One of the greatest masterpieces ever painted, the Ghent Altarpiece (also known as the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”) was created in the 15th century by Flemish brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. While broad appeal is not the only necessary indicator of merit, it is, in my opinion, one of them. This being so, the Adoration of the Lamb passes the test with flying colors – it is the second most visited and viewed work of art in history (after the Mona Lisa).
My consideration of it was prompted by the publication of a book about the altarpiece. Called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb it is published by Ignatius Press and Magnificat (the one that produces a portable Liturgy of the Hours, sent out monthly). The book is excellent resource with large (12in x 12in) reproductions of details, which are as sumptuous as I have ever seen. The commentary, written by French art historian Frabrice Hadjadj is excellent in its description of the historical background, provenance; and in the details of the content, viewing it as a pedagogical tool. Every figure is identified and every Latin inscription is translated.
In this article I want to consider additional elements that come into consideration of the altarpiece as a piece of liturgical art, focusing especially on how its design, use of medium and gothic style are in harmony with its purpose of promoting the right worship of God. These are the things that an artist, or patron need to be aware of if creating news works of liturgical art suited to their purpose.
I was invited by Chris Carstens, the new editor of Adoremus Bulletin to write a review of the book, and what I present here is an adaptation of what I wrote for him. I would recommend, by the way that this is read in conjunction with Chris’s excellent accompanying piece contained in the bulletin, called Mystagogy of the Lamb in which he explains in detail the meaning of symbol of the lamb for Christians.
Looking now at the famous reredos: when the panels are closed we see, painted largely in monochrome, white and graded tones of sepia through to black, a depiction of the Annunciation watched by a congregation of figures, including two Sybils, the prophets Zachariah and Micah, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Also making an anachronistic appearance in the scene are the Van (Read More)