Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece

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

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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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…

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…[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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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.

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Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. Note: Just Judges panel on the lower left is a modern copy (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. Note: Just Judges panel on the lower left is a modern copy (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”
– Walter Pater

A troubled past

When he wrote that statement, I doubt that Walter Pater had in mind the veritable rock opera that is the Ghent Altarpiece, now housed in the Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent (in present-day Belgium). From its singing, costumed, organ-pumping chorister angels to its gospel-choir legions of saints, soldiers, prophets and martyrs, to its central panel depicting the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—is there any other fifteenth-century altarpiece that even comes close in spirit to the 1970s theatrical excesses of rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar?

Angel playing an organ (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Angel playing an organ (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)In the film The Monuments Men, George Clooney solemnly pronounces the Ghent Altarpiece to be the most important work of art in the Western tradition. As humbug as that may sound, it is certainly important, as much for its unparalleled technique as for what the painting has meant historically. Removed from its place in the Cathedral of Ghent by Napoleon (well, the main panels, anyway) and then by German occupying forces during World War I, the panels were returned and reassembled, only to be taken again by the Nazis in 1942 and stored carelessly in a salt mine for the duration of the Second World War. The altarpiece was rescued by Allied art experts in 1945 (below) who reassembled, cleaned and restored the panels, which had lost much of their varnish and suffered some surface abrasion.

Lt. Daniel J. Kern and German conservator Karl Sieber examining Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (Thomas Carr Howe papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Lt. Daniel J. Kern and German conservator Karl Sieber examining Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (Thomas Carr Howe papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Since that time, the altarpiece has seldom failed to be in some process of constant condition monitoring (as T.S. Eliot would say “like a patient etherized upon a table”) or some kind of reconstruction or conservation—a kind of cultural-historical exercise in trying to perfect the past. The latest campaign of study, restoration and renewal has gone on since 2009, much of it carried out in front of the crowds at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

Astonishingly, given its many trials and tribulations, the altarpiece has weathered well. Only one of the original 12 panels (8 of which are part of the hinged shutter apparatus, and therefore painted on both sides), has been lost. In 1934 the panels depicting St. John the Baptist, and another depicting the Just Judges were stolen from the church. The John the Baptist panel was recovered. The Just Judges panel (on the lower left when the altarpiece is open—see image at the top of the page) was replaced with a modern copy during the 1945 restoration. The other panels have all survived, although there is some lingering disagreement about whether they are now reassembled in their original configuration, given the many times the altarpiece has been taken apart.

Conservation of the Ghent Altarpiece, begun in 2012 (photo: Flemish Primitives)

Conservation of the Ghent Altarpiece, begun in 2012 (photo: Flemish Primitives)

A pixilated present

The Getty Foundation in Los Angeles has funded the recent campaign to conserve the Ghent Altarpiece, an effort being led by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. A painstaking photographic enlargement is captured in 100 million pixels on the “Closer to Van Eyck” website. There, one can probe the impenetrably gorgeous enamel-like surface of van Eyck’s greatest masterpiece, and gaze astonished at his virtuosic accomplishments.

A moveable feast

The altarpiece itself is a visual “moveable feast,” made up of 12 panels that fold against themselves (see the video above). It is like frozen theatre, and when open, reveals a spiritual guidebook to divine revelation.

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

In its basic configuration, the rather austere, largely monochromatic outer panels (above)—which show the kneeling patrons and statues of prophets and glimpses into orderly rooms; are grounded in the material and sensible terrestrial world, in which Gabriel appears to Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. But when the altarpiece is opened, we travel, accompanied by prophets on foot and princes on horseback, saints and martyrs and more angels, to the brilliantly-colored heart of the scene depicting the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (below). It is as if the makers of the Wizard of Oz derived their inspiration for a black-and-white Kansas and a technicolor Oz, from Ghent.

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Byzantine influences

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (above) is presided over by the figure of God (the bearded Jesus with crown and scepter, below).* This figure can also be read as Christ Pantokrator (one of the many names for God in the Jewish tradition and, in the Bible, an appellation used only by John the Baptist to describe God), flanked by separate panels of John the Baptist to the right and the Virgin Mary to the left (below). The combination of these three figures reminds us of a Byzantine image type—the Deësis (from the Greek, “prayer”), which shows the intercession of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist for the salvation of our souls, the heavenly interview at the moment of the Last Judgement (an example of a Byzantine Deësis, Byzantine art refers to art from the Byzantine or Eastern Roman empire).

