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

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

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] Let’s open it up and take a look inside.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:07] We’re struck immediately by an explosion of rich colors.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] This is color that’s possible because of the luminousness of oil paint, especially in the way that the northerners handled it.

Dr. Harris: [0:24] There’s an incredible material beauty that is very palpable as soon as one opens it up, and we’re struck immediately by this very large figure in the center of God the Father, dressed like a king with a papal crown on his head, [with] a crown at his feet to show that he’s king of kings [and] holding a scepter, a symbol of power.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] That scepter is exquisite. It’s so clearly rendered out of rock crystal, and the crown at his feet is an amazing display of jewelry design, of jewelry-making. If we look past the exterior of the crown to the inside of it, we can actually see how it was hammered from the inside out.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] We have a theme running through here of God’s saving grace, God’s saving power. His plan to forgive and redeem mankind.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] That issue is so critical here, and this is one of the early great examples of God being remade in what we will come to know as the Renaissance, as opposed to the earlier medieval God that was wrathful, was terrifying. Here, we have a God that is a God of forgiveness. It is an expression of the humanist tradition that is developing in Europe at this time.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] On either side of God we have on the left Mary, also wearing a crown, looking like a queen. The crown has roses and lilies in it. And on the right [is] Saint John the Baptist. To go back to that theme of God’s redemption and forgiveness, in that gold embroidery which we have in that tapestry behind God the Father [is] an image of a pelican.

[1:53] In the medieval tradition, the pelican, if its young were starving, it was believed to pick at its own flesh to feed its young.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] This notion of God making this extraordinary sacrifice is explicitly rendered here.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] On the left we have the angels singing in heaven and on the right the angels playing music in heaven. We have this not only incredibly rich environment visually of gold and jewels, but also the sounds of heaven.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] If you look at the choir on the left, and look at the richly carved furniture of [the] music stand, and on the right of the organ, I imagine that this is some indication of what the original frame of this painting might have looked like.

Dr. Harris: [2:39] One of the things that I love is that each of the angels wears a different crown — on the left — as they sing and they make slightly different faces, as though you can tell the different notes that they’re each singing.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] Even though their faces are actually quite similar, they become, I imagine, [an] ideal of beauty in Van Eyck’s imagination.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] Then when we go a little bit further out, we see the panels of Adam and Eve, who are represented very realistically, very deeply human in their bodies. Not at all idealized the way that we would see with Masaccio or the artists of the Italian Renaissance.

[3:14] Of course, the artists of the Northern Renaissance don’t have ancient Greek and Roman sculpture everywhere to look at, which would suggest the tradition of idealizing or making perfect of the human body. Here, Adam and Eve look like two real people that Van Eyck had model for him in his studio.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] You have, throughout this painting, a kind of grandeur. Then you have these two figures naked. [It] seems so vulnerable, they seem so out of place, they seem so mismatched. This painting is really about God’s willingness to reach out to man in all of his imperfection.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Exactly.

Dr. Zucker: [3:56] Their jarring presence, this sense of discord, I think is a potent expression of the painter’s interest in representing God’s willingness to reach down to our imperfect world.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] One of the other things that I’m struck by is the gold embroidery in the figure on the right who’s playing the organ and the ermine on her gown, and even the attention that’s being paid to the tiles on the floor, the pipes of the organ.

[4:21] We have that thing that happens in the Northern Renaissance where artists pay an enormous amount of attention to things that are seemingly unimportant, but we know that the artists of the Northern Renaissance lavished so much attention and care and detail and clarity on objects because they represent the heavenly and the spiritual, they link us to the heavenly and the spiritual.

Dr. Zucker: [4:44] It does something else as well, which is it makes concrete the heavenly world and it makes it so understandable. It also makes it very believable, and in a sense, very tangible.

Dr. Harris: [4:54] In the scene below, we see an image with four groups of people coming toward a scene at the center, which is an altar with a lamb. The lamb has a wound in its side and is bleeding into a chalice.

Dr. Zucker: [5:11] Because the lamb of course is a symbol of Christ, of Christ’s sacrifice. Yet here we have this lamb that has overcome any earthly pain, any earthly suffering, and is here functioning in the purely symbolic realm.

Dr. Harris: [5:26] Surrounding that altar, we have angels who carry the instruments of Christ’s suffering: the cross, the crown of thorns, the column that he was bound to when he was flagellated. We have this sense of sacrifice for man’s redemption.

Dr. Zucker: [5:42] Then men, in these four large groups, come to pay homage.

Dr. Harris: [5:46] We have prophets, saints, popes, and figures from the Old Testament who all make their way toward Christ. Below that, the Fountain of Life, which has a stream that leads out and down toward us and toward the altar and the chapel.

Dr. Zucker: [6:02] This is all played out in this glorious and divine landscape, this gem-like landscape where there’s a specificity that is overwhelming visually. Every leaf is rendered. Every windowpane in the city beyond is rendered.

[6:19] You have not only a sense of the magnificence of God’s realm, but you have the sense of overwhelming awe because our eyes are incapable of taking in this much visual information simultaneously. This is a painting that’s almost cinemagraphic in that you have to look through it over time in order to be able to take it all in. It is simply too much.

Dr. Harris: [6:41] In a way, it suggests a vision that transcends human vision, a divine vision. In fact, one of the things that’s said about Van Eyck as an artist is that he had an eye like a microscope and a telescope, showing us things very far away as though they were under a microscope. A kind of vision that only is possible for God.

Dr. Zucker: [7:00] This disjuncture between man’s limited vision, which we feel as we look at this painting, and this notion of God’s complete vision.

Dr. Harris: [7:09] Through this painting, transcending our earthly realm and coming face to face with God.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece (part 2 of 2)," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed February 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jan-van-eyck-the-ghent-altarpiece-2-2/.