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June 30, 2021

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Ghent Altar.jpg

“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (opened)
Hubert & Jan van Eyck

The term “Masterpiece of Western art” is given a lot of works that truly deserve the title. Of these, a few deserve the label “The West’s Crown Jewels.” The Parthenon, Mona Lisa, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are just three. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, more commonly known as The Ghent Altarpiece, is one of these. It is a technical, stylistic, and media tour-de-force. Its subject is a masterful summation of Roman Catholic/Christian theology, but is in no way simplistic. This work is incredibly complex. I will do my best.

Closed, the Altarpiece is simple, quiet, monotone depiction of the Annunciation that deceives the viewer to the aesthetic explosion inside. Opened, Almighty God presides over the final triumph of the Lamb of God. He sits enthroned, robed in holy majesty, and wears the three-crowned papal tiara. Both God the Father and God the Son are represented here. Theological declarations are inscribed over the throne and embroidered into the robes, such as “life without death,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” and “The Lamb of God.” Flanking God are Mary and John the Baptist. Next to them is the heavenly choir singing hymns to God.

At the very edges are Adam and Eve. They represent two theological ideas. The first, is the concept of Original Sin—through them sin and death entered the world, which was defeated by Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection. Eve is pregnant. Their sin condemned humanity and above them is the immediate consequence, Cain and Abel. The second idea is the unity of the Bible. The beginning and end are represented here—the Alpha and Omega—Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus is also called the Second Adam. It’s no accident that Adam and God look alike. By placing Adam and Eve in the same register as the angels and saints, Van Eyck symbolizes the restoration of Mankind. We are made whole and are accepted into the holy presence of Almighty God Himself.

While the figures look at God, God looks directly at the viewer with His hand raised in blessing. The papal tiara reinforces the idea of the Pope as Christ’s vicar-another reason why this figure is both the Father and the Son. Another crown sits at His feet. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be the His royal crown, a symbol of His sovereignty over the earth, or the crowns that Christians are supposed to lay at His feet. It definitely implies the crowning of the dove in the panel below.

The bottom set of panels depicts the Lamb of God worshiped at the end of time, after His final victory. At top center a dove flies. This is the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity. With His wings outspread, His holiness radiates through the scene. Under Him is the Lamb. He also looks out at the viewer as a wound on His chest bleeds into a chalice. He stands on an altar as a ready sacrifice. The angels around Him carry the elements of the Passion, and censors representing prayers. The actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is presented to the viewer. Closed most of the time, the Altarpiece was opened during the priest’s consecration of the Eucharist and this scene suddenly appeared before the worshipper. Taking Communion is not an act of faith anymore; it is right here before the viewer’s eyes, blessed by the Holy Spirit and overseen by the Father.


Ghent Altar1.jpg

“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (closed)
Hubert & Jan van Eyck

Continuing down the center line of this panel is the Fountain of Life. The pool at its base has four smaller spigots flowing in the four cardinal directions. These represent the four rivers of Eden. Paradise is open once more to humanity. This also symbolizes Christ as the Well of Living Water. So, the vertical centerline of the work connects the three persons of the Trinity. They are indivisible from each other and work together for the salvation of Man. They are the center of everything—of attention, of the Christian faith, and of the universe.

Coming from the literal “four corners of the earth” are different groups of the Saved. In the left foreground are the Jewish and Pagan prophets, warrior saints and “the just judges.” This last group is unique to the Van Eycks and scholars are unsure who they are supposed to be. To the right are the Apostles, clergy, and other saints. Top left and right are the martyrs. Many of the saints and martyrs are identifiable by the symbols they hold, such as Stephen with his stone, the giant Christopher, James the Less and his seashell and hat, and Agnes with her lamb. They all come to worship the Lamb but stop when they emerge into the clearing. The glory of the scene has stunned them. In the background, the city of Utrecht sits in for the New Jerusalem. Heaven and Earth are united. Utrecht as the City of Heaven is weird; the patron of the work was the mayor of Ghent.

The medium here is oil. This new-ish (to them) media dries slow but produces radiant color and intricate details. After the work is finished, a clear layer is painted over the work. This varnish traps light and reflects it through the pigments of the lower layers. In the hands of a master like Jan van Eyck, the colors vibrate and glow. Zoom into the details of God’s robe. Look at how the jewels and gold sparkle. Also look how the medium produces the contrast between the smooth, hard stones and the bristly scratchiness of John’s hair-shirt.

There is way too much going on in this work to examine it all here. Opened, the Altarpiece measures 11 feet by 15. The panel of God enthroned is itself over 7 feet tall. A work this large implies a majestic or epic meaning. Huge ideas need huge displays. There really is too much to go over here. Zoom in and get a good look. Scan the details and lose yourself in the magnificence of a truly, absolutely great work of art.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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