Friday, April 28, 2017

Belgium 2017: Ghent - Day 1

Having spent two lovely days in Bruges, our next stop was a day and a half in Ghent before heading back to our home swap in Antwerp.  Since we did not have that much time planned, we wanted to get there as early as possible and left right after breakfast.  Luckily the train ride from Bruges to Ghent only took 25 minutes.  It still seems incredible to me that traveling between these two cities in Belgium takes less time than most journeys that we take locally within our home city, either via transit or driving.  Although most people that we have communicated with so far in Belgium could speak English, it was a bit disconcerting that all the written and spoken messages on the trains were only in Dutch and French.  Had there been an issue with a train, I’m not sure my high school French would have been sufficient to figure out what was going on.

We chose to stay at Ghent’s Novotel Centrum Hotel, right in the heart of the old town and within walking distance of all the sights that we wanted to see.  Unfortunately the train station was almost 3 kilometres away from the city centre and over 30 minutes by foot.  Instead, we took a bus that dropped us off at the Korenmarkt, the main city square just a few blocks from our accommodations.   Just outside our hotel, we could spot the three major towers of Ghent—the St. Nicolas Cathedral, the Ghent Belfry and St. Bavo Cathedral.  We planned to take a Ghent walking tour in the afternoon, where we would learn more about some of these sights.  We wondered about the strange modern-looking structure made of wood, glass and concrete that stood in front of the Belfry and resembled mountain peaks from afar.  This turned out to be the “City Pavilion”, a multi-functional event space, open-air concert hall and café that has people divided in their opinions of whether this is an architectural masterpiece or an eye-sore. 

The must-see attraction when visiting Ghent is St. Bavo’s Cathedral, so we made this our first stop after checking into the hotel.  St. Bavo houses the famous Ghent Altarpiece called Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, created by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432.  Prior to entering the special area to see the altarpiece, we first inspected the beautiful 89-metre Gothic cathedral with a Baroque high altar in white, black and red flamed marble and the gorgeous Rococo pulpit named Triumph of Truth Over Error.  Created by Laurent Delvaux (1741–1745), the pulpit is made of Danish oak, gilded wood, Carrera marble, a wrought iron fence and features angels, cherubs and woodland and floral elements.   Peter Paul Rubens' painting Saint Bavo Enters the Convent at Ghent (1624) is hung in the north transept.  The depiction of women carrying babies and the rippling muscles of the male figure at the bottom of the painting has many similarities to Rubens' masterpiece Massacre of the Innocents.  Just like in Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady where we saw the sculpture of the “preening bishop”, this time, we were amused to see a sculpture of a reclining bishop that appears to be taking a nap.

The Ghent Altarpiece (also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) is a giant polytych consisting of 12 panels connected by hinges, with 4 panels on each side forming folding winged doors and 4 panels in the centre.  Taken as a whole, its main theme is Man’s salvation through the sacrifice of Christ.  There is debate over which aspects of this work are attributed to the lesser known Hubert Van Eyck and which to his more famous brother Jan.  The common consensus is that Hubert planned and created the initial frames and structure of the altarpiece but died before it could be completed.  Jan then painted most of the images on the panels.  The Ghent Altarpiece is considered one of the world’s most important and treasured art pieces and also one of the most stolen.  The various panels have been separately pilfered, confiscated or sold and then returned multiple times through history.  In fact, the bottom-left panel titled “The Just Judges” was stolen in 1934 and has never been found.  A modern day reproduction, created by Jef Van der Veken in 1945, stands in its place.  The missing panel is one of the great art theft mysteries in history and even recently, rumours continue to swirl regarding where it might be and hope is abound that it may one day be reunited with the rest of the altarpiece.

