The Ghent Altarpiece is a hinged altarpiece with multiple panels. When open, the five panels of the lower half display various groups approaching in order to worship the slain Lamb (a figure for Christ) in the central panel—a scene known as the Adoration of the Lamb and drawn from Revelation 7:9–17. Original inscriptions (now lost) identified the approaching groups as representatives of the eight Beatitudes (Philip 1971: 105–6).
On the left-hand side of the central panel three groups represent three Beatitudes: those who mourn are the prophets, shown kneeling in the left foreground and holding books representing their prophetic words. Immediately behind them stand those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—the Old Testament patriarchs, in bright multicoloured robes. Off in the distance, toward the top left of the panel, are the confessors (those who suffered persecution for their faith but did not die as martyrs)—these are the peacemakers.
On the right-hand side of the central panel are another three groups: the kneeling twelve apostles (plus Saints Paul and Barnabas) are the poor in spirit. Those persecuted for righteousness’ sake are the martyrs, who stand behind the apostles clothed in the vibrant red of martyrdom. Some bear the symbols of their martyrdom, like Saint Livinus, who holds his tongue in the pincers that tore it out. The pure in heart are the female martyrs and saints, who stand farther off toward the top right of the panel, opposite the confessors.
In the two left-wing panels, to the left of the Adoration of the Lamb, are two groups seated on horses and collectively representing the merciful: just judges on the far left, and next to them knights bearing banners (hinting at the ongoing Crusades). In the right-wing panels are the meek: on the outer right are the pilgrims, led by Saint Christopher (reported to be a giant), and next to them the hermits, including two women in the background (Mary Magdalene and, perhaps, Mary of Egypt).
The Ghent Altarpiece presents us with a puzzle: why are the Beatitudes depicted in a scene from Revelation 7?
5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.