On the one hand, it is possible to read the Beatitudes as descriptions: these are the kind of people whom God declares blessed, flourishing, or truly happy. The blessings reveal the unexpected, counter-cultural, ‘upside-down’ nature of God’s kingdom: the world declares the rich and powerful to be the blessed—but God favours the humble, the hungry, and the meek. Laura James’s A Sermon for Our Ancestors is an example of this approach. Paradoxically, those who are enslaved, raped (see the top right scene illustrating ‘Blessed are the meek’), murdered, and beaten are declared blessed.
Why? God sides with them.
On the other hand, it is possible to read the Beatitudes as implied commands, or invitations: if you want to be blessed, then be merciful. This is the interpretation suggested by the Virtue Garden illumination from the Somme le roi, in which the Beatitudes are virtues (humility, patience, kindness) nourished by the Spirit and received through the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer common to all Christians.
The Ghent Altarpiece takes a similar approach when it portrays the Beatitudes as the saints. Initially, these sterling examples of faithfulness may seem inaccessible to the layperson, holding up martyrs and apostles as exemplars to be admired rather than imitated directly. Yet Lotte Philip notes that the groups represent various levels of society, including those with higher status (the judges and knights) and those of more modest means (the hermits and pilgrims), suggesting that the Beatitudes are within reach of anyone who chooses to practise them (Philip 1971: 107). The great concert of the blessed in heaven turns out to be more capacious than we might imagine.
Each work of art takes the potentially abstract values of the Beatitudes and renders them more concrete by associating them with a specific virtue, social location, or group of people. Some connections are clear: the martyrs of The Ghent Altarpiece are obviously those persecuted for righteousness. Other identifications are more challenging, such as the association of crusading knights with the merciful. All the identifications are generative, for they prompt the viewer to explore and test the connections. Why are prophets those who mourn? Perhaps because Christian thought has closely associated mourning with penitence, and the prophets with repentance in the face of divine judgement.
Most of the Beatitudes allow for a wide range of interpretation: do peacemakers make peace between quarrelling individuals or warring nations? A Sermon for our Ancestors opts for peace between God and humanity by interpreting this Beatitude with a scene of baptism (second from left at the bottom). The Ghent Altarpiece panel implies a similar theme by linking peacemaking to the confessors, since Christians could pray to the saints to intercede with God on their behalf, thus helping to assure the forgiveness of their sins and restore peace between God and the sinner.
By contrast, the Somme draws on an earlier tradition by associating peacemaking with the virtue of temperance—in other words, the peacemakers are those who pacify their own unruly desires (see, e.g. Augustine, De Sermone Domini in Monte 1.2.9).
All three artworks place a Christ-figure in the centre: the tallest tree in the middle of the garden tended by prayer, an African Jesus with open arms delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or the slaughtered Lamb standing triumphantly on the altar of his sacrifice and surrounded by angels. This centrality suggests Christ’s role not only as the speaker of the Beatitudes but also as their embodiment and fulfilment. More than the others, The Ghent Altarpiece points to the future rewards of the Beatitudes by locating them in the heavenly throne room (or perhaps the New Creation, following Revelation 21): theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Of all the artists, only Laura James suggests the implied corollary to each Beatitude: if you are not merciful, then you will not receive mercy. If the earth and the kingdom of God belong to the meek and persecuted slaves, then what will become of the slave owners? These warnings, which are given voice in Luke’s version—‘Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep’ (Luke 6:25b)—remain unspoken in Matthew. This confronts the contemporary viewers with our own position relative to Christ’s blessings: are we the merciful, or the merciless?
Philip, Lotte Brand. 1971. The Ghent Altarpiece and the Art of Jan van Eyck (Princeton: Princeton University Press)