A funny thing happened on the way to Brussels…
“Ghent, then Brussels,” Gene says, tracing an arc on the map as we are about to leave Calais and cross the border from France to Belgium. I finish my croissant and tea and we jump into the bright orange Volkswagen bug we have rented during our 1973 Europe-on-$5-a-day adventure, a second wedding anniversary gift to ourselves. The real honeymoon.
“Ghent?” I say with as much curiosity as excitement. “Let’s stop and see the Ghent Altarpiece.” We don’t have much of an itinerary for the Belgian leg of the trip, the two of us in our early twenties free and easy. Why not?
“St. Bavo Cathedral,” I add, remembering the caption under the image in my college art history textbook. I think back to the lecture hall, two hundred of us sitting in the dark, and can still see the slide of Jan van Eyck’s late Gothic altarpiece on the screen. How could I not? The slide came up for multiple lectures across multiple weeks. The professor went on and on dissecting the work into smaller and smaller pieces well beyond the original three panels. Two hinged on either side of the main panel that can be opened and closed. I pictured the thin, ghostly figures of Adam and Eve on the outer panels, and the colors of the central portion so luminous, saturated, at least on the slide, clearly preserved deep in my brain. And now, a chance to see the reputed work in real life.
We chugged along in the bug, giggled about being an American couple in a German car with Danish license plates driving through the Belgian countryside. We approached the outskirts of Ghent, slowed down, stopped laughing. The city was upon us, streets and construction work and highways going everywhere in a spaghetti maze. The map didn’t help much even though Gene studied it more than once. Face it, we’re lost. Nous sommes perdu. Really lost. Really frustrated.
What was that? In the city’s cacophony. A noise, a growl familiar to Gene. His eyes lit up. The sound of a V12 engine, and there it was, sleek, blue, liquid, a Ferrari oozing through the streets, gliding around corners.
Gene hit the accelerator and we took off after it. Might as well get something out of the city. We chugged, the Ferrari purred, and somewhere in the maze, St. Bavo Cathedral appeared. Gene parked, let the Ferrari go on, and we climbed the limestone steps of the old cathedral in awe of what just happened.
The cathedral was dim inside, and we walked slowly among the massive columns, eyes lifted to the clerestory and vaulted ceiling soaring above. The heights were filled by the sounds of an organ being tuned. Each note, strange, ethereal, floated up, commanding attention.
Our eyes were trained on the incredibly ornate pulpit as we made our way through the nave toward the main altar. I notice a cluster of people gathered around a little man with rounded shoulders wearing a black beret. The group is off to the side in the right transept, and then I understand what all eyes are focused on, all hearts beating for.
The little man with the beret is intense, reverent, and opens the outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. The hinged panels swing out. I gasp. The people gasp. I see Adam and Eve. I see the color, the luminous, vivid, transcendent colors. The center panel is breathtaking. Jesus flanked by Mary and John the Baptist, a little lamb and crowds of people in the scene below. Bright, riveting after five hundred years.
American honeymooners, Italian sportscar, Belgian masterpiece. All passions connected.