This belongs to conditioned reflex. Whenever the Ghent Altarpiece in Belgium’s Bavo's Cathedral is written about, the first thing mentioned is that it’s the most stolen artwork in the world – seven times in all. Not that there aren’t good reasons for the thieveries.

Grand opening

As the New York Daily News points out in reporting a $35 million bullet-proof display case, the Altarpiece is widely accepted as “one of the world’s greatest masterpieces. It’s easy to see why. The 12-panel work, painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers Hubert and Jan, is gorgeously detailed.

In the words of The Guardian, the imagery is the “A to Z of Christianity.” So, there’s that.

Recently restored for $1.3 million and now safe in the new display case, the Altarpiece is, as the Wall Street Journal whoops, “ready for adoration.” But I’m not ready. The gorgeousness aside, and the comprehensive scriptural story it tells aside, none of the wonderful things about this work blunts the xenophobic, doctrinaire view that the Van Eyck brothers of Eve, the first woman.

Editorializing history

The figures of both Adam and Eve – naturalistically rendered, almost life-size nudes – stand with bowed heads in the dark corners of the Altarpiece. Of course, these figures were conceived with a Medieval sensibility, and I’m seeing them with a 21st-century attitude.

I recognize that the work is from a time when people thought differently about sin. But not to mention contemporary thinking keeps Medieval thinking alive. As you will see, British art critic Edwin Mullins, who has broadcast more than 100 documentary films on art and art history for the BBC, buys into the Gothic mind. (More about this in a moment).

Hard look

First, a look at the work. Observe how the Van Eyck brothers marginalize Adam and Eve by setting them in the shadowy edges of their work, alluding to their eating forbidden fruit. To further the "sin," the brothers show both figures covering their lower anatomy, illustrating self-consciousness about their state of undress resulting from eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

So far, so good.

My aversion begins with the way Eve is portrayed as evil and Adam as innocent. Mullens spotted this difference in his 1985 book The Painted Witch. Sad to say, though, he believes what the Van Eyck brothers believed: Eve was wicked, describing her as pregnant with “stringy hair” and “the face of a harlot.” Views like that in Medieval times are par, but in 1985? How do you get whore from a picture of a pregnant woman, even with “string hair”?

Truth twisting

Wait, there’s more. When noting Eve placing one of her hands on her lower anatomy, Mullins says she’s covering her “guilty genitals.” Incredibly, he goes on, saying that Eve may be the mother of us all, but she is – and I quote – “the bad women; and by her presence in the picture she attracts to herself all man’s feeling of sexual disgust.”

By contrast, Adam’s hair is not “stringy,” and he wears an uninvolved facial expression.

In other words, the burden of their wrongdoing is all on Eve. Why? No one forced him to eat the forbidden fruit. Isn't that a little like defending a crime by saying, “It wasn’t my idea” The way the Van Eycks saw Eve is bad enough, but at least they had an excuse - a sign of their times. What’s Mullins’ excuse?

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