- Date of Creation:
- circa 1432
- Height (cm):
- Length (cm):
- Assisted By:
- Herbert van Eyck
- Art Movement:
- Created by:
- Current Location:
- Ghent, Belgium
- Displayed at:
- National Gallery London
Closed Ghent Altarpiece
Opened Ghent Altarpiece
The Iconography of the Lamb, based off the Book of Revelation
Revelation 7:9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; 10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. 11 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, 12 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God forever and ever. Amen.
"Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us."
The Ghent Altarpiece consists of 24 panels in total, twelve visible when open and twelve when closed. It portrays the story of Christian faith owing largely to a passage from the book of Revelations of St. John;
"After this, I saw that there was a crowd so big that nobody would have been counted. They were people of all nations, tribes, peoples and languages. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white, with palms in hand, proclaiming aloud: The Salvation comes from our God, who sits on the throne and the Lamb. " Revelations of St John (vii. 9)
The closed altarpiece consists of three rows. On the top two sibyls - angels - flanked by two Old Testament prophets are watching the heralding of the Annunciation from above.
In the middle row Archangel Gabriel delivers the news of Jesus' birth to Mary on the right. Her answer is written upside down as God would be looking from the heavens.
The panels in the middle row depict both the sanctuary for the Holy Eucharist and a royal hall. Christ could be represented by the open space in the middle.
The bottom row depicts John the Baptist (center left) holding a lamb and John the Evangelist (center right) holding a chalice. The two figures surrounding them are the donors Joos Vijid and Esliabeth Borluut who are painted in red to depict them as living.
When open, the altarpiece consists of two rows depicting the Redemption of Man.
Moving from the top central panel outwards, God is shown in the central panel in a Byzantine fashion, as Deesis, presiding over the internal mass.
A crown lies at his feet with an inscription on the base of his throne. Placing the crown before his feet is probably used to depict him as the king of kings.
The inscription reads, "On his head, life without death. On his brow, youth without age. On his right, joy without sadness. On his left, security without fear. " This quote is in the style of the Franciscan model of God as the benevolent father and is different from the medieval, vengeful God.
Behind God we see small designs in the shape of pelicans. In Gothic tradition, the pelican was thought to pick its flesh to feed its young in a time of hunger. This is symbolic because God sent down his own flesh and son Jesus to save us.
On either side of God is John the Baptist and the Virgin. The Virgin Mary also has a crown which most likely represents the Church and the marriage between God and the Church.
To the sides of the figures are angels playing music, including Saint Cecilia playing the organ.
On the outside of the top row are Adam and Eve representing proto human beings and original sin. Adam and Eve are shown here in realistic images which makes this painting very unique. Above them are depictions of Cain and Able.
As the top row is dominated by the central portrayal of God, the lower half is dominated by probably the most famous painting in the altarpiece "The Adoration of the Lamb by all Saints. " The center panel shows the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, a symbol for Christ.
The background is the same landscape in all of the lower panels and shows flowers from all seasons and different countries. Far into the background, tall mystical buildings can be seen probably representing a heavenly Jerusalem where all will be redeemed through Jesus.
Also present in the scene is a dove portraying grace and a fountain representing eternal life.
Closeted to the viewer are two processions. The group on the left consists of patriarchs and prophets from the Old Testament and the group on the right New Testament deacons, bishops and other persons representing the Church.
In the background and to the left, a group represents the Confessors of the Faith and on the right another group representing the Virgin Martyrs wears crowns of flowers.
In the center before the lamb, angels kneel with symbols from Christ's Passion, his suffering, but the lamb feels no pain because it is no longer bound to this earth. The lamb's blood flows from his chest into a chalice.
The center piece is flanked by the Warriors of Christ (on the left) and the Holy Pilgrims and Hermits (on the right) lead by Saint Christopher converging to honor the scene.
Jesus was called the Lamb of God in John 1:29 and John 1:36. The lamb is a consistent symbol in the Old Testament in showing retribution to God. According to the Bible, we are all sinners and have been separated from God for our sins.
We can only reach God by using whatever means he sends us to honor him and pay retribution for our sins.
The use of the lamb in the Adoration of the Lamb by All Saints has been established in readings from the Old and New Testament and depicts a sacrifice to God. It is interesting to note, however, that Joos Vijid and Esliabeth Borluut's wealth probably came from wool and it is from the wealth of the trade that Ghent was founded upon, so it is possible that for the citizens of Ghent, the lamb would have had another significance.
The towers in the background on the lower panels in the interior depict a 'heavenly' Jerusalem where all are redeemed, but Philip the Good was obsessed with the Crusades and had possibly sent Jan van Eyck to Jerusalem to investigate. It is possible that the Jerusalem in the painting was inspired by this trip.
Although like much of van Eyck's work this painting attracts some debate concerning its authenticity, we do know that Jan van Eyck was responsible for the Annunciation and probably almost all of the inside panel.
This altarpiece is a gigantic work that explores minimalism and perspective while introducing new progresses with oil paint that spurred the beginning of the Renaissance.
Although there is still much debate, it is assumed that the altarpiece was completed by Jan and his brother, Herbert. It is thought that Herbert is responsible for the overall concept of the altarpiece and probably the enthroned figures in the central top panels in the interior.
Symmetry can be seen in relation to the figures in the panels; each panel's theme is mirrored by the opposite.
