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Van Eyck, The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment

Met curator Maryan W. Ainsworth on the sense of sound in Jan van Eyck’s The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment, c. 1435–40.

These exquisite paintings, juxtaposing Christ's sacrifice for the salvation of mankind with the Last Judgment, are by Jan van Eyck, the most celebrated painter of fifteenth-century Europe, and an assistant. The Crucifixion is presented as an eyewitness account set against a distant landscape, astonishing for its depth and subtlety of description. By contrast, the Last Judgment is organized hieratically in three tiers, with the scale of the figures manipulated to indicate their relative importance. The biblical texts on the original frames relate specifically to the scenes depicted, establishing a play between word and image that would have been admired by contemporaries.

View this work on metmuseum.org

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    At , the narrator says the two paintings were part of a "former triptych". Is there any information on what the third missing painting looked like?
    (6 votes)
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    • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
      I've heard that it could have been a nativity scene or an adoration of the magi scene if there even was a middle painting. Noboby can seem to agree if there was one or not. It's still an ongoing debate I believe.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I hate to even conjure this up in to my imagination, but all those torture scenes...could they have been based on the reality of torture in the days of Jan Van Eyck's paintings? I know the 15th century wasn't particularly known for it's championing of civil rights so I do not think this is too much of a stretch...scary, but I think this could be true, no?
    (2 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Inger Hohler
      Unfortunately I'm convinced you are right. Metering out punishment in the form of public torture was a part of the various European legal systems far into the 1800's, if not longer. While he may not have gone to the length of witnessing torture to extract confessions it is unlikely that he would have been unaware of the practice, and very likely that he would have seen the results of brutal punishments. In Norway people could be sentenced to burning, branding, whipping and loss of limbs carried out in public up to 1842 - but in practice it seems as if except for public whipping these forms of punishments were largely abandoned in the very beginning of the 19th century.
      (3 votes)

Video transcript

I suspect that visitors are drawn to the early Netherlandish paintings because they offer a sense of calm and tranquility. But there is one pair of paintings that is not at all quiet. I hear really a cacophony of sounds coming from van Eyck’s Crucifixion and from The Last Judgment, a former triptych, the centerpiece of which is missing. Van Eyck has really broken the silence. Jan van Eyck has made the psychological content of the two paintings so immediately accessible— even the insignificant details, they’re so carefully observed. Cumulus clouds and cirrus clouds above suggest shifting winds. Horses neigh loudly in response to the commotion. There’s a whole different sense of sound where the Virgin collapses. This is really but a weak din compared to the diabolical invention of the hell scene. Every imaginable torture: the cracking and breaking of the bones; the gnashing of teeth of the monsters, relentless in their pursuit, raise the noise level; above, the quaking earth and the opening of the tombs that release the saved souls; surging waves of the ocean that propel other souls onto the shore. It becomes quieter as you look into the heavenly realms: the patiently waiting elect, the angels with their trumpets blaring. We hear the music. And it all stems from his remarkable skills of observation. Of course, he didn’t observe the real places, if there are, but he observed things in life that are like that and all of the emotions that come to play. And the emphasis seems less sacred and more human. That’s perhaps where we catch a glimpse of ourselves.