1400 – 1500
Renaissance in Italy & the North

Hubert (?) and Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (open) or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

Part 2 - The Ghent Altarpiece Open

We discuss the closed Ghent Altarpiece on the previous page.

Jan (and Hubert?) Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,
tempera and oil on panel, 11' 5" x 15' (open panels), Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium, completed 1432

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker


Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, panel of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

Along the bottom of the Ghent Altarpiece we see a panel depicting a lamb on an altar. The lamb is Christ, who referred to himself as the lamb of God. In other words, like a lamb is sacrificed, Christ was sacrificed for the sins of mankind. The lamb is bleeding into a golden chalice, a reference to the sacrament of Communion, where the wine is miraculously transformed into the blood of Christ.

Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (detail)

Below the altar is a fountain—the fountain of eternal life, which flows because of Christ's sacrifice for mankind.

We see that Van Eyck has painted individual blades of grass, and flower petals. Many of the plant here were painted so naturalistically, and with such loving detail, that they are identifiable by species. A famous art historian (Erwin Panofsky) once said that it was as though van Eyck had an eye like a microscope and a telescope at the same time.

Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (detail) 

We can say that the altarpiece is about redemption—about Christ's sacrifice that saves mankind. On the outside the prophets and sybils who predicted his coming, and the Annunciation which depicts the moment when God is made flesh, when the world now has the possibility of salvation. And inside we see this theme of sacrifice—in the pelicans behind God the Faher, and then a symbolic re-enactment of that sacrifice in the panel of the Adoration of the Lamb

Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (detail) 

Why did the artists of the Northern Renaissance paint everything wih such clarity? Because, for them, the world around us is a reflection of the divine.

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. (source)


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