Like many cities Ghent has a cathedral. It was a cold day when we visited but the crypt was warm and full of the most amazing vestments and more monstrances than I have ever seen. I’d recommend a visit on those grounds alone.
However St Bavo’s Cathedral is famed for more than that. It is home to the polyptych by the van Eyck brothers known as the ‘Mystic Lamb’. It once hung in a side chapel but it was moved to another part of the cathedral and in fact is undergoing restoration panel by panel.
In the chapel where it once hung however is a life size copy and an inscription. in fact it is two inscriptions. The first is a copy of the inscription on the painting itself and you can read how we unravelled its secret here.
The second half is a much later addition. The inscription was made on the occasion of the Lamb’s return to Ghent after the rescue from the Austrian salt mine of Alt Aussee, and the subsequent examination and restoration in Brussels. Dated in 1952 it reads as follows:
ARTIS OPVS SACRVM SERVANT PII AB ICONOCLASTIS
GANDAVO EX BELLIS TER SALVVM REDDITVR ILLVD
NON IGNIS NOCVIT NEQV TEMPVS NAM RENOVATAE
VIVIDA VIS TABVLAE VOS CHRISTI SVBDIT AMORTI
Which translates1 to:
Pious [hands] saved the sacred work of art from the iconoclasts;
Saved three times from war, it is [now] given back to Ghent.
Neither fire nor time caused damage [to it], and yes indeed,
the living power of the renovated altarpiece submits you [again] to Christ’s love.
Like the upper inscription some of the letters are picked out in red. In this case, read downwards they spell out ‘Agnus Dei’ – the subject of the painting.
I noted that the panel has room for yet more writing. I hope if one day anyone ever adds another inscription they will continue the theme of hiding a puzzle for enquiring minds to ponder.
- Translation kindly provided by Can. Prof. Dr. Peter Schmidt