Considering all the famous artwork made during the Renaissance, Ghent Altarpiece ranks on any short list of the best Renaissance art – and it is also one of the most significant religious works in the entirety of art history.
Called 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); because Jan van Eyck completed the Altarpiece after his brother’s death, it is impossible to know who created 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 altarpiece consists of twenty four panels of varying sizes and shapes aligned in two rows; twelve panels are visible with the Altarpiece open, and twelve when closed.
Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck. Completed 1432. Tempera and oil on wood, 11’6″ by 15’1″. Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent.
The Open Altarpiece.
These panels depict the Redemption of Man, a popular theme in Renaissance art.
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 of the Altarpiece is dominated by its most famous artwork, 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.
The Closed Altarpiece.
Closed. Completed 1432. Tempera and oil on wood, approx. 11′ 6″ by 7′ 7″.
When closed, the van Eyck Altarpiece consists of three rows. At the top, two Old Testament prophets and two sibyls herald the inevitability of the Annunciation. In the middle is the Annuciation – the angel Gabriel, who foretold the birth of Christ, and John the Baptist, who delivers his message to Mary (right). Her answer is 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 donors of the Ghent Altarpiece, 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 Hubert and Jan van Eyck 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, this Altarpiece wins out even over Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling frescoes.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to see both the Sistine Chapel and Ghent Altarpiece, do you agree with Thomas Hoving?
Please do tell!
UPDATE: Read about current renovations of the Ghent Altarpiece, brushstroke by brushstroke!
Learn about Jan van Eyck paintings:
- Arnolfini Portrait, still enigmatic after five centuries; and
- Explore Adoration of the Lamb in more detail.
Explore more Renaissance art in this survey of famous paintings.
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