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Van Eyck, The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment

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.