The Ghent Altarpiece is one of the greatest achievements in the history of European art. The jewel-like clarity of the polyptych is never compromised by its enormous scale – each one of the 100 figures are represented as believable three dimensional portraits; gems, pearls, luxurious damasks and all manner of vegetation, carpentry, sculpture and metalwork are depicted in intricate detail.
Who produced this ground-breaking masterpiece? The authorship of the altarpiece has been the subject of considerable, and at times tedious, debate among scholars. Suffice it to say that an inscription, discovered during cleaning in 1823, states that both Jan and Hubert van Eyck painted this huge altarpiece and that Hubert, of whom very little is known (unlike Jan who is well documented) was the ’the first in art’. Some scholars had doubted the existence of Hubert but recent restoration confirms that the inscription is part of the original frame. It now seems that Hubert was involved at the inception of the project but that he died soon afterwards and that the work is mainly by Jan, with help from his workshop.
When closed, twelve panels in three registers are visible. This is how it would have been seen for most of the year. In the centre of the lower register John the Baptist and and John the Evangelist are depicted as stone statues within sculptural niches - originally the church within which the polyptych can still be seen was dedicated to St Jan (St John the Evangelist). Flanking them, kneeling within similar niches, we see portraits of Jodocus Vijd who commissioned the work and his wife Isabella Borluut. The two saints and the donors are all lit from the right, matching the lighting of the chapel within which the altarpiece was housed and giving a sense of unity to the four figures as well as enhancing the illusion of solidity and space.
Above, in the middle register, spread across four panels, the Annunciation takes place within a spacious chamber. The Angel Gabriel and the Virgin are clothed in monochrome robes which complement the statues beneath. Here, the wooden frames cast shadows which fall on the floor of the room, further accentuating the illusionistic space. Windows in the rear wall reveal a townscape bathed in the light of a cloudless sky. The fateful words of Gabriel and Mary extend from their heads and are written upside down in gold lettering. Ave gratia plena, Dominus tecum – Hail thou who art full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Mary replies Ecce Ancilla Domini – behold the Handmaid of the Lord.
The prophets Zechariah and Micah reside in the two smaller panels of the top register while the ancient prophetesses, the Cumaean and Erythraean sibyls take up the larger, central panels. They remind the viewer (Zechariah points to the relevant passage in his book) that the birth of Christ had been predicted in both the Old Testament and in antiquity.
When opened (originally only during feast days) a vision of the heavenly realm is revealed. The exception to the heavenly theme appear at the extreme left and right of the top register. Closely confined within narrow niches, stand the life-sized Adam and Eve, the first nude depictions of the human form in northern renaissance art, and they are portrayed with forensic accuracy. To the left stands a heavily bearded Adam – so life-like that he seems to be a portrait of an individual – his right leg thrust so far forward that his toes appear to escape from the the picture plane and the panel’s edge in a tour de force of Trompe-l’œil artifice. To the right Eve holds the forbidden fruit - the supposed method of entry into the world for the knowledge of good and evil. Eve’s pear-shaped body is partly due to the fashion of the day but also emphasises her potential fertility. Above their heads we see their sons, Cain and Abel, again depicted as though sculptural tableaux.
To the right of Adam an angelic choir, adorned in rich brocaded chasubles and bejewelled circlets, sing the mass. The base of their elaborately carved lectern has a niche within which St Michael is shown as he vanquishes the seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse. In the opposing panel to the left of Eve more angels accompany the choir with a variety of instruments including an organ, harp and a viol.
In the centre we are confronted by the Deësis – Christ (or perhaps God – there is much scholarly debate) enthroned, flanked by the Virgin to his right and the Baptist to his left. The central figure of Christ/God blesses the viewer and indeed all humanity. He is arrayed in red robes edged with precious gems and pearls, some of which are used to spell out in Greek a quote from Revelation – ‘King of Kings, and Lord of Lords’. More text appears on the shallow step upon which the throne is situated, either side of a splendid golden crown encrusted with more pearls and gems. The Virgin is shown in her role as the Queen of Heaven clothed in sumptuous ultramarine blue. To the right of the central figure we see John the Baptist, clothed in green and brown with an open book on his lap. The surrounding inscription hails him as ‘the lamp of the world, the witness of the Lord’.
The lower register of the interior represents the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – symbolising Christ. It should be noted that the central figure of the Deësis in the upper register is placed directly above the Sacrificial Lamb in the central panel of the lower level. The lamb stands on an altar placed within a verdant meadow - one might call it an amphitheatre. Blood flows from the chest of the lamb into the Eucharistic Chalice. The instruments of Christ’s passion are displayed on either side of the altar. The latin inscription on the antependium covering the altar states ‘Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world’. In front of the altar the waters of the fountain of life flow towards the expected location of the real chalice on the church altar. The adoration is set in a paradise – van Eyck has included many different species of plant, botanically correct but all flowering together in permanent early summer. In the distance the City of God can be seen – the heavenly Jerusalem. Van Eyck would certainly have received advice from a theologian when planning the programme of iconography. The principal sources would have been the book of Revelations and the Sermon on the Mount.
To the right of the fountain of life the twelve apostles, all in plain grey robes kneel in front of a group of male saints dressed in red. At the front of this group stand two popes and one antipope, adorned with their papal tiaras, who have been identified as among those involved in the Western Schism. This is an interesting inclusion. One scholar has suggested that these individuals may symbolise a process of reconciliation. In the middle distance a group of female saints and martyrs stand, some holding palm fronds. Some can be identified by their attribute (symbol) – St Agnes holds her lamb and St Barbara her tower. Nearby, white lilies bloom, symbolising their collective virginity.
To the left of the fountain of life Old Testament prophets kneel, reading from their bibles. Standing behind them are the patriarchs, ancient philosophers and writers. The figure in the foreground in blue holding a twig may represent Isaiah. In the middle distance, balancing the female saints and and martyrs stand confessors, abbots and bishops, mostly dressed in blue.
Four panels flank the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The Just Judges and Knights of Christ line up to the left of the central panel and the Hermits and Pilgrims on the right. The Just Judges and the Christian Knights were stolen in 1934 – the Christian Knights was recovered but the former was never found – a replica is in place.
The shear scale of the altarpiece is is a source of wonder and for it to be painted in such minute clarity is nothing short of stunning. Its fame has resulted in many great artists making the pilgrimage to see it including Dürer in 1521. The altarpiece has been broken up on several occasions but its importance has ensured that it was always reinstated. At this stage in the development of western painting one has to conclude that van Eyck was far ahead of contemporary Italian artists in portraying how things really look. This can in part be explained by the possibilities opened up by the use of oil paint but the genius of Jan van Eyck is the major factor.
1425–30 Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters
c1433 Pisanello, The Emperor Sigismund, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1434 Fra Angelico, Coronation of the Virgin, Paris, Musée du Louvre