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).
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)
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.