Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece (part 1 of 2)

Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece (closed), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11’ 5” x 7’ 6” (Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium)

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:00] We’re going to have a look at the “Ghent Altarpiece.”

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:07] It is absolutely breathtaking, and it’s really complicated.

Dr. Harris: [0:12] It is. It’s made up of many, many panels. It’s a polyptych. Those panels are connected by hinges, so they open and close.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] Which means that we see this set of paintings in two distinct ways. We either see it opened or closed. This is important because it would be closed much of the year, then open on feast days as a kind of revelation.

Dr. Harris: [0:33] This would have had an elaborate frame.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] There’s some controversy about who painted it. This is generally ascribed to Jan van Eyck. Some suggest that his brother Hubert may have begun it. The frame was lost, presumably during the iconoclasm — that is, the attacks on Catholic art — during the Reformation.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] We also know that this painting was much coveted by the Nazis and was stored in a salt mine. We’re lucky we still have it today. We have, at the top, some figures with scrolls and books. Those are prophets and sibyls who predicted the coming of Christ, the coming of a messiah.

[1:11] The moment that they predicted is unfolding right below them. That is the scene of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel is announcing to Mary that she is about to conceive Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] Gabriel over on the left panel, Mary three panels to the right, and then wonderfully empty space. Not empty, in fact this fabulous cityscape and then a still life on the right-middle panel, but nevertheless, an unoccupied set of spaces that suggest the opportunity for Christ’s arrival.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] We have the usual trappings of the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel holds lilies, which are a symbol of Mary’s purity, her sinlessness, her virginity. The angel Gabriel announces — and you can see words coming out of the angel’s mouth — in Latin, “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women.”

[2:03] Mary, on the other side, with the dove above her head, which represents the Holy Spirit, and words coming out of her mouth, her reply to the angel Gabriel coming out backwards, right to left instead of left to right, and upside down: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” Backwards makes sense. She’s speaking back to the angel. It’s very interesting that the words are also upside down.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] It makes us question who she’s speaking to, doesn’t it?

Dr. Harris: [2:29] Perhaps to God, who’s looking from above.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] Everything in this set of panels is very concrete and absolutely physical. Yet those words, because they’re gold but also because they’re not attached to anything physically represented, are wonderfully ethereal and speak to God.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] There is that tension between the writing, which is a very medieval thing to do. It reinforces the flatness of the image. Yet, there’s a tension between that and, as you said, this physicality of everything else…


…[3:03] a sense of space, the objects that are depicted are incredibly real as the light reflects on them. That cityscape that goes out into a distance where we can see figures and shadows and buildings and birds, or that still life on the right where we see the sunlight from the windows beautifully reflected, attention to detail that is very unique to the Northern Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] These artists were miniaturists and that attention to detail comes through, even on this large scale. We don’t want to say that this is the kind of naturalism or realism that we would have seen developed at this very time in Italy because it’s not.

[3:47] We’re seeing a awkward linear perspective. The figures themselves look as if they might bump their heads if they stood up in this room.

Dr. Harris: [3:49] The space seems to rush back. Also, we’re not seeing an attention to the reality of the human body that we would have seen in the Italian Renaissance. We have a drapery that seems to have a life of its own, with lots of angular folds. It almost seems to hide the body underneath.

[4:04] We should say that the altarpiece is 11.5 feet high. It’s really large. It’s made for a private chapel in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent that belonged to the patron, who we see below.

Dr. Zucker: [4:15] We have four figures, or two figures and then two sculptures. That, in and of itself, raises a really interesting visual trickery. We take the figures who are dressed in red as real people, and then the sculptures in the middle, carved of stone. Of course, this is all paint.

Dr. Harris: [4:33] The figures who are represented as sculptures are the two St. Johns. They had particular relevance for the chapel and for the family.

[4:41] It’s also interesting to look at the patrons. There’s that thing that you always see in the Northern Renaissance, which is this amazing ability to represent different textures. Of course, the artists are using oil paint. That fur on his collar really seems like fur, and his skin really seems like the skin of an old man.

Dr. Zucker: [5:04] Of course, oil paint will have profound impact on the sense of this painting, but especially when we open it up.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece (part 1 of 2)," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jan-van-eyck-the-ghent-altarpiece-1-2/.