Beyond its magnificent beauty, Jan van Eyck’s altarpiece is a pivot point in art history. As the first major work to be painted in oil, it is considered both the last great medieval painting and the first great modern painting.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
Begun in 1426 by Jan van Eyck’s brother Hubert, who died very shortly after work began, the huge altarpiece was not completed until 1432, and is probably almost entirely the work of Jan van Eyck himself. It consists of twenty linked panels: a large central set of images and two large wings that can close over it. These hinged wings are painted on both sides, so that the altarpiece may be viewed either open or closed. When it is opened, which is usually just for religious holidays, the work is a staggering twelve feet high and eighteen feet wide. The altarpiece is crowded with nearly two hundred figures. In the upper middle panel God the Father sits upon his throne, with a sparkling jeweled crown at his feet, painted with painstaking attention to detail. He is flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, angels who sing and play instruments, and Adam and Eve, who are painted with unflattering post-fall realism.
In the lower central panel we see the image evoked by the book of Revelation that gives the work its name. Christ, represented as a lamb, is in the middle of the painting, standing upon an altar with his sacrificial blood flowing from a wound into a golden chalice. The Holy Spirit descends as a dove. In front of the altar a fountain bursts forth with living water, and from every side pilgrims, hermits, religious and political leaders (the “just judges”), and angels converge upon the scene from the four corners of the earth to worship and adore the Lamb of God. Many of these figures are recognizable as historical saints, and others are contemporary figures from van Eyck’s day. They have all come to bask in the glory of the Lamb, whose altar is situated in a magical green field bedecked with flowers.
The trees and flowers are painted with such attention to detail that a modern botanist would be able to identify their species. In the distance we see a great city, the New Jerusalem, with its towers and cathedrals, and a lush realistic landscape stretching as far as we can see. Over it all, a heavenly light illuminates the scene. When its wings are closed, the altarpiece reveals an image of the annunciation, the prophets who predicted Jesus’s coming, and the figures of John the Baptist and John the apostle, painted with an effect of shadow and spotlighting that replicates the look of statues enclosed in niches.
The level of detail in the painting is without precedent in such a large-scale work. Only illuminated manuscripts had previously gloried in the kind of minute detail that can be seen in every single inch of this masterpiece. As art historian Noah Charney has written, “Viewers can make out tufts of grass, the wrinkles in an old worm-eaten apple, and warts on double chins. But they can also see the reflection of light caught in a perfectly painted ruby, the folds of a gilded garment, and individual silvery hairs amid the chestnut curls of a beard.” All these fine ephemera of the visible world are used to make a point about the reality of the invisible spiritual world, now here on display for the viewer. It embraces both this world and the next.
Have you seen this altarpiece?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
The Adoration of the Lamb by Jan van Eyck
Borchert, Till-Holger. Van Eyck. Köln: Taschen, 2008.
Charney, Noah. Stealing the Mystic Lamb. New York: Public Affairs, 2010.
(1390?–1441). The Flemish painter who perfected the new technique of painting in oils, Jan van Eyck produced mostly portraits and religious subjects on wooden panels. His works often contain disguised religious symbols.
Van Eyck was probably born in Maaseik, now in Belgium, before 1395. From 1422 to 1425 he was in the service of John of Bavaria, count of Holland, in The Hague. For the rest of his life he served Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy.
Only nine of Van Eyck’s paintings are signed and only ten are dated. His masterpiece, The Adoration of the Lamb altarpiece in Ghent’s St-Bavon Cathedral, is dated 1432, but it also has a questionable 16th-century inscription that introduces Hubert van Eyck, supposedly his brother, as its principal master. There are no other references to the brother, but a “Master Hubert, the painter” is mentioned in city records.
Van Eyck moved from a heavy, sculptural realism to a more delicate pictorial style. This development can be traced most notably in Portrait of a Young Man (1432); Madonna of Autun (1433); The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami (1434) (see Painting); Madonna with Chancellor Rolin (1435); Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436); St. Barbara (1437); and Madonna at the Fountain (1439). His paintings are known for the beauty of their colors and their special qualities of light. Said the French writer Chateaubriand when he saw the Ghent Altarpiece: “Where did the Flemish painters steal their light … What ray of Greece has strayed to the shores of Holland?” Van Eyck died in Brugge and was buried on July 9, 1441, in the Church of St-Donatian, which was destroyed in 1799.
“Van Eyck, Jan,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
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