The Ghent Altarpiece & Saint Bavo’s Cathedral

The Ghent Altarpiece is one of, if not the greatest work of art every produced by human hands. I know; quite an opening statement and with this in mind you can only imagine how excited I was when I booked my ticket online. As I have written in the past, booking your ticket is essential nowadays, you just can’t take a chance anymore. So as soon as I booked the flight, I booked my ticket online. Before I get to the work of art just a few points, €16 entrance fee, it is a cathedral so obvious rules apply, respect for your surroundings, and those people who have come to worship. The cathedral is in the heart of Ghent, so you have a huge choice of restaurants outside, there is a gift shop in the cathedral when you exit, a good choice of books and memorabilia.

When you enter the cathedral there is no usher to point you in the direction of the altarpiece but there are signs to begin the tour which is on the left-hand side mid-way. You have an allotted time and please remember this is critical and you will understand why when you enter. You are greeted by a very helpful steward as you enter the ticket office, and they are quite strict on how many people may proceed at any given time. I was on my own, so I just entered showed my barcode and I was given a ticket. I headed down the stairs and to my surprise I was greeted by a man who gave me interactive AR glasses with a clear visor (you can wear your own glasses, no problem).

AR Glasses photo
PHOTOGRAPH BY Sint-Baafs website

This was interesting as I didn’t know this was included in the ticket price. The steward asked me was the volume ok and he said just look through visor and head off. So, I stood at the start of the tour and a superimposed guide appeared in my line of sight and started speaking to me. He told me the history of the Cathedral and then moved me on to the next section of the tour which was fascinating. You are literally looking at a 3D image of the cathedral being built and learning of the history of the cathedral.

The Crypt

You are automatically prompted to move onto the next section and then begins the history of the Ghent Altarpiece. In total this takes approximately 20 mins, and it was excellent in every respect. I literally had the entire area to myself, and this is why I said earlier that the time allotted is critical to keep the tour moving. You move around the crypt to all different sections, and you learn of all the major history throughout. Incidentally one of the tour stops is the burial grave of Jan van Eyck’s brother Hubert. Trust me it is fascinating. You get to the end, and you remove the headset, and the steward just tells you to go up the stairs and/or take a lift if you need to. It is a wheelchair friendly experience.

Rubens Masterpiece the Conversion of St Bavo 1623-1624

When you walk through the first door you see the Rubens masterpiece, The conversion of St Bavo right in front of you and in the corner of your eye you can see the altarpiece. Heart skips a beat. It is a fantastic set up. A you may be aware the altarpiece is behind bullet proof glass but this in no way takes away from the experience. There are a few chairs in the room so you can sit down if you wish. I assume they like to keep people moving but, in my experience, there were no stewards asking anyone to move on. You are given the time to immerse yourself in the Altarpiece. What struck me was the light. The altarpiece is very tastefully and professionally illuminated. The colours of the paint are striking. It is impeccably restored and cleaned. You may very well have done your homework on the panel before you visit so you will know the central panel has our lord, Mary and John the Baptist. The central lower panel has the adoration of the lamb and the other panels have scenes of worshippers of Popes, Angels, Soldiers etc., The back of the panel can be seen to the left and right, if you like these doors would ordinarily be closed so it is the front of the altarpiece.

The Ghent Altarpiece

After spending your allotted time, you can then explore the rest of the cathedral if you choose. It is the most amazing Gothic cathedral and if it is architecture, you are there for the cathedral is an amazing space. There are many treasures in the cathedral, and I have just focused on one, the altarpiece so if you choose you can do some homework before you go.

Ceiling of the Cathedral

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Alan O’Neill

Alan is an avid Art Gallery visitor here in Europe. I would think I have visited approximately 33 Art related galleries(churches with works of Art also) in Europe. He has a bucket list of approximately 14 left to visit (obviously there's always more).