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Current time:0:00Total duration:7:23

Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece (2 of 2)

Video transcript

so let's open it up and take a look inside we're struck immediately by an explosion of rich colors and this is color that's really possible because of the luminousness of oil paint especially in the way that the northerners handled it so there's an incredible sort of material beauty that is very palpable as soon as one opens it up and we're it struck immediately by this very large figure in the center of God the Father dressed like a king with a papal crown on his head a crown at his feet to show that he's King of Kings holding a scepter a symbol of power that sceptre is exquisite it's so clearly rendered out of rock crystal and the crown at his feet is an amazing display of jewelry design of jewelry making and if we look past the exterior of the ground to the inside of it we can actually see how it was hammered from the inside out we have a theme running through here of God's saving grace God's saving power his plan to forgive and redeem mankind that issue is so critical here and this is one of the early great examples of God being remade in what we will come to know as the Renaissance as opposed to the earlier medieval god that was wrathful was terrifying here we have a God that is a God of forgiveness and it is an expression of the humanist tradition that is developing in Europe at this time and on either side of God we have on the Left Mary we're also wearing crown looking like a queen crown his roses and lilies in it and on the right st. John the Baptist and to go back to that theme of God's Redemption and forgiveness in that gold embroidery which we have in that tapestry behind God the Father an image of a pelican in the medieval tradition the pelican if it's young we're starving it was believed to pick it its own flesh to feed its young this notion of God making this extraordinary sacrifice is explicitly rendered here on the Left we have the angel singing in heaven I'm right the Angels playing music in heaven so we have this not only incredibly rich environment visually of gold and jewels also the sounds of heaven if you look at the choir on the left and look at the richly carved furniture of music stand and on the right of the organ I imagine that this is some indication of what the original frame of this painting might have looked like one of the things I really love is that each of the angels were it's a different crown on the left as they sing and they make slightly different faces that you can tell the different notes that they're each singing even though their faces are actually quite similar it because they become a kind of I imagine a kind of ideal of beauty and Vanek's imagination and then we go a little bit further out we see the panel's of Adam and Eve for represented very realistically very deeply human in their bodies not at all idealized the way that we would see with masaccio or the artists of the Italian Renaissance of course the artists of the Northern Renaissance don't have ancient Greek and Roman sculpture everywhere to look at which would suggest the tradition of idealizing or making perfect of the human body and so here Adam and Eve look like two real people that Van Dyck had modeled for him in his studio you have throughout this painting a kind of grandeur and then you have these two figures make it seems so vulnerable they seem so out of place missing so mismatched this painting is really about God's willingness to reach out to man in all of his imperfection and their jarring presence the sense of discord I think is a potent expression of the painters interest in representing God's willingness to reach down to our imperfect world one of the other things that I'm really struck by is the gold embroidery in in the figure on the right who's playing the Oregon in the I'm in on her gown and even the attention that's being paid to the tiles on the floor the pipes of the Oregon we have that thing that happens in the Northern Renaissance or artists pay an enormous amount of attention to things that are seemingly unimportant but we know that the artists of the Northern Renaissance lavish so much attention and care and detail and clarity on objects because they represent the heavenly and the spiritual they link us to the heavenly and the spiritual it does something else as well which is it makes concrete the heavenly world and it makes it so understandable it also makes it very believable and in a sense very tangible and in the scene below and we see an image with four groups of people coming toward a scene at the center which is an altar with a lamb and the lamb has a wound in its side and is bleeding into a chalice because the lamb of course is a symbol of Christ of Christ's sacrifice and yet here we have this lamb that has overcome any earthly pain any earthly suffering and is here functioning in the purely symbolic realm and surrounding that altar we have angels who carry the instruments of Christ's suffering the cross the crown of thorns the column that he was bound to and he was flagellated so we have the sense of sacrifice for man's Redemption and then man these foreign large groups come to pay homage and we have prophets and saints and popes and figures from the Old Testament who all make their way toward Christ and below that the fountain of life which has a stream that leads out and down toward us and toward the altar in the chapel this is all played out in this glorious and divine landscape this gem-like landscape where there's a kind of specificity that is overwhelming visually every leaf is rendered every window pane in the city beyond is rendered you have not only a sense of the magnificence of God's realm but you have the sense of overwhelming aw because our eyes are incapable of taking in this much visual information simultaneously this is a painting that's almost cinema graphic and that you have to look through it over time in order to be able to take it all in is simply too much and so in a way it suggests a kind of vision that transcends human vision a divine vision and in fact one of the things that said about Van Dyck as an artist is that he had an eye like a microscope in a telescope showing us things very far away as though they were under a microscope a kind of vision that only is possible for God so this disjuncture between man's limited vision which we feel as we look at this painting and this notion of God's complete vision through this painting transcending our earthly realm and coming face to face with God