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The Uncanny Face of the Mystic Lamb

By Andrew Murray

A recent art restoration has left people baffled. This is the uncovering of the original face of Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb. This symbol took pride of place in the central, lower panel of the world-famous Ghent Altarpiece. But to many this newly restored lamb looks too weird. One viral twitter thread called it terrifying; another joked they would bring it up with a therapist.

The issue seems to be that the lamb appears eerily humanoid, with eyes facing forward like a person’s rather than on the side like a normal ruminant. Nearly fifty years ago, Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor, gave a name to such disquieting experiences of images that seem too human, but are not quite: the ‘uncanny valley’. Many reported this experience when viewing the new film Cats which used CGI to superimpose feline features on human actors. Similar, a recent film of Sonic the Hedgehog had to have its CGI revised after responses to the initial trailer. According to one journalist, ‘[Sonic] looked uncanny and weird and kinda human, and people were scared.’ 

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Hubert and Jan van Eyck, The Ghent altarpiece (open), c. 1425–1432, oil on wood, 3.4 × 4.6 m, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent (Photo: Web Gallery of Art)

Realism and Jan van Eyck

What might seem even more bizarre is that one of the artists, Jan van Eyck, who has left us many other artworks, was famous for the realism of his paintings. Such realism is fully evident in the Ghent Altarpiece. The head of the restoration project, Hélène Dubois, points how all the plants within the panel can be identified by botanists with the exceptions being those which were painted over in later centuries. One could therefore be forgiven for thinking that this new lamb is a mistake of the restorers, rather like the legendary Monkey Christ of Borja and the famous Saint George of Estella.

Detail of the Mystic Lamb, pre-restoration

However, the professionalism of the restorers and authenticity of the new lamb is not in doubt. The ‘new’ lamb is actually the ‘old’ one, being part of the panel’s original design when the image was painted c. 1425–1432. This has become visible after a later layer, painted around the 1550s was removed. Indeed, before the restoration you could see the ears of the original lamb with the naked eyes, and you could also just make out its original eyes in infrared images that were taken of the pre-restored panel.

Detail of the Mystic Lamb, post-restoration

We all have off days. Maybe Van Eyck just dropped the woolly ball on this one. However, a brief look into the meaning of this lamb within the picture reveals why Van Eyck would have chosen to depict it with eyes that look directly at you. Not just a fluffy ruminant, this Mystic Lamb was also considered to be an image of Christ. To understand Van Eyck’s image, we therefore have to consider how Christ was depicted in medieval, Catholic Europe. 

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Detail of the Mystic Lamb, pre-restoration, see under infrared

The Mystic Lamb as an Icon of Christ 

The Lamb of God is used as an image of Christ in several biblical texts, including the Book of John (1:29, 1:36), Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (5:7) and the Book of Revelation (5:6–14, 6:1, 7:9–17, 14:1). The scene in the altarpiece seems to adhere to Rev. 7:9. The lamb was therefore used to represent Christ throughout western Europe during the Middle Ages. However, many artists felt it had to look more impressive than just a basic farm animal. There were many ways they could achieve this. In the Book of Revelations, the lamb is described as ‘having seven horns and seven eyes’ (Rev. 5:6), and many medieval images depict it with these features. However, it was more common to depict the Agnus Dei as a normal lamb, but one accompanied with a set of various signs or symbols: a pennant with a red cross, a crucifix, a scroll, a seal, a bleeding side, a halo. The Van Eycks’ little ram sports the latter two.

Vera Icon (Copy after Jan van Eyck), oil on oak, 50 x 37 cm, 1439, Alte Pinakothek, Munich – Photo: Alte Pinakothek, Munich

However, the Van Eycks’ lamb also draws from another tradition. Often when Christ was depicted in art, he represented front facing, and looking out at the viewer. This was used to make him seem more majestic, especially in scenes of the Resurrection, Apocalypse or Last Judgement. Jan van Eyck seems to have reserved a similar format for his own images of Christ. The only portraits by Van Eyck that are fully frontal are a now lost icon of Christ that we know from copies, and the image of the Deity in the Ghent Altarpiece, a figure that can be taken for either the Son or the Father. From the rest of Van Eyck’s output, the next closest to being face-on is the face of the man in the Arnolfini double portrait. But here, the eyes also do not look out at the viewer and the face is turned marginally to the figures left, revealing to us one ear but concealing the other. Considering that Van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb is an image of Christ, it was natural idea for Van Eyck to depict it face-on at the viewer and staring at them, even if it meant meeting both conditions required distorting a lamb’s actual physiognomy. 

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Deity enthroned (detail), c. 1425–1432, oil on wood, 1.33 x 2.36 m, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent – Photo: Web Gallery of Art

Realism and the Uncanny

There’s a famous meme of the delightful kid’s TV character Peppa Pig, who is always depicted in profile in the cartoon, but with both eyes visible. One online wit, however, imagined what Peppa would look like front on, revealing a monster with four eyes and four nostrils. The joke is that schematic, cartoony images can get away with all sorts of oddities that we would be repulsed by in even a slightly more realistic image (a more extreme example might be the ‘realistic’ Homer Simpson). 

