Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Imagine going into church and seeing this:
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.
Ok, ready to see the Ghent Altarpiece again? Here it is:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ok, time to take a look at the interior panels again:
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.
Next to these central figures are panels of angels playing musical instruments. These are the literal choir of angels, a common feature of descriptions of the opening of heaven. Remember that the altarpiece had to be opened to be viewed, so this symbol of the opening of heaven was probably not an accident. The final figures of this top section are Adam and Eve, again as life-sized figures. The fact that each figure is trying to cover up their nakedness indicates that these images are after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Eve is holding a small piece of fruit, but it's not the traditional apple. It's a small piece of citrus fruit and no one is completely sure what this represents. One of the things that has made this piece so fascinating is the incredible amount of symbolism that baffles scholars to this day. Above Eve is a small scene of Cain murdering his brother Abel. Overall, these panels present an image of the sins that Christ assumed when dying for all mankind.
But wait, there's still more. The bottom five panels are one large sectopm of people worshipping the Lamb of God. In the center is the Lamb, surrounded by five groups that are suggested by some to represent the procession of the All Saints' Day celebration. Throughout these scenes, figures hold various symbols of Christ, from the cross to the crown of thorns. A dove and fountain are in line with the Lamb, and all directly below the central figure of the upper panels, creating another allusion to the Holy Trinity. Other figures in the crowd include various biblical and historical figures including the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, the Roman poet Virgil, the twelve Apostles, several Popes, and dozens of martyrs recognized by the Catholic Church. The outside panels represent knights and judges, representing the legal and militant defenders of Christ. Many of these figures were probably people known in Northern Europe who lived at this time.
Whew! Anybody else need a break? In the time frame of this lesson, we have only scratched the surface of one of the most enigmatic works in Western art. The Ghent Altarpiece is a huge, 12-panel altarpiece completed by the master of Northern European art, Jan van Eyck, around 1432. It is recognized as one of the great works of art in world history for its stunning detail, use of color, and unbelievable amount of symbolism.
The iconography of this altarpiece, which covers both the inside and outside of each panel, is so complex that it has been debated from the moment of its unveiling through the present day. General themes include Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world. Need to see it one more time?
Here you go:
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Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons