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Renaissance Top 48: Ghent Altarpiece

Identification

Jan Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open), Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, completed 1432. Oil on wood, approx. 11'6" x 15'

Context

During this time period, large-scale public altarpieces were the most visible manifestations of piety. These altarpieces often served as backdrops for the Mass, and were therefore didactic, especially for the illiterate. Evidence suggeests that altarpieces remained closed on regular days, and opened on Sundays and feast days. This altarpiece is located in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. It was commissioned by Jodocus Vyd and his wife, Isabel Borluut. They are depicted at the bottom of the exterior of the altarpiece. The Ghent Altarpiece was made for the church, and therefore all members of the church could enjoy it. 

Content

The exterior of the altarpiece depicts the donors kneeling with their hands clasped in prayer. There is also an Annunciation scene that is depicted on the upper register. A Flemish town is represented outside the painted window of the center panel. In the uppermost arched panels, there are images of the Old Testament prophets Micah and Zachariah, along with siblys. The Christian Church interpreted these writings to be prophecies from Christ. 

The interior of the altarpiece contains a beautifully colored painting of the medieval conception of humanity's Redemption. God the Father is depicted in the upper register. He is wearing the pope's triple tiara, and he presides in majesty. Next to God on the right is the Virgin who wears a crown of 12 stars, and to his left is Saint John the Baptist. On both sides their is a choir of angels. Lastly, Adam and Eve appear in the far panels. The inscription above the Lord's head translates as "This is God, all-powerful in his divine majesty; of all the best, by the gentleness of his good-ness; the most liberal giver, because of his infinite generosity." The entire altarpiece represents the central theme of salvation. The lower register extends the symbolism of the upper register. The community of saints comes from the four corners of the earth, proceeding toward the altar of the Lamb. The Lamb symbolizes the sacrified Son of God. On the right, the Twelve Apostles are depicted. On the left, there are prophets. 

Overall the altarpiece celebrates the Christian cycle from the Fall to the Redemption. The church is presented triumphantly in heavenly Jerusalem. 

 

Vocabulary

Polyptych - hinged multipaneled paintings

Image

Form

The medium of this piece is oil on wood. It is approximately 11'6" x 15'. This piece is a polyptych‚Äč and is also in register form. Van Eyck created the altarpiece in a "shimmering splendor of color that defies reproduction." He paid extreme attention to detail by depicting the soft texture of the hair, the glitter of gold, and the luster of the pearls and gems. 

Function

The Ghent Altarpiece was the centerpiece of the endowment established in the chapel that was built by Vyd and Borluut. The altarpiece served as decoration for the church. It also had a didactic function; the exterior displays an Annunciation scene and the interior depicts a painting of the medieval conception of humanity's Redemption.