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Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (1 of 2)

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11’ 5” x 7’ 6” (Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy" Beth: We're going to have a look at the Ghent Altarpiece. Steven: It is absolutely breathtaking and it's really complicated. Beth: It is. It's made up of many, many panels. It's a polyptych and those panels are connected by hinges so they open and close. Steven: Which means that we see this set of paintings in two distinct ways. We either see it opened or closed. This is important because I think it would be closed much of the year and opened on feast days as a kind of revelation. Beth: This would have had an elaborate frame. Steven: There's some controversy about actually who painted it. This is generally ascribed to Jan Van Eyck. Some suggest that his brother Hubert may have [done] it. The frame was lost presumably during the iconoclasm, that is the attacks on Catholic art during the Reformation. Beth: And we also know that this painting is much coveted by the Nazis and was actually stored in a salt mine. We're lucky we still have it today. We have at the top some figures with scrolls and books. Those are prophets and sybils who predicted the coming of Christ, the coming of the Messiah. The moment that they predicted is actually unfolding right below them, and that is the scene of the Annunciation where the angel Gabriel is announcing to Mary that she is about to conceive Christ. Steven: Gabriel over on the left panel, Mary, three panels to the right, and then wonderfully empty space, not empty, in fact, this fabulous cityscape and then a kind of still life on the right middle panel, but nevertheless an unoccupied set of spaces that suggest the opportunity for Christ's arrival. Beth: And we have the usual trappings of the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel holds lilies, which are a symbol of Mary's purity, her sinlessness, her virginity. The angel Gabriel announces, and you can actually see words coming out of the angel's mouth in Latin; "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women." Mary on the other side with the dove above her head which represents the Holy Spirit, and words coming out of her mouth. Her reply to the angel Gabriel coming out backwards, right to left instead of left to right, and upside down, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord." Backwards makes sense, right, because she's speaking back to the angel. It's very interesting that the words are also upside down. Steven: It makes us question who she's speaking to, doesn't it? Beth: Perhaps to God who's looking from above. Steven: Everything in this set of panels is very concrete and absolutely physical, and yet those words, because they're gold, but also because they're not attached to anything physically represented, are wonderfully ethereal and speak to God. Beth: There is that tension between the writing which is a very medieval thing to do. It reinforces the flatness of the image, and yet there's a tension between that and as you said, the physicality of everything else; a sense of space, the objects that are depicted are incredibly real as the light reflects on them, that cityscape that goes out into a distance where we can see figures, shadows, buildings, birds or that still life on the right where we see the sunlight from the windows beautifully reflected, attention to detail that is very unique to the northern Renaissance. Steven: These artists were miniaturists and that attention to detail comes through even on this large scale, but we don't want to say that this is the kind of naturalism or realism that we would have seen develop at this very time in Italy because it's not. We're seeing a kind of awkward linear perspective and the figures themselves look as if they might bump their heads if they actually stood up in this room. Beth: This space seems to rush back and also, we're not seeing an attention to the reality of the human body that we would have seen in the Italian Renaissance. We have a kind of drapery that seems to have a life of its own with lots of angular folds. It almost seems to hide the body underneath. We should say that the altar piece is 11 and a half feet high. It's really large. It's made for a private chapel in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent that belonged to the patrons who we see below. Steven: So we have four figures or two figures and then two sculptures, but that in and of itself raises a really interesting visual trickery. We take the figures who are dressed in red as real people, and then the sculptures in the middle carved of stone, but of course, this is all paint. Beth: The figures who are represented as sculptures are the two Saint Johns. I think they had particular relevance for the chapel and for the family. It's also interesting to look at the patrons because there's that thing that you always see in the northern Renaissance which is this amazing ability to represent different textures because of course, the artist are using oil paint. So that fur on his collar really seems like fur and his skin really seems like skin of an old man. Steven: And of course, oil paint will have a profound impact on the sense of this painting, but especially when we open it up. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy"