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Ghent Altarpiece

Polyptych by Jan and Hubert van Eyck / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also called the Ghent Altarpiece (Dutch: De aanbidding van het Lam Gods),[upper-alpha 1] is a very large and complex 15th-century polyptych altarpiece in St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. It was begun around the mid-1420s and completed by 1432, and it is attributed to the Early Netherlandish painters and brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The altarpiece is considered a masterpiece of European art and one of the world's treasures, it was “the first major oil painting,” and it marked the transition from Middle Age to Renaissance art.[2]

The twelve interior panels. This open view measures 5.2 x 3.75 m.[1]
Closed view, back panels.

The panels are organised in two vertical registers, each with double sets of foldable wings containing inner and outer panel paintings. The upper register of the inner panels represent the heavenly redemption, and include the central classical Deësis arrangement of God (identified either as Christ the King or God the Father), flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. They are flanked in the next panels by angels playing music and, on the far outermost panels, the figures of Adam and Eve. The central panel of the lower register shows a gathering of saints, sinners, clergy, and soldiers attendant at an adoration of the Lamb of God. There are several groupings of figures, overseen by the dove of the Holy Spirit.[upper-alpha 2] The four lower panels of the closed altar are divided into two pairs; sculptural grisaille paintings of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, and on the two outer panels, donor portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut; in the upper row are the archangel Gabriel and the Annunciation, and at the very top are the prophets and sibyls. The altarpiece is one of the most renowned and important artworks in European history.

Art historians generally agree that the overall structure was designed by Hubert during or before the mid-1420s, probably before 1422, and that the panels were painted by his younger brother Jan. Yet, while generations of art historians have attempted to attribute specific passage to either brother, no convincing separation has been established,[3] it may be that Jan finished panels begun by Hubert.

The altarpiece was commissioned by the merchant and Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lysbette as part of a larger project for the Saint Bavo Cathedral chapel. The altarpiece's installation was officially celebrated on 6 May 1432. It was much later moved for security reasons to the principal cathedral chapel, where it remains.

Indebted to the International Gothic as well as Byzantine and Romanic traditions, the altarpiece represented a significant advancement in western art, in which the idealisation of the medieval tradition gives way to an exacting observation of nature[4] and human representation. A now lost inscription on the frame stated that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck—calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art)—completed it in 1432.[5] The altarpiece is in its original location, while its original, very ornate, carved outer frame and surround, presumably harmonizing with the painted tracery, was destroyed during the Reformation; it may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music.