Inside the Ghent Altarpiece

Wonders of the Ghent Altarpiece's inside panels

Lukas - Art in Flanders

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

The Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece, painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, is a very large and complex painted piece with wing panels, allowing to either display it closed or opened. The masterpiece used to be opened only on Holy days. The rest of the time, the wings would be closed, so that only the Annunciation would be visible. Once opened, the Altarpiece would reveal vivid colors, deliberately brighter and more festive than those of the closed shutters.

To decipher the masterpiece's complexity and richness, let us examine each panel of this incredible artwork.

Adam & Eve

The biblical ancestors of all humanity occupy the outermost panels of the upper register. They stand in niches, which means that they are the only figures in the inside of the altarpiece who do not have the blue sky as their background. This serves to distinguish them from the heavenly figures. 

Yet, they are included in that company, because as the first sinners, they will also be the first to be saved. They symbolise the whole of humanity, which the Lamb will redeem from sin and death.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Adam (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open

Adam and Eve's serene gaze belies the texts, which state that through their sin, they brought death into the world.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Eve (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-83

They belong in the static, undramatic atmosphere of the entire painting.

Eve's fruit is quite noticeable: it is not an apple but a citrus fruit, which may be an allusion to the bitterness of the Fall.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Adam (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open

On Adam's side, note the detail of his foot, which seems to extend beyond the edge of the frame.

Two pieces of imitation sandstone sculpture appear above Adam and Eve.

These reliefs illustrate the first consequence of the couple's sin - Cain's murder of his younger brother, Abel.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Eve (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-83

They serve as another symbol of the tragic history of humankind, which has suffered so much from fratricidal violence.

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

Singing Angels and Instrument players 

Van Eyck painted groups of heavenly singers and musicians on either side of the three central figures. Although they do not have wings, they are invariably identified as angels. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: Singing Angels (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-11

Eight of them, dressed in brocade copes, stand around a lectern, singing the polyphonic music that flourished at the Burgundian court in Van Eyck's period.

See Saint Michael slaying the seven-headed dragon, as told in Saint John's Apocalypse.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Angels playing music (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-70

On the opposite panel to the right, Angels are playing instruments.

The angelic musicians do not wear copes, but tunics, possibly to leave their hands free.

Alone among the musicians, the organist (possibly St Cecilia) wears an ermine-trimmed robe of dazzling splendour.

Like God's sceptre, the organ pipes and the hundreds of jewels leave the viewer open-mouthed at the technical brilliance with which the artist(s) represented physical reality.

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

The Virgin Mary

A modest, young Madonna the Mother of God sits at the right hand side of the mysterious figure in the centre.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Virgin Mary (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-28

The Virgin Mary

A modest, young Madonna the Mother of God sits at the right hand of the mysterious figure in the centre (the viewers left). Her serene face looks out from beneath a cascade of hair. Dressed in a deep-blue robe, the darkness of which is alleviated by a golden hem, decorated with jewels, she is absorbed in a prayer book. Twelve stars surround her fabulous crown an allusion to the Book of revelation. The crown itself incorporates four types of of flower, all of which were Marian symbols: lilies (virginity, purity), roses (love, suffering, purity), columbines (humility) and lily-of-the-valley (linking the song of songs, 2:1, to the Virgin Mary).

Her serene face looks out from beneath a cascade of hair.

Dressed in a deep-blue robe, the darkness of which is alleviated by a golden hem, decorated with jewels, she is absorbed in a prayer book.

Twelve stars surround her fabulous crown, an allusion to the Book of revelation.


The crown itself incorporates flowers that are Marian symbols: lilies (virginity, purity) columbines (humility) and lily-of-the-valley (linking the song of songs, 2:1, to the Virgin Mary).

The Ghent Altarpiece: John the Baptist (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-59

John the Baptist

To the left of the central figure, opposite to Mary, is John the Baptist, whom Christians believe to have been the last Old Testament prophet. 

A stately green cloak covers his original costume, the ascetic camel hair tunic that he wore when preaching the doctrine of baptism on the banks of the Jordan.

As was customary in medieval images, he points to the Messiah with his right index finger.

In the book that rests on his knees, we make out the word CONSOLAMINI (take comfort), which begins a prophecy in the book of Isaiah that was interpreted in the gospel as a reference to John the Baptist.

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

Christ

This figure has been widely identified as God the Father, overseeing the story of the Salvation. All the same, there are persuasive arguments to the fact that the figure is actually that of Christ. The issue will, nevertheless, have to remain open. Some scholars believe that Van Eyck deliberately blended aspects of the Father and the Son. Another possible explanation is that Van Eyck wanted to present the figure of 'God' in his Trinitarian unity - as Father, Son and Holy Spirit all at once.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Christ (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-40

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

The Just Judges

The people represented on this panel are known as the Just Judges, who are actually administrators and politicians. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: The Just Judges (1939) by Jef Van der VekenOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-94

This panel was stolen in 1934, and what you see today is a 1939 copy by Jan Van der Veken.

In spite of its quality, the attentive viewer can still spot the difference in colouring (see the rocks and the sky, for instance), while the copy also displays less depth than the originals alongside it.

Photograph of the original panel of the Just Judges (1934) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-153

See here a picture of the original panel, before it was stolen!

The Ghent Altarpiece: The Knights of Christ (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-97

The knights of Christ

Right next to the Just Judges are the Knights of Christ, people who took up the sword in the name of Christ, following the medieval chivalric ideal.

There are several sovereigns among this group - possibly the leaders of the crusades.

Some have bin identified, though never conclusively, as Louis IX (St Louis), Godfrey of Bouillon and Charlemagne.

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

The viewer's attention is drawn to the large centre panel, in which a divine liturgy is performed around the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, in a green landscape with a high horizon. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-102

An altar stands in the middle on a small green mound, possibly representing Mount Zion.

The Lamb stands erect on the altar - alive but bleeding from a wound. It's blood spurts out into a chalice.

The allusion is clear - Christ's death and resurrection - his sacrifice for humanity - are commemorated on the altar during every Mass.

The scene as a whole refers to the Last supper when Jesus described the wine as his blood, which he was to shed for all humanity to earn the forgiveness of its sins.

All come to adore the sacrificed Lamb.

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

The Hermits and the Pilgrims

To the right of the central panel, we find those who turned their backs on worldly pleasure in order to serve Christ. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: The Hermits (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-136

First come the hermits.

They are joined, in the background, by the penitent Mary Magdalene (holding her ointment jar) and a companion.

The Ghent Altarpiece: The Pilgrims (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-143

The second panel is devoted to the pilgrims, who were an important feature of medieval religiosity.

They are led by St Christopher, the patron saint of pilgrims and travellers and, according to his legend, a giant.

At his side stands a pilgrim wearing badges from the three great pilgrimages - Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem.

He might be Jodocus, patron saint of the donors.

The background is that of a beautiful Mediterranean landscape, one of the Altarpiece's greatest glories.

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

After 4 years of renovation of the Altarpiece's exterior wings, the interior panels have just been brought to the restoration studio at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts (MSK).

There, the public can follow the treatment from up close. An ambitious adventure, as restorers have already detected numerous overpainted zones on these panels.

Credits: Story

Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent

Lukas - Art in Flanders, The Flemish Art Image bank

For more information on the Altarpiece's renovation, as well as Infrared and X-radiographic imagery, visit the dedicated website by KIK-IRPA.

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Exhibit curated by Lukas - Art in Flanders.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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