The altarpiece is stored behind glass in a separate temperature and humidity controlled chapel within the Cathedral.  No photos are allowed while you are in this room but luckily there are many images on the Internet including the “Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the GhentAltarpiece” website sponsored by the Getty Foundation that provides extreme closeup views of each panel.  Instead you are handed an audio guide that provides such a detailed explanation of each of the panels that we ended up spending almost an hour inspecting it, jockeying for position with the hoards of other visitors.  The enormous work stands over 11 feet tall and 15 feet wide and after a while, my neck started to hurt from craning it back for so long to view the top panels.  In order to preserve this masterpiece, which has endured upheaval and plundering during three major wars (French Revolution, WWI, WWII), fire damage and being stored in salt mines, the panels have undergone constant conservation and restoration efforts.  We were very lucky to have been able to see the entire work intact, as the latest restoration had completed mere weeks before our arrival in Ghent.

The left-most and right-most panels of the top row present very realistic, almost life-sized portrayals of Adam and Eve in the nude, covered only by fig leaves.  Inspecting high-resolution closeups of the two nudes on the Getty Foundation website, it is amazing to see the level of detail depicted including fine strands of hair, blemishes, veins, toe and finger nails.  There are a couple of theories to explain Eve's protruding stomach. One is that she is pregnant while another suggests that van Eyck might have used a clothed model reflecting the bulging fashion of the times.  I am more curious about what the small wrinkly, yellowish fruit or nut is that Eve is holding, since it definitely does not look like an apple.  Above Adam is a small depiction of Cain and Abel’s sacrifices to God, who accepts Abel’s offering of a lamb but rejects Cain’s offering of crops.  This leads to the scene above Eve when Cain kills his brother Abel in jealous anger for being snubbed.  In contrast to the vibrant colours in the rest of the paintings, these two sections are illustrated in a monochrome style called “grisalle” that is used to give the illusion of sculpture.

Moving inward, the two panels next to Adam and Eve each depict Celestial angels, singing and playing musical instruments.  Careful inspection of these panels provide good examples of the Flemish Primitives style of painting, which focuses on intricate details as can be seen in the robes of the angels as well as the musical instruments and music stand.  Surprisingly, the angels are depicted more like earthly as opposed to heavenly beings, dressed in ecclesiastical cloaks and crowns, with no signs of wings or halos.  The faces of the angels are all similar but each shown with a different expression.  It is said that you can tell which note each singing angels is producing by looking at the shape of her open mouth.  The three central figures on the upper panels represent the Virgin Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right.  Our audio guide described at length the debate over whether the crowned central figure dressed in red robes represents God or Jesus Christ.  Some believe that this is God, who is usually depicted with a papal crown and lacks the usual stigmata and bare feet that are used to portray Jesus.  There are also Latin inscriptions that translate to “Here is God .. King of Kings”.  Others take the youthful face and the presence of grapes (symbol for the blood of Christ) and pelican (representing Christ’s sacrifice) in the background as an argument for this being Jesus.  Also, Jesus is usually depicted between the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, while God is usually portrayed as part of the holy trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Perhaps the most plausible explanation comes from those who believe this is a composite of both God and Jesus.

The five panels of the bottom row form a continuous scene depicting all the different groups converging to participate in the adoration of the Lamb of God, as described in the Revelation to John (Book of Revelations).  The two left panels show the arrival on horseback of judges and knights while on the two right panels, hermits and pilgrims approach by foot.  The central panel reveals four more groups approaching from all four corners—Bishops and Cardinals from the top left, female martyrs holding palm leaves from the top right, Jewish prophets from the bottom left and the 12 apostles followed by popes and clergy from the bottom right.  All these groups are advancing towards the altar on which a wounded Lamb stands, blood gushing from its leg into a golden chalice (the Holy Grail?).  The lamb is symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice and I guess is the origin of the phrase “sacrificial lamb”.  Surrounding the lamb are 14 winged angels, some holding items referring to Christ’s crucifixion, including the cross and the thorny crown.  Above the lamb is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, and directly above that is the red robed God/Jesus figure forming a vertical trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and supporting the argument that the ambiguous figure is or at least has attributes of being God.  Directly below the lamb is the Fountain of Living Water, a common Christian symbol associated with baptism.

