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The Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece is one of the most beautiful examples of Flemish painting in the world today. Executed in the fifteenth century by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, it resides in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The Ghent Altarpiece, or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb as it is also called, was commissioned in 1420 by the wealthy merchant Joost Vijdt and his wife Elizabeth Borluut to be placed in their private chapel at the cathedral.

The altarpiece is a polyptych, a painting that is divided in to multiple panels. The Ghent Altarpiece actually opens up like a cabinet and the front panels of the altarpiece are decorated as well as the inside panels. The polyptych was installed above the altar and was open to the public on Sundays and religious holidays but was usually closed any other time the chapel was not in use. The polyptych is about 11 feet tall and nearly 16 feet wide when the panels are fully open. The paintings were executed with oil paint on wood panels.

Although the Ghent Altarpiece is commonly attributed to Jan van Eyck, a Latin inscription on the painting seems to indicate that Jan’s brother Hubert actually began work on the altarpiece. It is believed that Jan completed the work upon Hubert’s death in 1426. The painting style of the two brothers is so similar that experts have not been able to determine which portions were painted by which brother. The realism of the paintings is considered to be representative of the Northern Renaissance style of painting. The Ghent Altarpiece is rich in detail, especially that of the clothing of the figures and the vegetation in the landscape.

When the polyptych is open, three central figures are revealed: the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and a third figure, in the center, whose identity is much debated. The third figure contains some elements that suggest God the Father and other elements that suggest Jesus, Son of God.

On either side of the central three figures are scenes of angels singing with musical instruments. Positioned next to the angel panels are two panels depicting Adam and Eve, respectively. Eve is holding the apple that brought about their banishment from the Garden of Eden.

Beneath the central three figures is a large adoration scene called The Adoration of the Lamb. Although Jesus is often referred to as The Lamb of God in a figurative way, he is actually shown as a lamb in this painting. Angels kneel about The Lamb and groups of other worshippers that include Jewish scholars, heathens, The Apostles, saints and popes are gathered behind the angels. These people can be recognized by their clothing and the objects they are holding.

On either side of the The Adoration of the Lamb, are panels showing the “Knights of Christ” and the “Just Judges” on the left and a group of hermits and pilgrims on the right. Among the pilgrims stands the giant Saint Christopher who is the patron saint of travelers.

The front panels of the polyptych show the Annunciation -- when Mary was told by the archangel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of Jesus. Also on the front panels are the figures of Joost Vijdt and his wife who commissioned the polyptych.

In 1934, the “Just Judges” panel was stolen. A man, who is believed by many to have been the thief who held the panel for ransom, claimed on his deathbed that he alone knew the whereabouts of the Just Judges but he died shortly thereafter without revealing the secret. The missing panel has since been replaced by a copy of the work painted by the artist Jef Vanderveken.

To see the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at