Also the use of oils allowed the artist to add much greater detail, such as the jewels in the musical angels. Oil paint is very flexible and allows subtle gradations of light and shade.
Sometimes misinterpreted as the inventor of oil painting, Jan van Eyck was probably the first to develop intricacies in oil painting and push it to a new level.
In the Ghent Altarpiece he used oil paints to heighten the rich and often brilliant colors, such as with the crown that lies at God's feet. This technique added to the overall perception of "new realism" which distinguished the northern European Renaissance from the southern.
Use of light:
Similar to van Eyck's use of colors, he pays special attention to the lighting and shading of figures by adding precise detail.
On the exterior panel, the light seems to be cast from the windows and gives the scene a soft, tangible aspect that Christianity gives to our world.
The artist transforms his figures through careful attention to detail and three-dimensional images. The figures of Adam and Eve are remarkable as well as the spatial uses of the foreground and background in the bottom interior panels.
The viewer can almost count the hair on the horses' manes in the bottom left-hand panels in the interior and the shading of the drapery of the saints' clothing is remarkable.
In detail, all the figures are painted life-like and real, however the characters and themes themselves are not from reality or rather from this physical world.
Although painted in strict detail to realistic proportions, palm trees, pomegranates and orange trees are included in the painting, making it seem like a Garden of Eden.
Also there are tall towers in the background in the lower panels in the interior. This was probably made to represent a heavenly Jerusalem, the place where man can live after repentance.
Van Eyck had a strict adherence to detail, not the mathematical exactness one can see in the works of Masaccio and other Italian Renaissance painters.
He painted the figures spatially correct but did not idealize them as the ancient Greeks or Romans would have done. His attention to detail goes down to the depiction of metals, reflections in mirrors, suits of armor and inscriptions.
It is interesting to look at the two figures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist on the exterior. The two panels were done in grisaille with pegs to hold them in.
Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich
E.H. Gombrich, 'The Story of Art'
"... But if we want to understand the way in which northern art developed we must appreciate this infinite care and patience of Jan van Eyck."
Thought to have been trained by his brother, this painting shows a clear distinction between Gothic painters and what would become common to northern Renaissance painters.
From a young age Jan van Eyck was recognized for his tack and ability and acquiring this commission must have been due to his reputation and his relationship with the Duke of Burgundy.
"Here, in a vision of transfigures nature, the vast theological programmes associated hitherto with Gothic cathedral sculpture are infused with the sensuous naturalism and suggestive symbolism of van Eyck's new conception of humanity. " (The new Cambridge Medieval History)
Like Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Italy, the Ghent Altarpiece would continue to influence artists in Northern Europe.
St. Bavo Cathedral
Jan van Eyck created the Ghent Altarpiece in Saint Bavo Cathedral, previously known as Saint John's. In 1566 Calvinists stole the frame and attempted to destroy the painting.
In 1794 French soldiers stole the central panels but they were returned in 1815 after Napoleon's fall from power. However, they were damaged by a fire in 1822 and were shortly dismantled and sold in pieces by the Diocese of Ghent to the King of Prussia and for forty years were shown in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin.
After World War One, Germany was forced to return the panels in the Treaty of Versailles.
Hitler took the piece back again during World War Two. They were put in a Bavarian Castle and then transferred to a salt mine because of bombing threats. At the end of World War Two American troops recovered the piece and returned it to the Saint Bavo Cathedral.
Born sometime around 1385 Jan van Eyck most likely studied under his brother, Herbert van Eyck. Jan worked under Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and is responsible for the Ghent Altarpiece and the Arnolfini Portrait, two of the most famous paintings of the early Northern Renaissance.
On his voyages for the Duke, van Eyck served as a painter, traveler and diplomat. Probably traveling to Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Holy Lands, it is thought that the artist picked up different styles and inspiration but it is the minimalist style tha he is famous for and this came to define the Northern Renaissance.
Although Jan van Eyck worked under the Duke he still accepted commissions from various autocrats and was one of the first to produce portraits. He developed the 3/4 profile view in the portrait, a technique which is still used today.
For almost a thousand years Europe lay in the dark ages under a feudal society without any significant advancement. Some time in the 14th Century Europe serfs were living as free men, the printing press was invented, commerce was taking off and new ideas arose.
With mobility, the rise of the merchant class led to an increase in ideas, philosophy, artistic advancements and scientific innovations.
North and South:
Old religious ideas were beginning to change again, especially in the north which would be home to the Reformation.
In Italy the Renaissance in architecture and sculpture had already taken off with the innovations made by Donatello and Brunelleschi. Insights in perspective and mathematics taken from the classics were being to show humanity in a new light.
The Renaissance would take hold across both sides of Europe, although fundamentally in different manners. Later, ideas from the north and south would mix and spur along further advancement.
To find out more about the life and works of Jan van Eyck please refer to the following recommended sources.
• Borchert, Till-Holger. Jan van Eyck. Taschen Deutschland Gmbh, 2008
• Borchert, Till-Holger. Renaissance Realist (Taschen Basic Art Series). Taschen GmbH, 2008
• Graham, Jenny. Inventing Van Eyck: The Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age. Berg Publishers 2007
• Harbison, Craig. Jan Van Eyck: The Play of Realism. Reaktion Books, 2011
• Nash, Susie. Northern Renaissance Art (Oxford History of Art). OUP Oxford, 2008
• Schmidt, Peter. Jan Van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece. Ludion Editions NV, 2001