Famous Artwork: Ghent Altarpiece
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
One of the most famous artworks of Renaissance art - and one of the most renowned religious paintings in art history - is the Altarpiece of the Lamb. Called The Ghent Altarpiece due to its location in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, it was created by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390 - 1441); Jan completed the altarpiece in 1432, six years after his brother's death, making it impossible to know which famous painter was reponsible for which panels. Regardless, the altarpiece remains a sterling example of a polyptych, or hinged, multi-panelled painting. As the folding altarpiece is opened, it reveals additional subjects and narratives to its audience.
The van Eyck's masterpiece consists of twenty four panels of varying sizes and shapes aligned in two rows so that
Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck. Ghent Altarpiece (open). Completed 1432. Tempera and oil on wood, 11'6" by 15'1". Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent.
twelve panels are visible with the Ghent Altarpiece open, and twelve when closed.
When open, the altarpiece depicts the Redemption of Man. In the upper registry, or row of panels, God the Father appears in a frontal pose with a raised hand and a crown at his feet; he is flanked by John the Baptist, who wears a green robe over his hair shirt, and the Virgin, as in the Deesis. On either side are choirs of music-making angels, including Saint Cecilia at her organ. Adam and Eve are portrayed illusionistically in stone niches.
On the step behind the crown at the Lord's feet is a noteworthy inscription:
On his head, life without death. On his brow, youth without age. On his right, joy without sadness. On his left, security without fear.
These words capture the Franciscan conception of God as the benevolent Father of the human race, supplanting earlier beliefs in a judgmental, austere God.
The bottom registry is dominated by the most famous artwork in the altarpiece, The Adoration of the Lamb by All Saints. Laden with symbolism, The Adoration depicts the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, as the Just Judges, The Warriors of Christ, the Holy Hermits and the Holy Pilgrims convene. Read more about Adoration of the Lamb.
When closed, Ghent Altarpiece consists of three rows. At the top, two Old Testament prophets and two sibyls herald the inevitability of
Ghent Altarpiece (closed). Completed 1432. Tempera and oil on wood, approx. 11' 6" by 7' 7".
the Annunciation. In the middle is the Annunciation - the angel Gabriel, who foretold the birth of Christ and John the Baptist, delivers his message to Mary (right). Her answer is, as in Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation, written upside down for God (and not the viewer) to read.
The central lower panel shows John the Baptist, who cradles a lamb, and John the Evangelist, who grasps a chalice. Both are painted in grisaille, simulating sculpture, and are related directly to the altarpiece: Saint Bavo Cathedral was dedicated to John the Baptist, and John the Evangelist wrote the Book of Revelation, the source for the interior images. On either side of the saints are believed to be the altarpiece's donors, Jodocus Vijd and his wife, Isabel Borluut.
The van Eyck altarpiece is known for its minutely realistic depiction of every detail, reminding us that both van Eycks trained as miniaturists. As the late Thomas Hoving noted in Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization,
A visitor could spend a week viewing just the amazing crown. The transformation of base materials to the divine, the sheen of gold on embroidered garments, in no way takes away from the overall impression of devotion and piety. For reverence, the Ghent Altarpiece wins out even over Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling frescoes.
NEW: See the Ghent Altarpiece up-close with thousands of new, high-resolution images, thanks to the Getty Museum, at Ghent Altarpiece up close.
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