Altarpiece exhibition takes visitors on a mythical garden walk


Ghent’s Caermersklooster explores the symbolic meaning behind the flowers and plants depicted in the famous “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”

Hidden meanings

The famous Ghent Altarpiece, also known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, ranks among the most significant works of art in Europe. Painted in the 15th century by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, it comprises 12 panels on hinges that allow it to be opened and closed.

The panels has paintings on both sides. When opened, the altarpiece depicts religious figures above and a panoramic landscape below that stretches across the painting’s entire width.

Dismantled, stolen, and damaged many times over through the centuries, the altarpiece, on view in Ghent’s Sint-Baafs cathedral, is currently being restored. This means that, at any given time, one-third of the panels are located at the restoration facility in the city’s Fine Arts Museum. Visitors can watch the restorers at work behind glass.

And now a new exhibition at the Caermersklooster cultural centre in Ghent gives you a wholly unique perspective on the piece. A Miraculous Garden: Flora on the Ghent Altarpiece focuses on the plants and flowers depicted in the work and adds yet another dimension to the viewing experience by letting you walk through a garden inspired by the painting’s landscape.

The curators used high-resolution images of the altarpiece to recreate the medieval garden. To identify the plants, they brought in researchers from the Flanders Heritage Agency and the Ghent University Botanical Garden.

Spring into summer

The Van Eyck brothers were renowned for their meticulous attention to detail, and the curators were able to identify 75 plant and flower species. “We were astounded by the level of detail,” says Hilde Van Crombrugge from the Botanical Garden.

In the 15th century, illustrations of plants and flowers were still quite abstract, even in herb catalogues. With their realistic depictions, the Flemish painters were at least a century ahead of their time.

The garden highlights the van Eycks’ technical mastery and knowledge of plant anatomy, but it also demonstrates their religious reverence

However realistic the depictions, the garden itself is very much a fictional place – a paradise, which the faithful enter upon their death. Spring flowers can be seen alongside summer ones, while Mediterranean flora mingle with plants that only grow in northern Europe.

“Flowers like the Solomon’s seal were commonly found in Limburg, where the brothers are from,” says Martine Pieteraerens, heritage consultant for the province of East Flanders. “Other plants, like the Italian cypress trees, only grew abroad.”

Jan van Eyck likely studied the cypresses, as well as other southern European species like date palms and stone pines, during a stay on the Iberian peninsula. In 1428 and 1429, he spent 10 months in Spain and Portugal on assignment for Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy.

The garden highlights the van Eycks’ technical mastery and knowledge of plant anatomy, but it also demonstrates their religious reverence. The garden paradise is filled with symbols related to Christianity. The spring flowers likely symbolise resurrection, while the medicinal plants could mean the healing power of faith.

Many of the depicted flowers and herbs are known as Mary plants because their look or colour reflect the qualities of the Virgin. White flowers, for example, emphasise her purity, while the small, ground-cover plants symbolise her humility.

Numerology and the Seven Joys

The painting also features many examples of Biblical numerology – belief in which was common in the middle ages. The leaves of the wild strawberries and white clovers, depicted in the central panel’s green meadow, are painted in groups of three. In Christianity, the number three stands for perfection and is the theological symbol of the Holy Trinity.

Similarly, the number seven is present in many plants associated with the Virgin Mary. Lily of the valley is invariably depicted with seven leaves, which rarely occurs in nature. The blooming white lily in the central panel, also known as the Madonna lily, has seven flowers. The number seven stands for the Seven Joys of the Virgin Mary.

It is likely that van Eycks incorporated these details to spark interest of both the general public and the figures of religious authority

- Martine Pieteraerens

Another intriguing aspect of the altarpiece is that the Eve depicted in the top-right panel is holding not an apple but an etrog, a type of citrus fruit known as the “Adam’s apple”, which is highly significant in Jewish culture. The fruit could be interpreted as a reference to Judaism, or as the acceptance of salvation through Christ.

From one panel to the next, flowers are depicted in unexpected places, like Saint Mary’s crown, where a lily of the valley resembles a jewel. Move to the panel in the bottom-right corner, depicting the travelling pilgrims and the dog-rose bush, and the rose thorns appear to be pointing to a maliciously grinning figure – possibly the Devil himself.

“It is likely that the van Eycks incorporated these details to spark the interest of both the general public and the figures of religious authority,” says Pieteraerens. “Anyone could have come to the conclusion that white flowers represent purity, but only religious experts would have been likely to know that redcurrant berries are also called St John’s berries because they ripen on 24 June, which is the holiday celebrating the birth of John the Baptist.”

For those interested in exploring the mythical garden’s mysteries in more depth, Caermersklooster is organising three lectures. On 23 June, for instance, Flemish food archaeologist Jeroen Van Vaerenbergh will host a tasting of plants and fruits depicted in the painting.

A Miraculous Garden is the Caermersklooster’s fifth temporary exhibition related to the restoration of the altarpiece. Future exhibitions will likely focus on the clothing and the architecture in the medieval masterpiece.

Until 18 September, Caermersklooster, Vrouwebroersstraat 6, Ghent