Weird and wonderful sheep

Big news in the art world this week. The work generally considered as one of the pivotal works in the development of painting- Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, was revealed to the waiting world in all its new and restored glory. It is a massive piece of art, well over four metres wide and three metres high. It has stood for centuries in the St. Bavo’s cathedral gradually accruing a patina from incense and candle smoke. This most recent restoration is not the first. Over the years well meaning experts have cleaned, retouched and in their eyes improved the original. This most recent restoration has taken more than eight years to complete and has taken the painting back closer to the original than ever before. At the centre of the scene depicted on the screen is a lamb. This new restoration has revealed the animal’s face as painted in 1432. It turns out that a well meaning restorer in the sixteenth century had repainted the lamb’s face to make it, well, more lamb like.

The original that we can see today is, well, a bit weird looking according to many who view it. Van Eyck,it seems, wanted the animal to be human reflecting the religious nature of the painting. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. What is odd to us made sense to them.

So why my interest? I think that this restoration, the revelation of a different way of seeing has valuable lessons for us as parents or teachers. When we look at the young people in front of us, how often do we as adults attempt to paint them as we want to see them? How often in our words and with our advice do we seek to make them more acceptable to us? Do we attempt to paint what we want to see rather than revealing the real, however weird or baffling.

As January ends we enter the season of subject choices. Each year some pupils will make choices that reflect not what they are but what they think they ought to be. This is a recipe for underperformance and in some cases unhappiness. As adults we are there to guide, to offer useful and supportive advice and to influence where prudent. Sadly it is a very small step from this position to enforcing our own ideas, however well meant.
Our pupils come in many different forms. We do well when we recognize them for what and who they are, not what we think they should be. They will think differently, they will not always be as we might wish. They need to make mistakes. And we like gentle restorers are right to let them grow into the people they are.

Nicholas Hammond