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"The Ghent Altarpiece" by Hubert and Jan van Eyck

One of the masterpieces of the Northern Renaissance, the greatest work of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, and of the School of Bruges, is "The Ghent Altarpiece" or "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" ("Agnus Dei"). The work combines all the characteristics of early Flemish art: devotion, religious symbolism of a realistic type, power of colour, and mastery of execution.

Its technical qualities, and the new method of oil-painting invented by the two brothers, carried it to perfection. No other work of the School of Bruges will show more thorough mastery and more complete understanding of the harmony of colour.

The work is a polyptych of twelve panels, which, with the shutters, form twenty-four pictures divided into two rows, having five panels in one, and seven in the other. The inscription on the shutters frames tells us that this masterpiece was finished on May 6th, 1432.

It was commenced by Hubert van Eyck for Judocus Vyts as an altar-piece for his chapel at St. Bavo in Ghent. He completed the top portion of the interior of the altarpiece, which contains pictures of God Almighty. On God’s right hand are The Virgin, the choir of Angels, and Adam. On His left are St. John the Baptist, St. Cecilia, and Eve.

The whole work was completed by Jan van Eyck in 1432. The great altarpiece was placed in the chapel of the Vyts family in St. Bavo, at Ghent, in the same year in which it was finished.

The Mystic Lamb takes the centre of the Ghent Altarpiece, standing on the ark of the covenant. The Lamb is wounded, and the blood flows from his side. The Holy Spirit hovers as a dove overhead. The kneeled Angels are bearing the instruments of the Passion, while in front, the fountain of living water its pouring its stream meant to purify the world.

The landscape, both in the centre and the wings, is delicately and faithfully painted, the grass, and every flower is depicted with loving care.

The great army of the redeemed is in the foreground, and farther back are crowds of saints and martyrs. The city in the distance represents Jerusalem, its towers and domes standing out against a sky of pale grey, which gradually diverges into a deeper tint.

On the wings on either side of the central picture we see the crowds journeying towards the Lamb, driven by the same spirit of devotion: hermits, crusaders, righteous judges, among them, on horseback, Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Amid the Christian warriors are Charlemagne, St. George, and Godefroy de Bouillon.

On the external panels of the Ghent Altarpiece shutters are the Angels of the Annunciation and the Holy Virgin, and beneath St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, with the portraits of Judocus Vyts and his wife Isabel Borluut on either side.

Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Hubert and Jan van Eyck
The Ghent Altarpiece (Detail)
St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

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