The Virgin Mary, God the Father/Christ,* and St. John the Baptist, top center panels, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

The Virgin Mary, God the Father/Christ,* and St. John the Baptist, top center panels, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Lamb (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Lamb (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

In The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (left detail), the sacrifice of the lamb, symbol of Christ’s slaughter for our salvation, is similarly Byzantine in origin.

The inner panels are painted in the bold and dynamic naturalistic style for which the artist Jan van Eyck is justifiably famous. In all of its positions, the Ghent Altarpiece is a vision of the visionary. It alludes not only to sight but to sound—musical angels accompanying the elaborate orchestration of the whole. Its appeal to the senses threatens to overwhelm the intellectual apprehension of its content.

The artists

According to an inscription, written on two silver strips mounted on the rear of the two donor panels, and only discovered in 1823, the altarpiece was painted by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck:

The painter Hubert van Eyck, than whom none was greater, began this work. Jan [his brother], second in art, completed it at the request of Joos [Jodocus] Vijd on the sixth of May [1432]. He begs you by means of this verse to take care of what came into being.

A transcription (from Hugo van der Velden, 2012) of the quatrain using the original script. “It is generally accepted that the red letters in the last line form a chronogram that reveals the date of the polyptych’s completion: when these are read as roman numerals and added up, the result is 1432.” (From Closer to Van Eyck)

A transcription (from Hugo van der Velden, 2012) of the quatrain using the original script. “It is generally accepted that the red letters in the last line form a chronogram that reveals the date of the polyptych’s completion: when these are read as roman numerals and added up, the result is 1432.” (From Closer to Van Eyck)

Because Jan van Eyck is seen as the far more famous of the two brothers, the reference to Jan as “second in art” has raised a few eyebrows among art historians, eager to assign the lion’s share of the work to young Jan. My own undergraduate professor postulated that what the inscription means is that Hubert was responsible for the actual construction of the altarpiece, which was later largely painted by Jan—a not unusual sequence of events in a fifteenth-century workshop (building polyptych, or many-paneled, altarpieces required construction knowledge, and painting them required an entirely different expertise). Hubert died in 1426, and the altarpiece was finished in 1432, so Jan probably took over the contract Hubert signed with the patron of the work, Judocos Vijd (sometimes spelled “Vijdt”), which also would have made Jan literally “second in art.”

God the Father/Christ* (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

God the Father/Christ* (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

We know Jan to have been an exquisite painter of miniatures who worked for the Dukes of Burgundy, and there are many aspects of the work here consistent with the detailed work of a manuscript illuminator, but there are also some important differences, particularly in scale. The relatively large size of the panels pushed Jan to new heights of virtuosity as a master of light; directional light, saturation, the softest scale of illuminations in the gradation of shadow, the construction of space through light and shade, symphonies of reflection and refraction alive in a world of textured surfaces—literally, the light of the world. Here, for the first time on such a scale, is a picture of the completely natural world saturated by the light of God—the perfect intermingling of divine illumination with the created world—and all described in paint. Van Eyck creates a world within the painting as substantial and real as the world outside the painting. Say what you will about Brunelleschi and Masaccio and linear perspective in Florence, without the subtlety of oil paint, their works look like mathematical equations beside the painted world of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The patrons

The patron, Jodocus Vijd (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photos: Closer to Van Eyck)

The patron, Jodocus Vijd (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photos: Closer to Van Eyck)

Like most Renaissance patrons, Jodocus Vijd was a wealthy merchant who sought to expiate the sin of being too fond of money by spending some of it on creating a monument to God. An influential citizen of Ghent, Vijd commissioned the altarpiece for the Church dedicated to St. John the Baptist (now the Cathedral of St. Bavo) in his home city as a means of saving his soul while simultaneously celebrating his wealth. Vijd was warden of the Church of St. John and assistant Burgomeister of Ghent, and he had a rich aristocratic wife, so he had plenty of money to commission the van Eyck brothers. It is uncertain the extent to which he influenced the iconography of the overall work, but he obviously spared no expense.

The distinctive faces of Jodocus Vijd and Elizabeth Borluut (the husband and wife patrons) are each shown in three-quarter view (left and below). They kneel in the traditional donor positions, with their hands clasped in prayer, facing each other and gazing vaguely toward the central panels. Undoubtedly, contemporaries would have recognized them taking pride of place in such an important civic church, and although the immediacy of their presence would fade with time, their identities as the donors of the work remain intact.

