subtle connection Van Eyck made in the Knights of Christ panel is lost unless the overpaint is rectified. There is other iconography close to the sleeve that is associated with the relic image, but without the detail the composite and connection falls apart.

The relic is part of the skull said to belong to John the Baptist, beheaded by KIng Herod at the request of Salome.

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