Review: The Year’s Most Beautiful Book, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
by Gail Deibler Finke
There’s still time to buy this year’s most beautiful book, a 12 x 12 coffee table book brimming with detailed photos of the most-stolen work of art in the world, the Ghent Altarpiece.
Published by Magnificat, presumably using the new, ultra-high resolution digital images taken during the images’ renovation, the book presents extreme close-ups of the many panels that make up the altarpiece that painted for St. Bavo Church in Ghent in 1432 by the famous Van Eyck Brothers, Jan and Hubert. (For some reason, Hubert isn’t often mentioned in relation to the altarpiece. Perhaps it’s his unfortunate name.)
The result is as lovely as anyone could wish, particularly the loveliest panels depicting Mary reading, the Triune God enthroned, the titular adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and the rest of the figures that make up the inside 12 panels of the altarpiece.
Like many altarpieces, including some still made today, it was constructed as a triptych — a center section with two panels half its size that close over it, like a pair of hands covering a face.
When open, as it was for most of the year, the altarpiece glows with color. People who have seen it in person say that the Van Eyck brothers’ painting technique, which consisted of layer after layer of thin oil paint and used no white, seems to glow with its own light. Thanks to the high-resolution photos and modern printing, a little of that glow comes through the book as well.
When closed, the much smaller altarpiece is also much more subdued. Only a trompe l’oeil window scene at the center left and the figures of the two major donors have much color, and that is muted to match the solemnity of Lent, when it would be closed. Two figures, that of John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelists, are depicted as stone statues, with no color at all. The figures of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel and four Old Testament and pagan figures each have a hint of color, but the overall effect is chiarascuro — with the darkness almost palpable and their light only a promise of what is to come.
Why? You will have to guess or look it up elsewhere. The flowery text, translated from the French and written by Fabrice Hadjadj, a “noted professor of philosophy and literature,” is practically unreadable for anyone who is not used to the style of art historians:
“…to get to this mysterious life, the objects must pass through a certain death to their nature: the things we think of as familiar and ready to hand, here are stolen from our grasp. They become at once closer and more inaccessible. Their utility is felt as a generosity. Their presence is given as a present.We read between the lines and divine a giver — someone who was the first principle of all things, and who offered them to us for our joy: all ordinary and sensible reality like a flower held out to his beloved. That is certainly what is happening here…”
MAKE IT STOP. I read enough of it to get the information for this review, and that is as much as I ever plan to read. However, the sad reality of any fine art book is that almost no one will read it, however wonderful the prose. The point is the photos.
These photos include full shots of the images, as well as close-ups (some of them full-page close-ups) of many of the paintings. How close? So close that you can see the painted gold thread on the embroideries and the brocade fabrics, or the painted reflection in each of the jewels and thousands of pearls sewn on the robes of the Mother of God or the figure representing the Triune God. You can even see the third ear on the lamb left visible after an earlier restoration of the central panel, which depicts Christ as a wooly lamb standing on an altar and bleeding into a golden chalice surrounded by angels, martyrs, the Apostles, the prophets, and everyone else who serves God in the world or as hermits and pilgrims. You can see the blood splash as it fills the chalice.
You can see the image in far better detail than you could in St. Bavo’s, and you can look them for as long as you want to. The book even comes with a miniature two-sided, folding print of the triptych you can have for you very own — “so you don’t have to steal it,” as one wag remarked dryly.
Thanks to Magnificat, you don’t have to steal the altarpiece to admire it or, as the Van Eyck brothers and those who commissioned the work surely wanted, to reflect on the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death (which is not depicted), and resurrection. The overall impression it inspires is a sort of solemn joy, and what better time for that than Christmas?
Hadjadj, Fabrice. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb; Magnificat, Inc., New York, 2015. Available from Magnificat and Catholic booksellers everywhere. $40.
Gail Deibler Finke is Senior Editor of The Catholic Beat.
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