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Jan van Eyck (about 1395-1441)  Ghent Altarpiece  Oil on panel, 1432  375 x 520 cm  Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent, Belgium
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Title: Ghent Altarpiece
Description:
Jan van Eyck (about 1395-1441)
Ghent Altarpiece
Opened view of the polyptych
Oil on panel, 1432
375 x 520 cm
Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent, Belgium

The Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Dutch: Het Lam Gods or The Lamb of God; completed 1432) is a very large and complex Early Netherlandish polyptych panel painting which is considered to be one of Belgium's masterpieces and one of the world's treasures.

It was once in the Joost Vijdt chapel at Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, but was later moved for security reasons to the chapel of the cathedral. Commissioned by the wealthy merchant and financier Joost Vijdt for his and his wife's private chapel, it was begun by Hubert van Eyck, who died in 1426 whilst work was underway, and completed by his younger brother Jan van Eyck. The altarpiece represented a "new conception of art", in which the idealization of the Classical tradition gave way to an exacting observation of nature.

The altarpiece consists of a total of 24 compartmented scenes, which make up two views, open and closed, which are d by moving the hinged outer wings. The upper register (row) of the opened view shows Christ the King (but see below) between the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The insides of the wings represent angels singing and making music, and on the outside Adam and Eve. The lower register of the central panel shows the adoration of the Lamb of God, with several groups in attendance and streaming in to worship, overseen by the dove representing the Holy Spirit. On weekdays the wings were closed, showing the Annunciation of Mary and donor portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut.

There used to be an inscription on the frame stating that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck - calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art) - finished it in 1432. The original, very ornate carved outer frame and surround, presumably harmonizing with the painted tracery, was destroyed during the Reformation; there has been speculation that it may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music.

The original lower left panel known as The Just Judges was stolen in 1934. The original panel has never been found and has been replaced by a copy made in 1945 by Jef Vanderveken. The stolen panel figures prominently in Albert Camus' novel La chute.

Three central figures

The three central upper panels show the Virgin Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right, but the identity of the central figure is unclear and has led to much debate. Several theories include that it is Christ in triumph and shown as a priest, God the Father, or the Holy Trinity amalgamated into a single person (the fact that the figure is wearing a triple tiara might lend some credence to this theory).
Singing angels

Surrounding the three figures in the center are angels making music and singing. The clothes, the instruments and the floor are shown in remarkable detail. Hymnals of the period provided instructions on which faces to make when hitting certain notes, and through close study, art historians have been able to identify which notes each angel was singing through their facial expressions. Even the organ, where Saint Cecilia sits, was painted in such detail that modern musicologists were able to recreate a working copy of the instrument.
Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel

The upper front panels on the sides show Adam and Eve (to the left and right respectively), both facing the figures in the center. They are covering themselves with leaves, and Eve is holding a fruit that is not, in fact, the traditional apple but is a small citrus known as an Adam's Apple Garden of Eden. Adam seems to be walking out of the picture, giving it a three-dimensional look.

Above them are depictions in grisaille of Abel making a sacrifice of the first lamb of his flock to God and Cain presenting part of his crops as a farmer to the Lord, and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain with an ass's jawbone because, according to the Bible, Cain was jealous of the Lord's acceptance of Abel's offering over Cain's. Van Eyck makes the paintings look like statues, giving depth to the picture.

In the 19th century, the naked representations of Adam and Eve were considered unacceptable in a church and the panels were replaced by dressed reproductions, which are still on display in the cathedral outside the Vijdt chapel.
Lower center panel

The lower front panels show the adoration of the Lamb of God, with people streaming in from all sides to worship the lamb. From the sky a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, illuminates the scene. The lamb is surrounded by fourteen angels. In the foreground the fountain of life is flowing into a small river, its bottom covered with jewels.

In the foreground to the left, we see a group of kneeling Jewish prophets holding the Bible, or their book of it. Behind them are the pagan philosophers and writers, who have come from all over the world as can be seen by the Oriental faces of some, and their different types of hats and caps. The figure in white is probably Virgil, who was seen as a Christian avant-la-lettre. To the right we see the twelve apostles, and behind them male saints, with the Popes and other clergy at the front. We recognize among others Saint Stephen, carrying the rocks he was stoned with.

In the background we see the martyrs, men (all visible are clergy) to the left and women to the right, all carrying the martyr's palm. Some of the women are recognizable by the attributes they are carrying.
Lower side panels

Next to the central panel we see more groups of people. The two panels to the left show the "Just Judges" and the "Knights of Christ". On the right we see hermits and pilgrims, among them the giant Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers.

The lower panel at the far left, The Just Judges, was stolen in 1934. Although several people have claimed to know its whereabouts, it has never been recovered and some now believe it to be destroyed. Others, though, think it will be found one day, and a number of people still look for it. It was replaced with a copy by Jef Vanderveken in 1945.
Detail
Van Eyck pays as much attention to the beauty of earthly things as to the religious themes. The clothes and jewels, the fountain, nature surrounding the scene, the churches and landscape in the background- everything is painted with remarkable detail. The landscape shows an enormous richness in vegetation, much of it non-European.
History
Several of the painting's wings were bought in 1816 by Edward Solly of England, who lived in Germany. They were later bought by the King of Prussia and continued to be kept in Germany. During World War I, other panels were taken from the cathedral by Germany. As part of mandated compensation in the Versailles Treaty after the end of the war, Germany returned the pilfered panels along with the original panels that had been legitimately bought by Solly, to help compensate for other German "acts of destruction" during the war.

The Germans "bitterly resented the loss of the panels", and at the start of another conflict with Germany in 1940, a decision was made in Belgium to send the painting to the Vatican to keep it safe. The painting was en route to the Vatican, in France, when Italy declared war as an Axis power alongside Germany. The painting was stored in a museum in Pau for the duration of the war, as French, Belgian and German military representatives signed an agreement which required the consent of all three before the masterpiece could be moved. In 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the painting to be seized and brought to Germany to be stored in a Bavarian castle. After Allied air raids made the castle too dangerous for the painting, it was stored in a salt mine. Belgian and French authorities protested the seizing of the painting, and the head of the German army's Art Protection Unit was dismissed after he disagreed with the seizure.

The altarpiece was recovered by the Americans following the war and was returned to Belgium in a ceremony presided over by Belgian royalty and held at the Royal Palace of Brussels, where the 17 panels were erected for the press. No French officials were invited to the ceremony, since the Vichy French had allowed the Germans to remove the painting to Germany.





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Jan van Eyck (about 1395-1441)  Ghent Altarpiece  Oil on panel, 1432  375 x 520 cm  Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent, BelgiumJan van Eyck (about 1395-1441)  Arnolfini Portrait  Oil on panel, 1434  82.2 x 60 cm  National Gallery, London, UKJan van Eyck (about 1395-1441)  Crucifixion and Last Judgment  Oil on canvas, transferred  wood, about 1430  56.5 x 19.7 cm (each panel)  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
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