The Ghent Altarpeice
I chose this piece because it was the most complex and intricate painting that caught my eye. I have appreciated Eyck’s paintings more than the rest others from his era because his paintings have such incredible depth; his Arnolfini Portrait is simply of two people and a dog, but upon closer inspection carefully crafted intricacies can be seen, such as individual hairs and wrinkles. Although I of all people have respect and appreciation for simplicity, paintings and stories without much depth are not any fun to experience. There’s no point in going on a journey when you can see the whole thing end to end, right?
Jodocus Vijd came from a wealthy family in Ghent and prospered as a merchant himself. He married Lysbette Borluut in 1398 and the couple gave birth to no children. In order to leave a remembrance behind, Vijd commissioned an elaborate and ornate altarpiece to be crafted in honor of John the Baptist. Though information concerning the attribution of the altarpiece has since been lost, from documentation it would appear the piece was began by Hubert van Eyck and finished by his brother in 1432, Jan van Eyck, six years after the former’s death. Jan downplays his own involvement but art historians have used scientific methods of dating to determine he must have played a larger role than just finishing the piece. The altarpiece was entitled The Adoration of the (Mystic) Lamb and is also known as the Ghent Altarpiece.
The piece is approximately eleven and a half feet tall and can open and close on hinges. As in many humanistic art pieces, humans are the main focus in the paintings. While the work is religious in nature, the majority of the painting depicts humans in an earthly setting, which great detail being given to individual blades of grass and plants. There are twelve panels when the piece is opened, the top row focusing more closely on the humans than the bottom row.. While some humanist artists in this era began signing their work, Jan Van Eyck has a plaque on the front of the altarpiece. There exists an inscription that credited Hubert as the original artist and Jan as the finisher, the latter claiming to be “second best” (1). This is a fairly debated topic concerning this work, many believe Hubert only built the altarpiece while Jan painted it. Emil Renders, an art historian from the 1930’s, believed “”Hubert van Eyck” was a complete fiction invented by Ghent humanists.” (2)
The upper paintings include Adam and Eve as well as angelic musicians, none of which look happy to be singing. Left of center is Mary holding a book, right of center is John the Baptist holding a holy book, and God the Father sits in the center overlooking all. Painted on the bottom row is a crowd of people worshiping a lamb on an alter, the lamb bleeding into a chalice representing Jesus Christ. Three recognizable popes can be seen amongst the crowd and a dove signifying the Holy Spirit’s presence can be seen in the sky, completing the Holy Trinity.