Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Shepherd is a Lamb is a Gate is a...Human?

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Three of the readings designated for Easter 4A (Psalm 23, I Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10) refer to shepherds and/or sheep. The Lord is our shepherd. Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus is also the gate through which the sheep enter. Jesus is also the lamb, sacrificed for all of us sheep who have gone astray. It's a tangled skein of yarn.

Recent art conservation added an interesting twist to Christian scripture as an intersection of sheep and humans. The Ghent Altarpiece was created by brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck around 1432. The altarpiece is made up of  twelve panels that can fold in and expand in several combinations to tell several different stories.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. 1432. St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.
The heart of the altarpiece is a panel called "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" (above). At the center of the panel, the Lamb of God stands on an altar, a side wound bleeding into into a chalice. Around the lamb are saints and martyrs. Beneath (in front of) the altar is a fountain inscribed with Revelation 22:1, a reference to the river of the water of life. The panel, and the altarpiece as a whole, are rich in symbols and narrative.

The altarpiece is sometimes identified as the most stolen work of art in the world. It's hard to quantify that, but both individual panels and the altarpiece as a whole have been stolen multiple times. It was most famously stolen - and recovered - in the 2014 film The Monuments Men

In 2012, the latest round of restoration began on the altarpiece. In this restoration, old varnish was removed along with overpaintings that have been done almost since the altarpiece was first displayed. The final phase of the work was revealed several months ago. One of the most surprising finds was the original state of the face of the lamb. The lamb owed it appearance before restoration to overpainting done probably in the 16th century. When that overpainting was removed, the lamb looked significantly more human. Eyes that had appeared more on the side of the lamb's head were discovered to face fully to the front. One of the Van Eyck brothers had outlined the lamb's eyes and more fully defined the face. With the removal of the 16th-century paint, the lamb gazes much more forcefully at the viewer, and the viewer is more fully confronts the eyes of God's sacrificial lamb. 
Detail. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
Reactions and responses to the discovery have been mixed. Words like "cartoonish" and "disturbing" have been used, and one writer characterized the Lamb of God as an "alien creature." Like it or not, this much more humanoid creature seems to be the vision of the 15th-century artists who created it. Perhaps rather than asking whether we like it, we should be asking what it means. What does it mean that the lamb is looking directly at us as it bleeds into a chalice? What does it mean to have a more human face on the Lamb of God? What was happening in the time and place of the creation of this piece that this was the Lamb of God?

The Lord is our shepherd - a good shepherd. But our Lord was also the sheep. And human. Like us. For us.

For further reading about the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, see:

For another look at a human/animal portrait mix, see this "recycled" Art&Faith Matters Facebook post. The scripture isn't the same, but the images are in the same vein. 

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