The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, (aka the Ghent Altarpiece) has been through a lot since it was completed in 1432.
The masterpiece – created by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck – was painted for St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. For around a century it sat there minding its own business, before it was taken apart and pieces of it stolen by a vicar. Then, it was nearly destroyed in a fire caused by rioting Calvinists, and stolen by Napoleon's troops.
During the First World War, it ended up in a museum in Berlin, and its return to Ghent became one of the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. It was returned, only for part of it to be stolen (again) in 1934 for ransom money. This part of the painting was never returned, and the painting's ordeal still wasn't over. In the Second World War, Hitler and Göring decided that they too desperately wanted the painting.
The Nazis managed to get their hands on it in a castle in the south of France where the Belgians had attempted to conceal it. Hitler then stored the painting in the Altaussee salt mine alongside other artworks including Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges and Vermeer's The Astronomer. Towards the end of the war, the salt mine and its contents were going to be blown up. Fortunately, the local mine administration and the miners obstructed the order, and in May 1945 the artworks – including the Ghent Altarpiece – were seized by the Monuments Men.
Over time, the artwork became the most stolen painting in history. In short, it's been through a lot. Which makes the face of the sheep at its center incredibly apt.
The painting, which depicts a sheep on an altar surrounded by worshippers (happens all the time), has been under restoration since 2012 inside a specially constructed laboratory. During the restoration process, scientists used X-ray fluorescence scans to discover that the lamb – the centerpiece of the whole artwork – had been painted over during the 16th century.
“This overpainting had been done so early on, and following the shapes of the original, with very similar pigments that had also aged in a similar way, that it was not actually visible on the technical documentation when the altarpiece first came in for treatment,” Hélène Dubois, the head of the restoration project told The Art Newspaper, adding that the discovery came as a shock to all involved.
Delicately, experts took away the 16th-century addition to restore the painting to how it looked in 1432. And the sheep does not look happy about it.
Beneath the 16th-century addition is the most intense and human-looking sheep we've ever seen. People on the Internet see the appeal in immediately getting down and worshipping the sheep, lest they incur its wrath.
The researchers say they will study why the van Eyck brothers chose to paint a "cartoonish", human-like expression that contrasts with the rest of the painting's naturalistic style.
In the meantime, centuries after it was created, the piece has become a hot new meme.