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Friday, February 4, 2011

The Ghent Altarpiece

What Michelangelo was to painting in the South, Jan van Eyck was in the North. Although a couple generations older than Michelangelo (he was more nearly a contemporary of Masaccio) not only did he practically invent oil painting, but he was to be the primary inventor of Flemish painting as well. His influence was the dominant force in the work of this geographical area at least until the advent of Rembrandt 200 years later. Although he is probably best remembered for his Arnolfini Marriage, painted in 1434, his real masterpiece is the Ghent Altarpiece, painted a couple years before.  The work is a folding polyptych.  That means it is made up of several different panels (twelve in all), hinged to fold in such a way that the two side units fold toward the center like doors.  And on the back of these doors are another twelve painted panels.

The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, Jan van Eyck
 Opened up, the work is massive.  It is 11.5 feet tall and 18 feet wide, painted in oils, and currently the centerpiece of the St. Babo Cathedral in Ghent. The work has a colorful history, once having been nearly destroyed by the Calvinists. It was dismantled in 1816 when some of the panels were sold, while the remainder was damaged by fire in 1822. It was finally reassembled in 1922.  The work is organized on two levels. The upper tier depicts Christ enthroned, wearing a triple tiara, in the center panel, flanked on the left by Mary and on the right by John the Baptists.  On the "doors," on either side, are angels playing musical instruments, while on the far left and right, are full-length, nude portraits of Adam and Eve. Over their heads are small monochromatic paintings of the sacrifices of Cain and Abel on the left and the killing of Abel by Cain on the right.

On the lower tier, in the same infinite detail characterizing Flemish paintings, is a single, panoramic scene spread over five panels depicting the "Adoration of the Lamb." The lower tier alone has over one-hundred individual figures ranging from full length foreground figures to mere heads in the crowd groupings. In the backgrounds are cities, cathedrals, and all manner of exotic plant life; all painted with the same exacting realism pioneered by van Eyck and destined to become the hallmark of the Northern Renaissance. The overall effect is so hard to describe as to demand comparison in terms of color, detail, and scope to a modern-day motion picture.  Nearly a hundred years after its completion, no less an artistic personage than Albrecht Durer viewed the altarpiece and declared it "stupendous."  Perhaps art historian, Erwin Panofsky, said it best regarding Van Eyck, "His eye was at one and the same time a microscope and a telescope."

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