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The Whole of Reality


The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent Altarpiece) (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Located in the Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium.

I’ve been looking forward to talking about this piece for some time. It was an early influence on my own art and is perhaps my favorite work of art. I once made a pilgrimage by train across Germany and into Belgium just to see it. But I’ll admit the obvious: The Ghent Altarpiece is a vast work whose almost infinite riches I cannot hope to do justice to within this space. So instead I’ll examine just one or two of its most significant features.

But first, there is room at least to sketch its outlines.

The Ghent Altarpiece, or to give it its formal title, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was created by the great Flemish artists, brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. There is speculation that Hubert was responsible only for the original ornate Gothic frame, which sadly did not survive the Reformation. In any case, little is known of him, and he died prematurely, leaving his younger brother Jan to complete the work and receive the lion’s share of the credit.

Installed in 1432 in the church of St. John (which later became St. Bavo, Ghent’s cathedral), it received instant acclaim. By 1500 it was a notable tourist attraction, with spectators charged an admission fee by church wardens. There it may still be seen (for 4 euros) in a dedicated chapel.

Revelation’s Pageant

All told, the piece consists of some two dozen painted panels arranged in tiers or registers, spread across the wings and central section of what is basically a large triptych.

With the wings closed, the four panels in the upper register display Gabriel and Mary, both cloaked in voluminous clouds of white robes, enacting the Annunciation in a narrow, low-ceilinged room. The frame seems to cast shadows on the floor in front of them. Their pale forms are complemented in the lower register by the grisaille (painted to look like statues) figures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, along with likenesses of the donor (a Ghentish merchant) and his wife. At the very top are lunettes of the prophets Micah and Zechariah and two sibyls. The color palette is limited, and the effect overall impressive, if somber and confined.

When the doors are opened, however, as they would have been on Sundays and feast days, a spectacular pageant of life and color comes into view.

Christ the King (or God the Father or the Trinity personified, according to some interpretations) sits enthroned in the center of the upper register, flanked by panels containing Mary and the Baptist, two lively companies of musician angels, and full-length portraits of Adam and Eve (the only figures not wearing robes or any other clothing), with small grisaille scenes of Cain and Abel above them.

Extending the full width of the lower register (more than 15 feet!) is a panoramic landscape, green with trees and grass and packed with hundreds of figures. Everything and everyone is focused on the Lamb, who stands on an altar in the middle of it all, surrounded by angels adoring and swinging thuribles. The Holy Spirit as a luminous dove descends upon him from the sky, and the waters of life flow from a fountain in the foreground beneath him. Meanwhile, the apostles and the Evangelists, Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, ancient philosophers, herds of male and female martyrs, saints, popes and clergy, pilgrims (led by a giant St. Christopher), hermits, Christian knights, and the “just judges” converge from far and wide to offer their worship.

A Study in Craft?

All are brought to life with almost microscopic fidelity. Every face is unique, every figure an individual. Nothing is generic or stereotyped. Plants are painted with a botanist’s eye, down to individual leaves, petals, and blades of grass. Many are accurate enough to be identified by species. Far distant features of the landscape, the domes and spires of the heavenly Jerusalem, miniscule birds wheeling in the sky, clods of dirt, the knights’ ornate armor and the horses’ tack, the glint of light on painted jewels and pearls, gold threads in richly embroidered fabrics, stray strands of hair, chin stubble, wrinkles—details too small to be seen from the pews, or even a few feet away, are all precisely, even obsessively rendered with invisible strokes of the brush. It is a stunning display of the painter’s skill.

These abundant forces are marshalled for the instructive purpose of telling the story of man’s fall and Redemption, with discourses on the Incarnation, the sacraments, prophecy, revelation, and so on—familiar enough themes in Christian art, whose meanings have been explored at length in countless theological texts.

They are, in other words, nothing unique to Ghent Altarpiece, nor are they what is distinctive about it as a work of art—which is our proper concern here.

So let us examine two of its standout formal traits, its all-encompassing scope and painstaking realism, and see what they add to the piece.