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We know that Medieval visual culture could accept seemingly ‘cartoony’ monstrous images, even ones of divine beings, whether it be sheep with multiple eyes and horns on the one hand (as we have seen), or representations of the Trinity as a three-headed man. But in contrast to such images, the Van Eycks’ Agnus Dei is not a composite of different limbs appended to one another, but a relatively seamless transition between ovine and human features. The final result is a different type of monstrosity, a sheep that appears uncannily human. Considering that Jan van Eyck was producing the most realistic images that then had ever been made, it is possible that the uncanny appearance of his Mystic Lamb may have been an unintended consequence of the realistic style he was pioneering. However, I think the uncanny appearance of the lamb may have been intentional. To understand why, one has to look a little deeper into how Christ was portrayed in the middle ages and such portrayals of notable people were interpreted by medieval people.

Monstrosity and Christ’s Two Nature of Christ

Firstly, note that the seemingly weird transition between the human and animal in Van Eyck’s lamb has a symbolic purpose. Jesus was someone who was believed to be both a material, mortal person and a divine God. Such a fusion of Christ’s two natures is also evident in Van Eyck’s lamb: it is a sacrificial, mortal being (a lamb); but like a Christ-icon, is also a divine image of God facing the viewer and looking at them.

Medieval Christian culture had long produced images that displayed similar transitions between Christ’s divine and mortal nature. Consider, for instance, the famous sixth-century Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. It is widely believed that this image depicts Christ in his two natures, with his right side representing his mortal attributes and his left side depicting his more fearsome divine countenance.

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Christ Pantocrator, sixth century, encaustic on wood, 84 x 45.5 cm, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.

 

A second, famous icon that makes a similar gesture is the Veil of Veronica (as depicted here by Hans Memling). This was a relic paraded through Rome from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries, and which was supposedly a miraculous image of Christ’s face. It was believed to have been made during the Passion when Saint Veronica wiped the sweat from Jesus’s face with veil. Like Christ Pantocrator, this image fused Christ’s humanity and divinity, being both a material residue of Christ’s on the one hand, but also a sign of his Godly powers on the other (being a miraculous image). 

In combining the face of a lamb and a face of Christ, Van Eyck may have produced an image that looks strange and unsettling. However, a similar feeling may have also been experienced by medieval Catholics looking upon other images of Christ such as the Christ Pantocrator and the Veil of Veronica, images that, like the Mystic Lamb, simultaneously represented him as both mortal and as divine, material and miraculous.  

Portraits in the later Middle Ages

A second factor to consider is how portrait-likenesses were interpreted in the later Middle Ages. In his (pre)history of portraiture in late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, Stephen Perkinson has argued that such images would not always aim to depict historical persons through exact likeness, but rather stimulate a vision of the particular individual by combining surprising or novel details with notable references to their appearance. He further claims Van Eyck’s portrait of Christ would have been such a novel image in combining the iconographic formulae of the veil of veronica with the artist’s highly veristic style. The Mystic Lamb might have done something similar, creating a stimulating, novel effect through combining realism with the iconographic formulae of the Christ-icon and Agnus Dei. If so, the ‘uncanny valley’ may not be an unintended consequence of Van Eyck’s newly discovered realism, but rather a creative resource he discovered within it. 

Van Eyck is largely interpreted as a ‘realist painter’. Indeed, a major exhibition of his work held in Ghent this year is titled ‘An Optical Revolution’, suggesting Van Eyck’s achievements were in his powers of observation and the production of a realist style. While this is certainly true, the emphasis we give to Van Eyck’s realism should not allow us to forget other ideas he was working with and traditions he was working within, namely, the iconic tradition of representing Christ and the method by which late medieval portraits used novel or stimulating to elicit the memory of who they depict. Stephen Perkinson claims that such novelties might have become passé very quickly. Indeed, by the mid sixteenth century, Van Eyck’s lamb may have seemed like a curious oddity, an unsatisfactory element in the otherwise highly realistic style of his oeuvre, leading it to be painted over. However, perhaps this was a blessing in disguise; in seeing the original lamb with fresh eyes hundreds of years later, we might have experienced the fresh sense of bewilderment it may have had for its fifteenth-century audience. 

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To learn more about the Restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, please visit Closer to Van Eyck

Andrew Murray is an associate lecturer at the Open University, UK.

Further Reading:

Robert Mills, “Jesus as Monster,” in Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, The Monstrous Middle Ages (Cardiff, 2003), pp. 28–54.

Stephen Perkinson, The Likeness of the King: A Prehistory of Portraiture in Late Medieval France (Chicago and London, 2009)

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