The most famous artwork created by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390 – 1441) is the renowned Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432.

This masterpiece of Renaissance paintings consists of 24 panels hinged together in a polytych; 12 art paintings are visible when the altarpiece is either fully open or closed. The most famous artwork in Ghent Altarpiece – and an icon of religious paintings – is The Adoration of the Lamb.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The Adoration of the Lamb, panel from the Ghent Altarpiece.  Completed 1432.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The Adoration of the Lamb, panel from the Ghent Altarpiece.  Completed 1432.

Based on a passage from the Book of Revelations read on All Saints Day (November 1), this painting shows the Lamb of God in a meadow, with the community of saints arriving from the four corners of the earth. In Christian belief, the Lamb of God was sacrificed to redeem humanity from the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. The Lamb of God’s blood is captured in a chalice, while angels surrounding the altar hold the Instruments of the Passion:

  • the column upon which Christ was flogged;
  • the cross and nails from his Crucifixion;
  • the lance which pierced him; and
  • the sponge used to moisten his lips when he hung on the cross.

The two groups approaching the Altar in the background are the holy confessors, bishops and

cardinals (identifiable by their red, flat hats, above), and the holy Virgins (below). They carry palms to symbolize the triumph of martyrdom over death.

In the left foreground (below) are representatives from the Old Testament and various well-known

pagans, including the Roman poet, Virgil; he is in the center wearing a white robe and laurel crown.  The group in the right foreground (below) includes the Twelve Apostles, shown in front.

The sheer dazzle and brilliance of this famous artwork are impossible to reproduce (and nearly as challenging to describe).  The late Thomas Hoving, author of “Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization”, commented

The painting is renowned for how every detail is brilliantly rendered.  The realism of this work is literally breathtaking and there is simply no other work in existence that can come near to the intense concentration of the utter reality of everything in the picture, but especially of the details.  Everything… seems to have been (and perhaps was) painted with a single-hair brush.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Belgium.. get Adoration of the Lamb and the Saint Bavo Cathedral on your itinerary!  Read about other panels in Ghent Altarpiece.

Learn about other famous artwork.

Masterpiece Cards feature 250 famous paintings on flashcards, and provide key facts, analysis of what each work means, and details of why it’s significant.