The historic heart of Ghent is a slender, Medieval girdle, stretching no further than a few roads beyond its embrace of the twin rivers, the Leie or Lys and the Scheldt. It is these two rivers that gave the city its riches, its raison d’etre and its –original- name: Ganda, a Celtic word for confluence. The Leie once brought the thriving wool business to Ghent and made it the largest and richest city of the Middle Ages after Paris. It – the river – now enjoys a less active life in its ripe middle age as it meanders forgetfully through the city, past the magnificent Graslei – the well restored, well loved cluster of sienna brown administrative offices and guild halls, all with their tall crenelated facades, with tops of tapering steps that lead up to nowhere.
The city’s munificence is mirrored, golden in the glassy surface of the river’s loving gaze. It’s as though, in case you hadn’t fully gasped at the city’s preserved elegance, its sense of historic might, the river was there it offer it up to you again – the upside down reflection of what life must have been when burgers with enough wealth to guarantee God’s remission of sins, strutted the teeming boardwalk.
It is along this river with its estuaries and canals, as brief as parentheses, with its stollers’ pathways and it slow tourist craft, offering up its panoramas like film strips viewed through tightly closed windows, that the city’s many faces greet the world. For beyond the pomp of the Graseli, as you pass beneath the beat of its many bridges, the innocuous fronts of shops and restaurants on the main roads conceal river facings that offer the kind of singular charm that you can only get from, say, a silent balcony, with table setting for two, cantilevered onto the tide, steeped in the grace of hosting six hundred years of river-mesmerized diners; or a small boat moored at the base of steps that disappear into a dark tunnel, a labyrinth that steals away from winter.
Noticeably there are almost no trees in the wintry city. For all its beauty, its umber walls and gold-lit interiors are nowhere graced with green. There must clearly have been an ontological divide: the city was a place of commerce, Catholicism and community in which there was really no place for nature… which (if you wanted it) was found in abundance just without. This city/country combination was probably started in London, where, after the great fire, it slowly recreated itself over the next century or so as a paradise of parks and leafy enclaves. Emperor Napoleon III so admired this side of London (he lived there during ‘the troubles’) that he too re-crafted modern Paris into the city of parks and tree-lined boulevards we all so love.
In Ghent it is the ever-varying light that lifts the brick and tiles of the buildings into warmth and into distinct and changeable personalities. For it is the light that varies the world ahead offering change to the unchanging edifices. At this low tourism time of our visit, this late November time when the weather is mean, cold and dark and the days slip through your fingers like money in this expensive town, one day’s brilliantly bronzed dawn quickly becomes another day’s lingering mist. Eliot’s “yellow fog that runs its back upon the window-panes [and licks] its tongue into the corners of the evening,” finds its place here.
It was probably on an evening just like this one, when people walked in shadows and all light was atomized into photons of greyness that a couple of monks bundled the twelve large wooden panels of the city’s most famous art-work, the van Eyck brothers’ “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” into a hidden donkey cart. The panels, as heavy as elephants, were wrapped carefully in thick, swaddling cloths, but they must nevertheless have rattled so, as they shook along the street’s uneven cobbles, stealing away from the acquisitive lust of the stalking Nazis, intent upon their fuhrer’s command. Not only did he want the piece for his vast and growing collection of stolen art, but, guided by a small coterie of what can only be described as ‘unique visionaries’, he knew that the richly coded painting contained the secrets that would lead him to the arc of the covenant and thence on to Aryan victory.
Indiana Jones, we’ll never laugh at you again.
The painting was saved (it had only been stolen eight times before) and is now on view at its host cathedral: the Cathedral of St. Bavo, which, like everything else in this city, has a variety of names. So when you’re searching for it along the church cluttered avenues, St. Bavo is also referred to as Sint-Baafs which morphs into Sint Baafskathedral. It’s large and labyrinthine enough to justify such a scatter of names, as I guess you’d expect of any place begun in 942, and added to for the next five hundred years.
Tucked into a small chapel just near the entrance to the cathedral, past a locked door, protected by a ticket booth that would not be out of place in front of a cheap cinema, stands this so desired treasure.
And what a treasure it is: begun in about 1430 by Hubert van Eyck and finished several years after his death by (the more famous of the two brothers,) Jan, the painting features over a hundred and fourty people: saints, popes, hermits, martyrs, righteous judges, a full angelic choir, not to mention God, Joseph, and Mary; Adam is there along with Eve, coyly hiding their nakedness, Caine and Able are poised for the first homicide, even Jan himself is there on a horse, sneaking a peek at us and buried under a cumbersome turban. Now this amount of people is a big deal. Though panel paintings were generally low in the pecking order compared with the artworks that really mattered to the gentry with the cash: tapestries, illustrated books, bejeweled ornaments and objects, and statues, this one must have cost its sponsors, Joos Vidj and his wife Elisabeth Borluut, a fortune (though a small price to pay for entry into the Pearly gates). This merchant class, mercantile culture appraised its artworks pretty much on the same yardstick they appraised, say cloth. If one was appraised by the yard, the other was appraised by the head. And this one had lots of them. Which may have been why, counseled by a team of academics and theologians so that the opaque world of symbolic references was right, the van Eyck brothers, noted portrait artists, using that radically new technique of oil paints, were selected. For this is essentially a portrait painting of God, along with His greatest hits – the annunciation and the Eucharist.
The painting was executed with such delicacy and care (bridging the perceptual with the conceptual) that the crown at God’s feet (symbolizing that He was king of kings and above all other terrestrial kingdoms) was painted with gold leaf pounded so thinly that van Eyck had to levitate it onto the canvas using the static electricity of a brush he’d rub in his hair.
It’s all there. Almost. All there but for the praedella – a kind of skirt that would have comprised maybe four more panels and that showed the counterpart to all this glorious redemption: hell. Some over eager priest removed the praedella in about 1540 to clean it. And it’s never been seen since.
Of course all this culture can be tiring; and there’s no city that’s nicer to be tired in than Ghent. Belgium is beer country and bars frequently boast hundreds of choices (which must make stock-keeping a nightmare). Since we’re not big beer folks, there were two bars that leaned in more heavily on cocktails that we visited frequently on our brief four-day visit (which is just about right): Bar Apotheque, where the mixologist concocted us a brew of Triple Sec, lemon syrup, a Campari-type liquor and wine. Soon enough I intend to replicate its magic a casa. The other bar is called Club Reserva, which boasts of being a live jazz bar and which once in the fog of the past, was the location of a woman’s place of refuge. Now it’s just a place of refuge where good drinks are offered to the sound of Billy Holliday.
And they say the best French food is to be found in Belgium. This is probably a nasty rumour spread by the Belgium tourist board (trying to divert our attention from their heinous King Leopold who initiated a slaughter of elephants for their tusks that nowadays would make him a proud man. He it was too who, egging on the slave trade in its twilight, taught the Congolese how to amputate limbs as punishment. Again, today, he’d be a proud man to see what he’s wrought).
I digress. The food is fabulous. Of note: The House of Elliot, a small, cluttered, wildly, ornately camp place that offers so many versions of lobster that if Forrest Gump had gone gay he’d love it. We did. Volta is a little way off the center (about 15 minutes of charm-free walking), and is a refreshingly young, modern, energized, hip place with great food. Call it hip haute. Finally (after all we were only there four days) there was Valentijn, a family run joint, decked out in the excruciatingly bad taste of a themed Valentine’s Day orgy: hearts everywhere, little twee frilly cushions, heart shaped candles etc. No matter. With your eyes closed, and with the soothing service of our amply endowed hostess, the service and food, like so much else in Ghent, were exceptional.