Early Modern Times – altared states

Early Modern Times - altared states

Dear readers,

A current exhibition at the Museum of Fine Art Ghent focuses (in the fully optical sense) on the often dazzling work of 15th-century Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck. On the occasion of the exhibition, this article by Fisun Güner discusses one of Van Eyck’s strangest and most stunning creations: the Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, completed in 1432 and currently at St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. The restored Mystic Lamb in particular, shown in detail above, was odder than anyone anticipated: 21st-century viewers have exclaimed, ‘Eyck-an’t believe what I’m seeing!’

Specifically, Van Eyck’s original Mystic Lamb–depicted on the right-hand side–looks freakishly humanoid. In the sixteenth century, it was altered to appear more animal-like (as on the left), because Van Eyck’s depiction left Flemish spectators sheepish with puzzlement: we can imagine that they ‘lamb-basted’ Van Eyck’s unearthly rendering. Hence, the ears were moved up and eyes placed on the sides to make the Mystic Lamb look more ovine. In the 1950s, a restoration removed some of the over-painting and varnish, but the creature then appeared to have two sets of ears. The blurry image rendered the image a sort of aural equivalent of a myopic figure: four-eared instead of four-eyed. Truly, a baaa-d effort.

The Mystic Lamb itself is at the lower-centre of the vast 3.4 m (11.1 ft) x 5.2 m (17 ft) altarpiece. It is the Lamb of God, with blood gushing into a chalice before reverent onlookers and below a dove representing the Holy Ghost. The outer panels depict prophets, John the Baptist, and the merchant and Burgermeister who commissioned the work. But Van Eyck didn’t forget certain female figures, including prophetic sibyls, the Virgin Mary, and the Burgermeister’s wife, also known as the Burgermistress or (in the world of Flemish fast food) the Burger-Queen. The latter inclusion ensured that the altarpiece would represent ladies as well as ‘Ghentlemen’.

Güner remarks on Van Eyck’s artistic innovations. He was not, as some have thought, the inventor of oil painting, but his work is striking and unprecedented in the ‘extreme verisimilitude and exactitude of his execution, the fine, three-dimensional modelling, the subtle depiction of light and shadow, and the extreme realism of textures’. This was in part achieved by his experimentation with the paint, ‘altering its chemical balance to achieve faster drying times, and this allowed him to build up layers of translucent paint in order to achieve all those delicate and nuanced effects.’ While previous artists used gold leaf as background decoration, ‘Van Eyck used pigments to depict gold and fine metal objects, with light glinting off their surfaces, just as they would appear to the observant eye’. This work reflects all of these features and even depicts the first human nudes in an altarpiece, on the outer panels: our remote ancestors Adam and Eve. They are lifelike nudes, even down to the pubic hair. It was daring to include such detail on a work meant for pubic viewing; the Flemish artist was thus a true Eyck-onoclast.

Van Eyck’s achievement in the Ghent Altarpiece is not simply that of verisimilitude, but of depicting the spiritual in the mundane world. The woods and fields in the lower panels, perhaps the first landscape depiction in northern European painting, display an abundance of actual flora from the region which centre around the divine, humanoid lamb. It is as if the work contains a Garden of Eden in one altarpiece: a veritable Noah’s Eyck. Above the eerie Lamb of God and the holy dove sits the crowned, supreme deity in Byzantine style, a sort of Russian Eyck-on. Art historians continue to debate whether he is God the Father or God the Son: if the former, then this would be among the earliest depictions of God the Father from the New Testament; if the latter, then it would be an unprecedentedly majestic rendering of Christ as king. Given his placement above the Mystic Lamb, the altarpiece is indubitably ‘sheeped’ in mystery but an artistic masterpiece that can’t be ‘bleat’.

’til next time,

Simon Kow

Burgermeister, Early Modern Landed Ghent-tree Studies Program

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