Ghent Altarpiece

Ghent Altarpiece

Artists Hubert van Eyck, Jan van Eyck

Date completed 1432

Movement Northern Renaissance

Medium Oil on panel

Dimensions 11’5” x 7’6” (closed); 11’5” x 15’1” (opened)

Housed at Church of St. Bavo, Ghent


Jan van Eyck was one of the most widely-known painters during this time, so much so that he was often credited with inventing oil painting–wrongly. Altarpieces such as this one would have been closed on most days except Sundays and important church holidays.


The Altarpiece, Closed

The patron of this work,, Jodicus Vijd, and his wife, occupy the two lower, outer frames; between them, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist are painted in grisaille; all four are framed by Gothic tracery. In the middle frames, van Eyck makes a genius play of illusions out of Mary’s room—the timber ceiling connects all four frames and is foreshortened to imply spatial continuity; the artist even adds shadows on the floor as if they fell from the frames. Prophets occupy the upper spaces and provide continuity form the Old Testament to the New.


The Altarpiece, Opened

In the lower tier, a crowd of popes, angels, apostles and other holy figures surround a lamb upon an altar—in the distance are a number of towering cathedrals. In the upper panels, Christ, flanked by Mary and and John the Baptist, preside over the Mass below; angels singing and playing instruments surround them. The figures, especially in the upper panels, are painted with exquisite detail and naturalism, thanks to the use of the slow-drying oil paint.


Detail of Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve occupy the outer, upper panels of the inner diptych. Especially given the dark background of their niches and their lack of clothing, the couple take upon a life-like three-dimensionality. Their starkness adds solemnity to the program. Cain and Abel, painted in grisaille so as to mimic Classical sculpture, occupy radii above.


Painting of Ghent Altarpiece in chapel

This painting of the Ghent Altarpiece in its original habitat (included in the gallery below) helps to express the sheer scale of the work and the effect it would have had upon the laity.