Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

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Jan and Hubert van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

Jan and Hubert van Eyck, the dynamic sibling duo of the 15th century, began work on the Ghent Altarpiece in 1425, eight years before completion. Hubert, the elder Eyck, was commissioned to paint it for the private chapel of a wealthy Flemish businessman. After a year into his work, Hubert died and left the legacy of the painting to his brother.

The Altarpiece can be viewed in two parts – open and closed. In its closed state, we see a scene of the Annunciation above four statuesque figures. Both the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary appear to be solid and heavy, due primarily to the heavy draping on their robes. The figures sit on separate panels and are separated by the emptiness of the middle panels, instead of a pillar or some sort of obstruction like we see in Fra Angelico or da Vinci’s rendition. The heaviness on the sides and emptiness in the middle balances the painting, as if it is on a scale. The statue effect in Gabriel and Mary mirrors the “statues” of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist on the lower middle panels. At first glance, the shadows and depth of the panels make the painted figures appear to be 3D, as if they are actual statues. On the lower left and right panels sit the patrons of the altarpiece; notably, they are the only figures in full color. John (Baptist) and John (Evangelist) seem to nod at them, as if paying respects to the wealthy couple.

Jan and Hubert van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432

It is when we open the Altarpiece that we see the true brilliance of the painting. Such luxurious colors and extravagant details were not found often in 15th century religious paintings. The inside polyptych’s title, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” refers to the lower central panel in which various saints, bishops, and prophets sacrifice Christ’s lamb. The huddled groups on all four corners of the painting make an “X,” with the lamb in the intersection so that it is the central figure. The lower clusters of people push viewers’ eyes along the robes of the angels surrounding the lamb, and thus push the eyes (and the lamb) up towards the heavens (as if the top of a large triangle). It just so happens that at the top of this triangle, in the central top panel, is God himself. This placement was definitely intentional, just like every deliberate detail that Eyck painted on his masterpiece.

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