Lamb of (oh my) God: disbelief at 'alarmingly humanoid' restoration of Ghent altarpiece

Naaman Zhou
<span>Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

A restoration of one of the world’s most famous paintings has been described as “a shock for everybody” after it revealed a depiction of a sheep with extremely human-like eyes.

The Ghent Altarpiece, completed by Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432, is a 15th-century masterpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Belgium, widely considered to be the first major artwork to use oil paint.

For centuries, its central panel – titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – featured a demure sheep (the Lamb of God) being sacrificed on an altar as a representation of Jesus Christ.

The sheep was painted over by a different artist in 1550, but a multi-million-dollar restoration has now revealed the original, startling face of the titular ovine.

Described by the Smithsonian Magazine as “alarmingly humanoid”, the new Ghent lamb now sports larger, more vibrant eyes and a more detailed, flared pink nose.

Images of the two faces side-by-side have been circulating on social media and described as nightmarish.

Unlike other art restorations, such as the infamous botched Ecce Homo (also known as Monkey Christ), the Ghent lamb has in fact been professionally restored to how it originally looked.

The head of restoration, Hélène Dubois, described the unveiled face as “cartoonish” and “a shock for everybody” in an interview with The Art Newspaper.

“Nothing like this had ever been observed on early Netherlandish painting,” Dubois said.

Curators from Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage used surgical scalpels and microscopes to remove old paint “centimetre by centimetre”, over three years, to reveal the original sheep.

“There are no words to express the result,” they said in a statement on the royal institute’s website. “Liberated from the thick layers of yellow varnish and the coarser overpaints, we can discover the Van Eycks’ sublime virtuosity in abundance.”

The institute said their restoration had “brought back the original vividness, richness of detail and brilliant colours for all to see”, concluding that “the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is overwhelmingly beautiful.”

Only 5% of the original paint was lost, curators said.

The central panel featuring the lamb will be returned to the cathedral on 24 January, where it will be put on display for the public in an event titled “The return of the Lamb”.

The altarpiece is made up of multiple panels, and is 15 feet wide and 11 feet tall when fully opened. It is also one of the most frequently stolen paintings of all time.

The restoration was completed in December but images of the sheep’s original face went viral in January.

The Ghent lamb now joins other shocking artistic works such as the bust of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in Madeira in Portugal, the repainted statue of St George in Estella in Spain, and the baby Jesus statue in Ontario in Canada whose head was replaced with a completely differently-coloured material.

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