Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck
Interpretation, Analysis of Flemish Polyptych Altarpiece, St Bavo Cathedral

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Ghent Altarpiece by  Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32)
Centre panel of top section
By Jan Van Eyck.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Art Education
To analyse Flemish painters
like Jan Van Eyck, see:
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Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32)


Netherlandish Renaissance Masterpiece
The Commission
Features, Layout, Description
Meaning and Interpretation
Further Resources

The Work

Painting: Ghent Altarpiece (Polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb)
Date: 1425-32
Artist: Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)
Medium: Oil painting (on 12 wooden panels)
Genre: Religious history painting
Movement: Northern Renaissance (Flemish/Netherlandish)
Location: Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent, Belgium.

For other great pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Top right outer panel of the
Ghent Altarpiece showing
portrait of Eve.

Analysis and Interpretation of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Netherlandish Renaissance Masterpiece

A masterpiece of Christian art, this huge altarpiece is one of the cultural cornerstones of the Netherlandish Renaissance. It is located in the Cathedral of St Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. Painted by the Flemish master Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), the polyptych consists of twelve panels mounted on hinges, of which eight are painted on both sides. Van Eyck's mastery of surfaces, light and variations in material, which resulted from his infinite patience and attention to detail, gives the work its breathtaking technical virtuosity. One of the greatest examples of early Flemish painting, the Ghent Altarpiece is acclaimed for its brilliance of colour and wide-ranging subject matter, which includes full-length nudes, vivid portrait art, landscapes, sumptuous robes and numerous examples of still life. Not for nothing did the great German master Albrecht Durer describe it as a stupendous piece of religious art.


The Commission

The Ghent Altarpiece (also known as the Polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) was commissioned by the wealthy businessman Jodocus Vijd for his private chapel. Intended for the ancient Church of St John, also in Ghent, the work was begun in 1425 by Hubert van Eyck, Jan's elder brother. But the following year, before any significant progress had been made, Hubert died and - at the invitation of the donor Jodocus Vijd, who was also deputy burgomaster of Ghent - Jan took over the project.

Features, Layout, Description

Measuring roughly 11 x 15 feet, and painted in oils, the altarpiece can be left opened or closed. When closed, which would have been its normal state at the time, we see a portrayal of the Annunciation, underneath which are two remarkable grisaille panels containing illusionistic statues. These faux sculptures represent John the Baptist, holding the traditional symbol of the lamb, and John the Evangelist, author of the Apocalypse. Flanking the saints at each end, are separate paintings of the donor and his wife, Lysbette Borluut, kneeling in prayer. The whole visual effect is deliberately muted - only the portraits of the donors contain any real colour - probably in order to heighten the effect of opening the altarpiece to reveal the paintings inside.

As soon as the polyptych is opened, the viewer is dazzled by an explosion of red and green colour pigments. The pictures themselves are laid out in two registers or tiers. In the top tier, comprising three central panels and two wing panels at each end, we see an enthroned Christ the King, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. To offset the austere gravity of this central trio, they are flanked by paintings of angels singing and playing the organ. The angel's clothes, instruments and surroundings are depicted in meticulous detail. Jan van Eyck's masterly use of oil paint creates tiny vibrations of light within the dense, saturated colours, most of which are full of symbolic significance. The beauty of the fabrics and the musical instruments demonstrate the creative capacity of man, which in turn alludes to the overarching role of the Creator himself. At either end of the upper tier, Van Eyck painted two stunning life-size portraits of Adam and Eve, depicted with extraordinary naturalism. These figures are among the most naturalistic of all male nudes and female nudes of the European Renaissance. They are surmounted by illusionist bas-reliefs featuring the sacrifice of Cain and Abel and the killing of Abel.

