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Fine Art explained: The Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck is a piece that has been hailed as a masterpiece and marked the beginnings of Early Netherlandish art, that is, art from The Netherlands during the 15th and 16th century. Though extremely beautiful, it is a very complex religious work that, even for me as an art history student, took me a while to understand. As a non religious person, I hadn’t had the exposure to the biblical stories and imagery featured in almost all of the artworks of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. The academia surrounding these works was an equally confusing area as the language and the background knowledge needed to grasp these deep concepts was unfamiliar to me. As a third year student now, I have been introduced to and studied many religious works so I feel that I can help demystify this painting for everyone else! 

The Ghent Altarpiece is a polyptych completed in 1432. A polyptych is a painting, usually an altarpiece, that consists of 3 or more connecting panels. These were very popular during the Renaissance for religious devotion in churches and cathedrals. The Ghent Altarpiece contains a staggering 18 panels, making it one of the largest altarpieces.  It was commissioned by couple Joos Vijd and his wife Elisabeth Borluut who appear on the bottom exterior panels praying to statues of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. St. John the Baptist is the patron saint for the church the altarpiece was commissioned for, Church of St. John, now the Saint Bavo Cathedral. St. John the Evangelist was the author of the Book of Revelations, the last book of the New Testament which accounts the Apocalypse. As Joos Vijd and Elizabeth Borluut didn’t have any children to pray for their souls after they died, it was important for them to commission and have themselves depicted praying to these important saints for the sake of their own salvation.

The middle row of the exterior is the scene of the Annunciation, where the archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. Most polyptychs, like this one, can be opened and closed which gives the opportunity for a painted exterior and interior that can interact with each other. The exterior of the Ghent Altarpiece represents the terrestrial world, emphasized by the cityscape in the windows. The interior panels represent the heavenly realm and show many facets of the Christian faith. Starting from the top left there is a nude portrait of Adam. Above him is a small statuesque painting of the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, a story of the Old Testament where the first sons of Adam and Eve give sacrifices to God. On the far right is the partner to Adam’s panel, Eve.

Above her is the sequential scene of Cain killing Abel, due to God favouring Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. The three central panels show a Deesis. The deesis is a Byzantine imagery that shows Christ in the middle flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. The Deesis symbolizes Mary and John as intercessors for the salvation of humankind. On both sides of the central panel, there are angels singing and playing instruments. Jan Van Eyck was able to capture their highly expressive faces which demonstrates their vocal pitch. The bottom half shows a continuous landscape scene.

The main panel shows the Adoration of the Lamb. In religious paintings, a lamb represents Christ, as he was the “shepherd” of his followers. The lamb in the Ghent painting is seen bleeding into a chalice, becoming a metaphor for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The shining dove at the top of the panel is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The identification of the many figures in the left, centre, and right panels is complex. But, for simplicity, present are angels, saints, sinners, pilgrims, knights, prophets, judges and church figures. They come to witness the glory of Christ on his altar, which would mimic the altar upon which this altarpiece itself would be placed.

As you can see, understanding something as large and elaborate as the Ghent Altarpiece requires quite the background knowledge and eye for detail to truly get a sense of the entire work. This deep investigation is usually done by historians, conservationists, museum curators, etc. But for the general public, having a basic understanding of these scenes could just help us appreciate the beauty of artworks. Luckily for us, in religious paintings, many biblical scenes are repeated by many artists. So, if you recognize one, you’ll probably recognize it elsewhere.

To finish off, whenever we all can visit museums again, if a painting seems confusing and difficult to understand, always check the label! Curators know that not everyone visiting a museum has an art history degree, so they’re there to try and help people get the gist of it. Hopefully, this little look into the Ghent Altarpiece helped demystify it and allowed a better appreciation for this incredible piece!  

Image: Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert Van Eyck and Jan Van Eyck, 1432 via Wikicommons