The Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck

Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), 1432, Oil on panel, 350 x 461 cm, St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium / © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW / Bridgeman Images

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Seeing God

Commentary by

The liturgy provides the key that explains why the Beatitudes appear in conjunction with the adoration of the Lamb from Revelation 7: both texts are readings for All Saints’ Day. The groups chosen to personify the Beatitudes likewise have their origin in the liturgy, in an antiphon (a sung response) that was sometimes linked to the reading of the Beatitudes on that same day.

The antiphon spells out particular sets of saints to be remembered: patriarchs and prophets (who are also paired together in The Ghent Altarpiece), doctors of the law (who correspond to the van Eyck’s just judges), apostles, Christian martyrs, confessors, virgins of the Lord, and anchorites (hermits) (James 2001: 128).

The Ghent Altarpiece portrays the Beatitudes as the saints—who in Revelation include all the faithful who have persevered and remained loyal to Christ, and who now receive their heavenly reward. Here, the Beatitudes have faces, some of which may be unexpected to modern viewers. For example, a few pagan philosophers (respected by many Renaissance humanists as moral teachers) appear in the group of Old Testament patriarchs to the left of the Lamb: the man in white with a laurel wreath is likely to be Virgil (Philip 1971: 106). Most counterintuitive of all is the association of crusading knights with the merciful. Medieval theology sometimes associated God’s mercy with God’s gracious offer of salvation to the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:10), and by extension, here, to the non-Christians of the Muslim East. The presence of the knights forces the modern viewer to wrestle both with this meaning of mercy (as salvation) and with the shameful intertwining of evangelism and violence in Christian history.

The altarpiece also calls our attention to the rewards of the Beatitudes: here the saints are comforted, are shown ultimate mercy on the day of judgement, and receive the kingdom of heaven. The meek and the merciful—perhaps because they have persevered in meekness and mercy—are victorious, sharing in the triumph of the Lamb over death and gathered in eschatological glory. As they approach the Lamb, The Ghent Altarpiece reveals the fulfilment especially of the promised reward for the pure in heart: ‘for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5:8).

 

References

James, Sara Nair. 2001. ‘Penance and Redemption: The Role of the Roman Liturgy in Luca Signorelli’s Frescoes at Orvieto’, Artibus et Historiae, 22.44: 119–147

Philip, Lotte Brand. 1971. The Ghent Altarpiece and the Art of Jan van Eyck (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Schmidt, Peter. 2001. The Ghent Altarpiece (Bruges: Ludion)