The altarpiece, closed

From left to write, Jodocus Vijd, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, and Vijd's wife, Elizabeth Borluut (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

From left to write, Jodocus Vijd, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, and Vijd’s wife, Elizabeth Borluut (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

It is best to start in the smallest and most constricted stage of the altarpiece in its closed position. The kneeling donors are depicted on the outer extremes, separated by simulated statues of two standing saints painted in grisaille (shades of grey)—St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist (above).

Annunciation, with sibyls and prophets above, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Annunciation, with sibyls and prophets above, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

View of Ghent through the window in one of the panels between the Mary and Gabriel (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

View of Ghent through the window in one of the panels between the Mary and Gabriel (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

In the register above is a depiction of the Annunciation—this is the moment when the archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Christ (above). Figures of the angel and Mary are found on the outer edges of the panels. The Holy Spirit hovers over Mary. The two contiguous scenes between them are pure genre scenes (scenes of everyday life). Beside Gabriel, a window opens onto a view of buildings in Ghent (left), beside the Virgin, a recessed niche holds a silver tray, a small hanging silver pitcher and a linen towel neatly hanging from a rack (below). These items are consistent with iconography of the period that uses domestic objects as a means of expressing the purity of the Virgin. We are drawn most deeply into the center of the altarpiece (achieved without mathematically calculated perspective—you can tell because the floor appears to tilt upward), toward the mystery within.

Niche with silver tray and pitcher, in one of the panels between the Mary and Gabriel (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Niche with silver tray and pitcher, in one of the panels between the Mary and Gabriel (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (closed), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

At the top of the Gabriel panel, beneath a shallow rounded arch, is the Old Testament prophet Zacharias, father of John the Baptist; and above the Virgin, we see the Old Testament prophet Micah, who predicted the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. The two central panels in this upper register depict the Erythraean and Cumaean Sibyls (sibyls are female figures from ancient Greece and Rome who prophesied the future). These four figures are all messengers of the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ (Michelangelo painted these prophets and sibyls in the Sistine Chapel, and more).

Diagram: Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed)

Diagram: Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed)

The altarpiece, open

Diagram, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open)

Diagram, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open)

Adam, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Adam, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Opened, the altarpiece is divided into two horizontal registers. The Deësis (the Virgin Mary, Christ/God,* and St. John the Baptist) panels are flanked on either side by choirs of heavenly angels and, on the outermost panels at each side, Adam and Eve. God’s first human creatures are therefore the parenthetical figures of this upper register and the figures that necessitate the salvation scene below). Their literal marginalization—at the edges of the altarpiece—is indicative of their state of sin. Eve holds the forbidden fruit and covers her genitals. Opposite her, Adam assumes the classical pose of the so-called “modest Venus,” one arm across his chest, the other covering his genitals (a rather peculiar pose for a male figure to assume).

Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden (the Fall of Man) is, of course, the reason for all that occurs below in the panel known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—the full salvation play, complete with sacrificial lamb, a symbolic representation of Christ (from Gospel of John: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'”—John 1:29).

From the outer edges of the lower panels, crowds converge towards the altar in the center, presenting a unified field across the five panels, overcoming the Gothic division of the frame. From the left come figures known as the Just Judges and the Soldiers of Christ, on horseback, arrayed in glittering armor and armed with swords of Justice, followed by the Judges wearing opulent and various finery.

Saint, prophets and others approach the mystic lamb (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Saint, prophets and others approach the mystic lamb (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

From the right come the saints and the prophets, chief among them the giant (and apocryphal) St. Christopher (below), the male saints suitably dressed in simple tunics and robes in sober earth tones. These crowds approach the central panel. Where are they all going? They’re going to witness the sacrifice of the Mystic Lamb.

St. Christopher, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

St. Christopher, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Distant landscape (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Distant landscape (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

The key panel of the altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (detail above), depicts a large meadow, dotted with flowers, at the center of which are two key structures—in the foreground is a lovely octagonal stone fountain, with a tall central pedestal from which spring multiple cascades of water. In the background, on a direct axis with the fountain, is an altar with a lamb standing on it. The head of the strangely alert lamb is surrounded by a glowing nimbus (a halo, here depicted as golden rays). In the sky above, the dove of the Holy Spirit descends in its own pulsating nimbus of light from which radiate long, golden spires that touch the angels and the ground. Behind the altar, in the distance, are trees and one tall tower, punctuated by windows (left). Still further back on the blue horizon are distant mountains; the setting is a paradisaical landscape for the re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ. What is the relationship between the altar, the sacrifice of the lamb, and the foreground fountain?