Of course, it’s possible they add nothing more than visual appeal. They could be accidents of birth, artifacts of the parochial tastes of the van Eycks and their 15th-century audience. Fashion doesn’t need reasons, but since even a more “stylized” or abstract Ghent Altarpiece, or one of simpler construction, could be called upon to tell the same stories and teach the same lessons, one might reasonably wonder if the van Eycks had not engaged themselves in a magnificently superfluous exercise. But surely not.

Its grand scale is suitable to its place and purpose, of course, and its coherent structure usefully hints at the unity and order of Creation. Given these properties and the full narrative range and descriptive realism of the subjects depicted, the Ghent Altarpiece inevitably emerges as a microcosm, something like a combined visual encyclopedia and painted summa. It manages at once to tell the long history of salvation—the only story that really matters—and to display in a great harmony the large and the small, the near and the far, the natural and the supernatural, the past, present, and future, using the most minutely realistic means.


It presents us with, in other words, a complete portrait of what reality is all about, a true likeness, from its visible shapes to its deepest purposes as understood by the artists and taught by the Church.

Portrait painters say making a likeness is not so much about recording the visible face as it is about capturing the heart and soul of their subjects—advice iconographers and other abstract artists follow by ignoring the physical likeness almost completely. Realists don’t have that luxury, but it’s not enough to fool the eye with tricks like cast shadows and paintings that look like statues—not if they want to avoid the insinuation that reality consists only of what is visible, that it does not extend deeper than the material phenomena they represent.

So, ironically, the van Eycks’ extraordinarily faithful rendering of those phenomena is there to convince us that the things they illustrate are, in the real world, substantial, ensouled beings, or if inanimate, at least material bodies endowed with the dignity of their place in God’s plan of creation. By loading up every painted form with as much detail as their brushes can manage, by lavishing attention on the unique individuality of every thing, they are insisting that anything with so splendid an appearance cannot be an empty, meaningless shell.

In his novella The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis does something similar with the “Solid People” who inhabit the heavenly upper world: They are more solid —more fully real because they are full of grace—than their wretched ghostly visitors from the dismal City. The Ghent Altarpiece likewise presents us with a blessed land full of natural creatures like plants and animals and people. It shows us too symbolic figures like the Lamb, supernatural beings like angels in bodily form, and God himself, whose “spiritual solidity” is proclaimed by the tangible reality of their represented features.

The Shape of Reality

The van Eycks’ brand of encyclopedic realism, which epitomizes Northern Renaissance art in general, is routinely contrasted with the idealism of the Italians, who tend to set aside such concrete specificity in favor of abstracted universals. Both are really demonstrations of the same long-running human project: to get at reality—or truth—through art, whether that reality is to be found in things, or ideas, or both. But what a roundabout procedure this is! In artworks like the Ghent Altarpiece we are to gaze upon what is—for all my high-flown praise—an imperfect, limited representation of reality, in order that we might turn to the real reality and see it for what it is. Yes, it is roundabout, and evidently effective, but the trick is not to ignore or discard the solid reality of the art itself along the way.

For there is something of the idealist in all of us: We move easily and rapidly from our first glances at a work of art, from our immediate raw impressions of real colors and shapes, to thoughts about what they look like, what they represent, what they mean. Consequently, the manner of their representation, or the very matter they are made of can assume an air of unimportance, or even unreality.

We Catholics especially are used to looking past the appearances of things like bread and wine to see another level of reality. We are even taught to detach ourselves from the glittering show of this world and to keep our eyes fixed on the next. But without the material world to give them form, there would be no sacraments and no art. And what would we know of the glory of God if the visible heavens, and every material thing under them, did not declare it? The means by which we ascend to the knowledge of God deserve our grateful acknowledgment.

How more tragic then is the destruction of the Ghent Altarpiece’s original frame. While the basic relationship between the various panels and their subjects remains intact, the hierarchical splendor is missing. By some accounts, the original was a huge marble affair with a clockwork mechanism that opened and closed the wings to built-in musical accompaniment. More significantly, as a functional altarpiece it would have incorporated a real altar and a tabernacle housing the actual Lamb of God just below Jan’s vivid replicas.

The Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t just a magnificent work of art, or a multimedia showpiece worth the price of admission, or a catalog of natural and supernatural history, but the living, moving heart of the religious community of Ghent. In it, the division between reality and representation dissolves.

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