My Favourite Painting: Rupert Sheldrake

'I love its combination of vividness, clarity, colour, beauty and mystery'

The Adoration of the Lamb (lower middle panel of The Ghent Altarpiece), 1432, by Jan van Eyck (died 1441), Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent, Belgium. Bridgeman Images.

Rupert Sheldrake says:
‘I was completely entranced by this altarpiece when I visited it in the cathedral in Ghent. I love its combination of vividness, clarity, colour, beauty and mystery, especially in the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, with its two sources of light, natural on the right and spiritual in the centre. All the details are exquisite; each panel is a masterpiece.’

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist. His latest book, The Science Delusion, is reviewed on page 82

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Artists know best about art, and the late Patrick Procktor always urged those visiting the Low Countries to take The Masters of Past Time, Dutch and Flemish Painting from van Eyck to Rembrandt by another painter, Eugene Fromentin (1820–76). ‘Have I given you an idea of it?’ Fromentin asks (after six pages of detailed and ecstatic description of the legendary altarpiece, this spring of ‘pure inspiration from which the vast movement of northern art arose’). ‘Not at all. The mind could ponder before it forever, and dream of it forever without coming to the bottom of what it expresses or what it evokes.’

Hubert van Eyck (died 1426) began the 12-panel work, and his younger and more famous brother, Jan, a diplomat as well as Court painter to the Duke of Burgundy, completed it by adding the lower section, including the climactic centrepiece. The ‘great multitude’ (John, vii, 9) surrounds ‘the Lamb of God’ (Jesus as heralded by John the Baptist) in the fields of Paradise. On the left, those who pre-dated Jesus are represented by prophets (including Virgil in white) and patriarchs; on the right, the Apostles and other members of the Church. In the distance are the steeples of the New Jerusalem.

Recommended videos for you

The altarpiece has been described as ‘the most frequently stolen artwork in history’. Six panels, pawned in 1815, were even briefly in London. Reassembled, it was later seized by Hitler and hidden in a salt mine. That it is back in one piece in its original church is a miracle in itself.’

This article was first published in Country Life, March 7, 2012