Skip to main content

Why this 15th-century 'Jesus-lamb' painting is creeping people out

The restored lamb gazes into your soul.
The restored lamb from Jan and Hubert van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece gazes into your soul.
(Image: © St Bavo’s Cathedral; © Lukasweb; photo: KIK-IRPA. Restorers: © KIK-IRPA)

"The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," a 15th-century masterwork by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck, has finally been restored after three painstaking years of work — and people are freaked out.

What's got spectators so baa-listic? Apparently, it's the titular lamb's weirdly humanoid face. Take a look at this close-up of the painting pre- and post-renovation, and you'll see. (Warning: You may have a hard time unseeing it.)

Related: 11 Hidden Secrets in Famous Works of Art

Don't worry, this is not another "monkey Jesus" screw-up. The lamb's mannish face is actually part of the original painting, long lost to history, the restorers told The Art Newspaper.

"[The discovery was] a shock for everybody — for us, for the church, for all the scholars, for the international committee following this project," Hélène Dubois, who led the restoration for the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage since 2016, told The Art Newspaper.

A bit of background: "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" is the centerpiece in a series of 12 panels known as the Ghent Altarpiece, painted for the altar of St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The lamb in the painting's forefront symbolizes Jesus. It bears a wound on its breast, similar to the one Jesus received during his crucifixion, and is bleeding into a nearby chalice as crowds of adoring angels look on. The lamb's face, meanwhile, remains perfectly stoic, as its human-like eyes stare directly out of the painting toward the viewer. 

The details all fit with the van Eyck brothers vision — before the lamb's face was painted over by two other artists during a major restoration in 1550, anyway. Perhaps cathedral visitors at the time shared the opinions of modern critics who find the lamb's human eyes weird and overly "confrontational," as the restorers gave the sheep a more naturalistic animal's face.

While the recent restoration to the van Eycks' original vision has jarred many observers, those behind the project said they could not be happier. 

"When I saw the lamb for the first time as van Eyck painted it, I had to catch my breath," Dubois told the Flemish newspaper De Standaard. "It is of a shocking beauty. "

The man-faced lamb panel will join several others from the Ghent Altarpiece on display at St. Bavo's Cathedral in February.

Originally published on Live Science.

How It Works Banner

Want more science? Get a subscription of our sister publication "How It Works" magazine, for the latest amazing science news.  (Image credit: Future plc)
  • WrittenWhisper
    It's creepy because it is ugly. It looked much better before "restoration".
    Reply
  • WrittenWhisper
    Bekim BACAJ said:
    That's not a restoration. That's forgery.
    There's nothing human-like in this forgery - the ****** the criminal that did the forging displaced its eyes which originally lay on the sides to the front of its scull / face, and made a fake predator out of it. No sheep can look you straight in the eye.
    And no bull can do that either - because if it could...

    You have seen some (a lot of them actually) the paintings/artworks of periods past right? They weren't exactly true to life. Artists didn't think in terms of "I think I'll make this sheep look like a predator" many artists liked to have both eyes looking out (toward the viewer).

    Also, it would be defacing, not a forgery.
    Reply
  • Minamii
    Of course, it could just be that whichever artist painted it originally just couldn't draw sheep very well...
    Reply
  • BunnyOlesen
    Bekim BACAJ said:
    That's not a restoration. That's forgery.
    There's nothing human-like in this forgery - the ****** the criminal that did the forging displaced its eyes which originally lay on the sides to the front of its scull / face, and made a fake predator out of it. No sheep can look you straight in the eye.
    And no bull can do that either - because if it could...
    I like this comment. That is the correct amount of anger.

    I want to say something to the people must not have taken the time, or perhaps are unable to make a comparison between the original and the restored piece. The reasoning that: "many artworks of the past were not exactly realistic, sometimes the eyes were on the front because they wanted an animal to look more human" doesn't fly here. YES that is true, however, one can clearly see from the original piece that was not the case on this painting.
    The ears are in a different place. The nose and mouth has been raised and shape of the nostrils and nasal bone are completely different, the top of the head has been flattened and has a different shape along with ridiculous curlies not seen in the original painting (in the original, the height of the head is not a sheep 'hair-do' it's the natural shape of a sheep skull) The eyes lay directly on the sides of the head - ON THE SIDE - not in the front. The left jawline has also been moved in. This is a terrible and false 'restoration' and not the original face.
    Reply
  • KuriousKate
    I don't understand why it would. It represents one of the names of Christ "The Lamb of God", and many times there are visions where angels have the faces of lions, eagles, bulls, etc. representing different qualities of God, such as justice, wisdom, and power.
    Reply
  • Giganotosaurus
    I do not see anything disturbing about this painting. It is just Christian symbolism. Emmett m. Smith
    Reply
  • Jasoncc
    Jesus has always been referred to as "The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." John 1:29 I've seen pictures of the restored 15th century altar piece and it didn't surprise me as much as people without any biblical grounding being freaked out by it.
    Reply