Jan Van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece

The undisputed master of 15th century Flemish painting was Jan Van Eyck, whose greatest masterpiece was the Ghent  Altarpiece. This polyptych (multi-panel altarpiece) was commissioned by Jodocus Vyd for a private chapel in St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.  Soon after the work was completed Vyd became the Burgomeister of Ghent (perhaps this “showy” display of devotion helped him advance his career!)

Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 (closed)

The closed panels follow a complex iconographic scheme.  Pictured in the upper lunettes are ancient prophets and sybils who foretold the coming of the Saviour.

In the lower panels are donor portraits of Jodocus Vyd and his wife praying towards painted statues of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, the last prophet of the Old Testament and the first prophet of the New Testament respectively (John the Baptist was the last to proclaim the coming of Christ, and John the Evangelist was the first to proclaim that Christ will come again).

The fulfillment of the prophecy begins to unfold in the middle register, where the Annunciation takes place in a room that continues across three panels.  The angel carries a lily, symbolic of the Virgin, and recites the words “Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee” (written in gold script across the panel).  Mary responds with a gesture of submission, while a symbol of the Holy Dove floats above her head.  Her response is written upside down and backwards (presumably for God to read).  In the center, the wooden supports of the panels cast shadows onto the floor, and there is a view out the window towards a Flemish town.  As in Campin’s work, the miraculous has been brought down to earth and placed in setting that is concrete and real.

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11’ 5” x 7’ 6” (Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 (open)

When opened, the Ghent Altarpiece portrays a glorious image of Christ’s Second Coming, when he returns to judge the living and the dead.  While Medieval Last Judgments emphasized damnation (with the horrors of hell depicted in vivid detail), Van Eyck’s painting focuses on redemption, and humanity’s joyous return to Paradise.

The Lord is depicted in the center upper panel dressed in rich red robes and wearing the papal crown on his head, with an earthly crown rests at his feet.  This shows that he is “king of kings” and ruler of heaven and earth.  The Virgin Mary is seated on his right, and St. John the Baptist is seated on his left.  Flanking them are the music making angels, who look like a high school girls choir performing at a school assembly.  To the left and right of the angels are Adam and Eve, the first sinners who were banished from the Garden of Eden.

The lower panels depict an expansive landscape, with the sacrificial lamb (symbolic of Christ) bleeding into a chalice on an altar.  The faithful converge from all four corners of the eart, representing humanity’s joyous return to Paradise.  In contrast to Medieval images of the Last Judgment, there are no images of the damned.  Instead, the focus is on the the Blessed whose sins have been forgiven.

The realistic detail of Van Eyck’s painting is astonishing.  Plants and foliage are rendered with the precision of a botanist, while textures and surfaces are painted as if we were viewing them through a microscope.  Far away details are equally precise, as if seen through a telescope.  The details reveal far more than the human eye is capable of seeing, suggesting that the picture represents God’s perfect vision, rather than the imperfect vision of the human eye.

The Divinity of the Natural World
Jan Van Eyck’s attention to the tiniest details of the natural world reflects a new attitude towards nature that was in itself a break with the past:

“During the Middle Ages, official doctrine had placed earthly realities on the lowest level of the scale of Creation – if they were not, indeed, the work of the devil himself. However, by the time of the Van Eyck brothers….People began to view the entire world as the work of God, the source of all creation, and present in its every detail, no matter how small and insignificant. Thus nature came to be seen as sacred, as it was a reflection of God’s spirit. Where mediaeval art had focussed on a world beyond this world, the new art was devoted to scrupulous observation of what lay before the artist’s eyes. Imagination was replaced by attention. Every creature, every thing, was now perceived as a sign – a metaphor – representing a spiritual truth. This vision determined the artist’s vocation: to imitate the visible world as faithfully as possible, not merely in order to glorify creation, but so as to reveal the metaphysical dimension that lay concealed within.”
Web Gallery of Art

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11’ 5” x 7’ 6” (Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

See the Ghent Altarpiece in amazing detail here:

Click here for an excellent video on religious altarpieces in the Renaissance:
Altarpieces in Context, National Gallery of Art, London

Van Eyck is also renowned for the series of paintings depicting the Virgin Mary in the sumptuous setting of a Cathedral.  Listen to the Kahn Academy conversation:

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna in the Church, c. 1438, oil on oak, 31 x 14 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).  Speakers:  Steven Zucker and Beth Harris (Khan Academy)


Next lecture

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.