Iconography of the Ghent Altarpiece

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  • 0:01 Jan van Eyck & Northern Art
  • 1:00 Closed View of the…
  • 2:00 Open View of the Ghent…
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the complex and intricate iconography of the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most enigmatic masterpieces of art from Northern Europe. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Jan Van Eyck and Northern Art

Imagine going into church and seeing this:

Ghent Altarpiece, open view

Amazing right? I know I'm paying attention. That was the Ghent Altarpiece, an 11 by 15 foot, 12-panel decorative piece painted between 1430 and 1432 by the Flemish master Jan van Eyck.

Most scholars now believe that the altarpiece was designed by Jan's older brother Hubert van Eyck, who died in 1426, and then painted by Jan. The altarpiece was commissioned by the mayor of Ghent, Joos Vijd, for the Church of John the Baptist and intended to not only preserve the legacy of the patron, but to outshine all of the art of Northern Europe. And it really did. When the Ghent Altarpiece was formally unveiled, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy and Isabella of Portugal had their son baptized below it. As a nearly perfect example of Northern European painting, it used the newly-developed material of oil paint to create an intricate and deep composition of symbolism and religious icons.

Closed View of the Ghent Altarpiece

Ok, ready to see the Ghent Altarpiece again? Here it is:

Ghent Altarpiece, closed view

Wait, this is a different image than the first one we saw. The Ghent Altarpiece is actually painted on both sides. Like most altarpieces, it was generally kept closed and only opened on special occasions like feast days. But if you are paying for the most elaborate altarpiece in Europe, you want to make sure that it is still immaculate while closed. Let's start looking at this from the top.

Ghent Altarpiece, top portion
top portion

Those top four arched panels are the prophets Zechariah and Micah and two Sibyls, Greek female prophets. So, all four figures are those who foretell the future and are accompanied by phrases foretelling the coming of Christ. And right below them, shown across the next four panels, is a scene of the Annunciation, the moment when the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant. Gabriel is holding lilies, a common symbol of Mary's virginity, and a dove representing the Holy Spirit rests above Mary's head.

Ghent Altarpiece, Annunciation
portion showing annunciation

The bottom four panels are portrayed as architectural niches, like you would find in a church. Two niches are filled with marble statues which create a parallel to the white gowns of Gabriel and Mary. The statues are of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, but the other two figures are the donors of this piece. That's Joos Vijdt and his wife.

Ghent Altarpiece, bottom portion
bottom portion

Now, it's sometimes hard to grasp this just from a picture, but those portraits of the donors are life-sized. Don't forget that the entire altarpiece is 11 feet tall. Plus, these portraits are very realistic. This isn't the idealized art of Italy; instead, van Eyck captures every wrinkle and every fold of their robes. The Vijdts could kneel next to these portraits and pretty much blend right into the painting.

Open View of the Ghent Altarpiece

Ok, time to take a look at the interior panels again:

Ghent Altarpiece, interior panels
overview of bottom portion

There we go. Ok, where do we start? Obviously, there's a lot going on here.

Let's start with those three central figures on the top. On the left is Mary, on the right is John the Baptist, and in the center is… well, we're not completely sure. There's debate about this. Some scholars think it's God, some think it's Christ, and some think it's the Holy Trinity as a single figure, supported by the three-tier crown the figure wears. This central figure is raising his hand in a gesture that indicates a blessing. His embroidered cloth features Greek inscriptions for 'King of Kings' and images of vines, a common symbol of Christ's blood, as well as pelicans, a popular 15th-century symbol of Christ's sacrifice. Mary and John both hold two books, two of the 18 books that appear in these panels that could reference particular passages or the general culture of literacy in Northern Europe.

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