The four panels on either side of the Ghent Altarpiece are painted on both sides and form wings or doors that fold inwards, covering the centre four panels.  The altarpiece was intended to be closed most of the time and open only during “High Mass” held on Sundays and religious holidays.  The upper panels depict the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel (on the left) informs Mary (on the right) that she will be the mother of Christ.  Above them are renderings of prophets and sibyls (female oracles).  The two middle panels on the lower row are statue-like images of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, painted in grisaille.  Most interesting are the two colourful panels on the lower left and right, depicting a kneeling man and woman dressed in red robes that stand out relative to the pale or grisaille hues of the other panels.  These are depictions of the donor Jodocus Vjid and his wife Lysbette, who commissioned the altarpiece.  When we first arrived to view the altarpiece, it was in its open position, but you could walk behind it to inspect the back panels.  The outer wings close each day between noon to 1pm and we were lucky enough to be present to witness this process prior to leaving the cathedral.

After our extended visit at St Bavo Cathedral, we grabbed a quick sandwich to-go and ate it while heading to the start of our guided walking tour.  Having already taken a tour of Bruges, we found many similarities between that city and Ghent.  Both cities have picturesque canals running through them, ornate town halls, an old fish market (vismarkt), and a tall belfry (bell tower).  On the Bruges walking tour, we were told of how their precious gold dragon sculpture was stolen (captured as a war trophy) by Ghent in the 14th century and that we would see it atop the 91-metre Ghent Belfry.  Sure enough, there it was at the tower’s highest peak, acting as a symbol of the city’s power and freedom for the city, although the Ghent tour guide denied that they stole it.

Our tour guide explained the historic significance of a noose which he wore around his neck.  In the 16th Century, the people of Ghent rebelled against King Charles V of Spain to protest high taxes levied against them to pay for wars being waged.  The rebellion was quashed by 5000 Spanish soldiers and the leaders were given the choice of surrendering and submitting to the taxes or death by hanging.  We stood on the square called Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market)  where 26  town leaders chose death.  The rest were made to apologize to the King and march around town with a noose around their neck.  The Noose of Ghent is a revered symbol today and the march is re-enacted each year as part of a festival in July.  At the centre of the square is a statue of Jacob van Artevelde, a 14th Century political leader who negotiated with the King of England for trade and protection.  The stone castle Gravensteen was built in 1180 and served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until the 14th Century.  Our tour guide said that the castle was used more for protection against local rebellion than from foreign invasion.  The castle now hosts a museum of torture devices.  We were also shown 15th Century wrought-iron cannon that is nicknamed “Dulle Griet” or Mad Meg, after the Flemish folklore that also inspired the famous painting in Antwerp by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  It was used in an unsuccessful siege in 1452.  Today, its opening is covered with Plexiglas to prevent people from climbing inside.

We passed several elaborately decorated buildings including the 16th Century Mason’s Guild Hall that features a stepped gable roof topped on each step with sculptures of dancers that twirl in the wind.  On the street called Kraalei is a Baroque house dating back to 1669 which is called “the Flute Player” because of the figure that sits on top of it.  Today it is a Thai restaurant.  The house to the left of it is called “The Seven Works of Mercy”, featuring six stone carvings on its façade.  What happened to the seventh work is a mystery.  It is home to Temmerman, the oldest candy store in Ghent.  Another pretty building is the Keizershof Brasserie found in the Vrijdagmarkt.

Following our walking tour, as we headed back to the hotel, we came across Werregarenstraat, a long alleyway covered with colourful graffiti, including tags and street art.  This is one of the few areas in Ghent where graffiti is tolerated and the street has become a bit of a tourist attraction.  I especially liked the art placed behind a window grill that made it look like a man was in jail behind bars, as well as the graffiti-covered sculpture with arms outstretched as if asking for a hug.

After two weeks of indulging in traditional Belgian fare, we were ready for a change.  For dinner we chose the Italian restaurant Marco Polo and ate pizza and pasta.  After our meal, we wandered back through the streets that we visited earlier during our walking tour and looked for opportunities to take night photos with the lights shining on the buildings.  There were many excellent opportunities for night shots, especially along the canals where the reflections of the buildings glimmered in the water.  We would spend another half day in Ghent the next morning before heading back to Antwerp.

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