The restoration of a famous 15th century painting has surprised art fans and critics, because it has revealed the original "human-like face" of a lamb underneath a paint job that was carried out on it 470 years ago.

The restored original of 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' altarpiece (1432)
The restored original of 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck © Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

The Ghent Altarpiece is usually housed at St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. It was completed in 1432 by Dutch brothers, Jan and Hubert Van Eyck. The masterpiece has 12 panels featuring biblical figures - seven on top and five on the bottom, and eight of them also have paintings on the back. Also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, its central panel on the lower register depicts saints, sinners, clergy and soldiers at an adoration of the Lamb of God. The masterpiece has a colourful history that has seen it being forged and dismantled and even seized by Adolf Hitler, and it is one of the most frequently stolen paintings of all time.

The lamb in the Lamb of God in the Ghent Altarpiece painting
People were startled by the lamb's intense gaze © John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

While undergoing a restoration project at Belgium's Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, art restorers discovered that the central panel had been painted over in 1550. Conservationists stripped away this paint, and were startled to discover that the lamb, which is meant to represent Christ, had large frontal eyes and an intense gaze. Head of the restoration project, Hélène Dubois, described it as having a more "intense interaction with the onlookers" in the Art Newspaper, while the Smithsonian magazine described it as "alarmingly humanoid."

It has been speculated that overpainting the intensity of the lamb's stare was designed to give it a more impassive and neutral expression. It was also discovered that 70% of the painting's original panels had been affected by the 1550 overpainting, including several small buildings lost behind a blue hill that was added in.

The Ghent Altarpiece masterpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece is housed at St Bavo's Cathedral © Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you want to check it out for yourself, the altarpiece will be part of the exhibition 'Van Eyck - An Optical Revolution' at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent from 1 February until 30 April, 2020.

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