Ghent Cathedral – not an appreciation

To paraphrase Patek Philippe, you never actually own a cathedral, you merely look after it for the next generation.

Which is why The Knife is unhappy about the current state of the magnificent St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent.  Having just

St Bavo’s is on the far right

been to Saturday evening mass at my local, the last thing I would expect (or want) to see on the way out, by the door, is a 10 foot high photo of a naked lady featuring her backside, in a pose reminiscent of the silly 1970’s Athena tennis poster. However, that’s what you get in Ghent.

In addition, on the lower altar you get a projector showing images on the medieval masonry of various deities, such as a Hindu god who looks like a kathakali dancer, there’s another digital display on the high altar that seemed to be showing a nun/female saint, various huge sculptures with no religious value, and a ridiculous giant sword with no apparent religious meaning dangling over the interior entrance. No wonder they don’t let you take photos.

The crazy thing is that this is a viable Catholic church and an architectural masterpiece, which will attract visitors for those reasons alone. In addition, it houses one of the most extraordinary works of art in the world, The Adoration of  the Lamb altarpiece by the van Eyck brothers.

Unfortunately, this is also badly handled. You pay your money, then squeeze into a very undersized annex and look at a badly illuminated painting in a perspex tank. There’s far too many people in at one time, and contemplation of  the truly wonderful altarpiece is completely undermined by the milling and tightly packed crowd. It’s even worse than visiting the Mona Lisa, which is saying something.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just down the road, at the Musee Royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels, the many masterpieces are brilliantly displayed in what is the most congenial gallery that I’ve visited, and the security is unobtrusive.

This is not a snobby whinge about dreadful tourist crowds and populist gestures, but more a criticism of the “trendy vicar” mentality which thank God – literally – is not usually very prevalent in the Catholic church. I very much doubt that people who enter a cathedral, either as worshippers or tourists, expect or even like to see the kind of rubbish described above.

Likewise, if, like the Diocese of Ghent, you have temporary custody of sacred buildings and artworks of great interest and benefit to humanity, you shouldn’t assume the right to alter these, reduce their dignity or fail to display and preserve them adequately.

They’re not yours to play with.

Albrecht Durer admires the Ghent Altarpiece (by Pieter Frans de Noter and Felix de Vigne, 1840)

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