The centre of the lower tier, underneath the upper trio of Jesus, Mary and John, features a single large painting, from which the altarpiece takes its name. It shows the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mystic Lamb (the symbol of Christ), placed on an altar surrounded by fourteen angels and set in a fertile meadow hedged with bushes, on the outskirts of a city. Four groups approach or occupy the meadow. Top left, we see a procession of bishops and cardinals. Top right, there approaches a group of female martyrs bearing palm leaves, symbols of their martydom. Bottom left, we see a group of kneeling Jewish prophets behind whom are a collection of pagan philosophers and scholars drawn from all over the world, as evidenced by their different styles of headgear. Bottom right, we see the twelve Apostles, followed by Popes and other clergy. Saint Stephen is shown carrying the rocks of his martyrdom.

The side panels on this tier show various groups of saints (to the left, Judges and Soldiers of Christ; to the right, pilgrims and hermits) all painted against a backrop of a single landscape with verdant slopes but a stony path. On the extreme right we see the towering figure of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers. Note: In 1934, the lower left picture of the 'Judges' was stolen and has never been recovered. After the war it was replaced with a substitute created by Jef Vanderveken.

Meaning and Interpretation

All these groups look towards the altar in the centre of the meadow. The angels surrounding the altar hold the instruments of the Passion - the pillar against which Christ was lashed, the nails used to pin him to the cross, and the sponge dipped in vinegar. Blood is pouring from the lamb's body into a chalice. And here we see the real meaning of the Ghent Altarpiece - sacrifice, blood, and the role of the clergy in administering the holy sacraments. Situated in front of the altar is the 'Fountain of Life'. Thin trickles of water fall into a channel which flows out of camera towards the viewer. The message is: the blood of Christ gives us life. Indeed a Latin inscription on the altar states: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."


In 1815, after centuries of being housed in Ghent, the local Bishop pawned six of the painting's wings for £240. Left unredeemed, the panels were bought in 1816 by the English collector Edward Solly for £4,000 who sold them to the King of Prussia for £16,000 - a huge sum at the time. From the royal art collection, the paintings migrated to the state-run Gemaldegalerie in Berlin. After World War I, they were returned to Belgium as part of the Versailles Treaty (1919). Fearing sequestration by the Nazis, in 1940, the Belgium government dispatched the altarpiece to the Vatican, but Italy's declaration of war led to it being diverted to Pau in the French Pyrenees. Seized in 1942 by the Germans, it was first stored in a castle in Bavaria, and then a salt mine, where it was finally liberated by American troops.

Jan Van Eyck

A masterpiece of Biblical art, The Ghent Altarpiece exemplified the new Netherlandish approach to painting, in which the decorative idealization of the Byzantine and Gothic tradition gave way to a more realistic rendering of both people and nature, based upon observation and study. The work influenced painters across Europe. In their breadth of vision and painterly skills, Van Eyck and his Flemish contemporary Roger van der Weyden were noticeably ahead of contemporary Italian painters like Masaccio (1401-28), and their intense religious paintings were equalled only by Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo during the High Renaissance.

Van Eyck's other famous masterpieces include: Man in a Red Turban (1433, oil on wood, National Gallery, London); The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, oil on wood, National Gallery); and The Rolin Madonna (1435, oil on wood, Louvre, Paris).



Further Resources

For more information on oil painters of the Flemish Renaissance during the 15th century, try these resources:

Robert Campin/Master of Flemalle (c.1378-1444)
Hans Memling (c.1433-94)
Hugo Van Der Goes (1440-1482)
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)

Other Famous 15th Century Flemish Altarpieces

Merode Altarpiece (1427, Metropolitan Museum, NY) by Robert Campin.
Beaune Altarpiece (1450, Beaune, France) by Roger Van der Weyden.
Last Supper (1464-8, St Peter's Church, Louvain) by Dieric Bouts the Elder.
Last Judgment Triptych (1471, Gdansk) by Hans Memling.
Portinari Altarpiece (1476-79, Uffizi) by Hugo Van Der Goes.
Donne Triptych (1477-80, National Gallery, London) by Hans Memling.

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