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

The Mystic Lamb is the Lamb of God—the sacrificial lamb—a symbol of Christ and Christ’s death. The lamb on the altar is equivalent to the crucifixion of Christ, made explicit by the juxtaposition of the lamb with the cross held by the angel. Other angels behind the altar hold the instruments of the Passion (the events surrounding Christ’s death): the column to which Christ was tied during the flagellation, the sponge on a stick used to touch his lips with vinegar (increasing his thirst), the nails and the lance that pierced his flesh. Angels in front of the altar swing censors containing incense (below). This is also a reference to the sacrament of the Eucharist, where the bread and wine, offered by the priest during Mass, become the body and blood of Christ.

Chalice (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Chalice (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, bottom center panel, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

The Lamb bleeds from a wound in his side, and this stream of blood flows directly into a chalice set on the altar cloth (the full inscription on the altar cloth reads, “Ecce Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis,” which translates, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”). The flowing of the blood, visually linked to the spouts of water in the foreground fountain, is probably an allusion to Christ as the “living water” of God.

The fountain is therefore the Fountain of Life—a reference to the promise of eternal life made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. This reference to Christ as the “living water” occurs in the Gospel of John. In that story, Christ meets the Woman of Samaria at the well. When the woman questions Christ’s presence there, “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” (John 4:14).

Fountain (detail) Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Fountain (detail) Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Inscribed on the fountain, in Latin (below), we see a verse from the Book of Revelation, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” (Revelation, 22:1). In the symbolic context of the Lamb, the fountain is therefore the wellspring of eternal life and salvation.

Fountain and inscription (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Fountain and inscription (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Clustered around the fountain are yet more distinct processional groups worshiping the Lamb. These are commonly identified as patriarchs and prophets from the Old Testament and male and female saints and church figures. If you’re wondering what the Old Testament figures are doing in paradise, in the Byzantine tradition, Christ’s death is followed by his Harrowing of Hell (which takes place during the three days before his resurrection). In this episode (while “dead” to the world), Christ breaks open the doors of Hell. He frees and saves pagan writers (like Homer), prophets of the Old Testament (like Moses), and Adam and Eve—all of whose deaths preceded Christ’s birth and who could not otherwise have experienced eternal salvation through his resurrection.

In the foreground right, Saint Livinius of Ghent who was martyred by having his tongue cut out and then his head cut off (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

In the foreground right, Saint Livinius of Ghent who was martyred by having his tongue cut out and then his head cut off (detail), Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium (photo: Closer to Van Eyck)

Together, these scenes, which relate to the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation, invite the viewer to share in the promise of salvation. These days, of course, we are invited to contemplate the altarpiece itself as a material survivor of time, war, reparation and restoration, and the painting has its own cult of dedicatees who worship it as an iconic work of art.

The sum of its parts
(some thoughts on van Eyck’s sources and influences)

The iconography of the Ghent Altarpiece may be read in a myriad of ways, and it would be impossible to do justice to all of them here. But there is one more message that is, I think, important. The central panels of the open position may be read downward vertically; through the seated Christ/God* figure, to the descent of the dove of the Holy Spirit, to the Lamb on the altar. The symbolism of the Trinity (in Christian theology, God, the Holy Spirit and Christ are manifestations of one being) is important because it was a doctrine that was frequently challenged in the western Church. Again, the Gospel of John is often cited as most strongly defending and defining the divine nature of Jesus, and supporting the Trinitarian belief that the Holy Spirit shares the same being as Jesus and God. In the thirteenth century, a philosopher named Henry of Ghent, from Ghent of course, waded into the Trinitarian question through his work on the metaphysics of Being, and his work on the Metaphysics of the Trinity. It was not unusual for works of fifteenth-century art to engage with contemporary theological and philosophical debate.

God/Christ (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

God/Christ (detail), Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432, oil on wood, 11 feet 5 inches x 15 feet 1 inch (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

The iconography of the Ghent Altarpiece suggests that the artists (or patron) drew on very particular sources, perhaps even Henry of Ghent, although this is merely speculation. Certainly, aspects of the iconography of the Ghent Altarpiece are peculiarly indebted to Byzantine art, which we know Jan van Eyck had studied. His genius was in the commingling of the timelessly iconic with the naturalistic play of light across the temporal textures of the world, transforming the material into the miraculous.

*The central figure of the top register of the open altarpiece has been identified as both Christ and God the Father. Some scholars has asserted that this ambiguity may have been purposeful.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Sally Hickson, "Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/van-eyck-the-ghent-altarpiece/.