The Ghent Altarpiece: Details Of A Masterpiece

Discover the secrets of Jan van Eyck’s greatest masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece: a sublime example of Northern Renaissance art and the most stolen painting in history.

Jul 16, 2020By Jordan Cook, MA Medieval Studies, BA (Hons) English Literature
god enthroned jan van eyck ghent altarpiece
Detail of the Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, more commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is probably the most famous painting of the Northern Renaissance. The subject of both imitation and pilgrimage, the altarpiece was well-known throughout Europe even within the artist’s lifetime. When, in 1432, churchgoers first gazed upon the Ghent Altarpiece, they would have been astounded by its unprecedented naturalism. Even 600 years later, in an era of photorealistic animation, we cannot deny Jan van Eyck’s supreme ability to mimic reality. Read on to learn about the altarpiece’s individual panels, discover easily missed details, and better understand the remarkable legacy of van Eyck’s illustrious artwork


The Ghent Altarpiece by (Hubert and) Jan van Eyck


engraving jan van eyck hubert
Engraved portraits of Jan van Eyck and brother Hubert van Eyck, 1600, via Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp


Although the Ghent Altarpiece is considered to be Jan van Eyck’s greatest masterpiece, the painting was, in fact, a collaboration between Jan and his older brother, Hubert. We know this because an inscribed, Latin poem at the base of the altarpiece was discovered in 1823. Translated, the poem reads: “the painter Hubert van Eyck, a greater man than whom cannot be found, began this work. Jan, his brother, second in art, completed this weighty task at the request of Joos Vijd. He invites you with this verse, on the sixth of May [1432], to look at what has been done.” Hubert van Eyck sadly died before the painting’s completion; it is thought he contributed to the compositional design, but that Jan van Eyck painted most of the painting after his death. While we know a lot about Jan van Eyck, as he rose to international fame during his lifetime and garnered substantial renown in the centuries that followed, significantly less is known about Hubert van Eyck. 


Due to its scale and complexity (350 x 470 cm when open), the Ghent Altarpiece took six years to complete. Commissioned in the mid-1420s, it was not finished until 1432. The altarpiece is among the greatest polyptychs ever made and consists of eighteen panels depicting lifelike donor-portraits alongside biblical figures and scenes.  


The Ghent Altarpiece: Closed

closed ghent altarpiece
Ghent Altarpiece (closed) by Jan van Eyck, 1432,  St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Not all of the panels can be seen at one time, as they constitute doors that would have been opened and closed during the ritual of the Mass. You may have been lucky enough to witness the performance that is the opening of the altarpiece at St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. St. Bavo’s, known as the Church of Saint John the Baptist in the fifteenth century, is the very church the altarpiece was intended for and, aside from time spent in restoration, it still resides there today. As the Ghent Altarpiece was only opened during Mass, the painting would, therefore, have spent most of its early life closed. When shut, the altarpiece displays three core scenes: donor portraits, imitation statues, and an impressive Annunciation scene. 


The Donor Portraits

ghent altarpiece donors portrait
Detail of the donors in the Ghent Altarpiece (closed) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck  


In the fifteenth century, paintings were almost always the product of commission. Wealthy individuals would pay artists to design and paint an image that they would then donate to a religious institution to demonstrate their pious generosity. Often, the commission would request the inclusion of a donor portrait, in appreciation of the virtuous individual who donated the painting and who had likely paid for parts of the church building itself. The Ghent Altarpiece was originally installed above the altar of a chantry chapel founded by Joos Vijd and his wife Elizabeth Borluut. The two also commissioned the altarpiece, and Jan van Eyck has painted two extremely lifelike portraits of Joos and Elizabeth. Both are shown kneeling with their hands clasped in prayer: the most common pose in painted portraits and would – once again – demonstrate the devout nature of their character. Since the painting’s recent restoration, new secrets have come to the fore, and we can make out painted cobwebs in the niche behind the kneeling Joos. 


The Grisaille Statues

grisaille statues ghent altarpiece
Details of the donors and grisaille statues in the Ghent Altarpiece (closed) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck 


Between the donor portraits are two painted statues: John the Baptist (left) and John the Evangelist (right). At the time of the Ghent Altarpiece’s conception, its intended church was not yet a cathedral dedicated to St. Bavo but rather the Church of Saint John the Baptist. It makes sense, then, that one of the two statues on the exterior panels would depict John the Baptist, as well as the other prominent saint that shared his name. You might notice how realistic the statues appear, seemingly projecting from their inscribed plinths. This realism is partly down to Jan van Eyck’s employment of grisaille: the method of painting entirely in black, white, and grey monotones. Grisaille was most commonly used to mimic sculpture, as demonstrated here, and was frequently found on the exterior panels of altarpieces. In fact, it was conventional to make an altarpiece’s exterior panels monochromatic, even dull, in color to directly contrast with the colorful panels inside. Note how even in the Annunciation panels, described below, there is a limited color palette, with both figures dressed in white robes. 


The Annunciation

ghent altarpiece annunciation
Annunciation detail in the Ghent Altarpiece (closed) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck 


Jan van Eyck’s inclusion of an Annunciation in the Ghent Altarpiece is not a unique one. The moment where the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was among the most popular biblical episodes exhibited in medieval and Renaissance altarpieces. 


Here, Jan van Eyck has drawn upon an established manuscript tradition of depicting the episode in an interior space, assumed to be the Virgin’s chamber. Usually, the Virgin Mary and Gabriel are separated by some form of threshold or architectural structure. Indeed, the enclosed or inaccessible nature of the Virgin’s space was directly intended to reflect the enclosed nature of Mary’s own virginal body. 


In this case, the architectural interior, with a view out onto a populated city, that Jan van Eyck has created for the Annunciation is impeccable in its naturalism, and unparalleled in its attention to detail. While Van Eyck is, indeed, building upon established traditions, his interpretation of the Annunciation in the Ghent Altarpiece marks the transition towards naturalism in art history. Even the wooden frames further the illusion of reality: designed to look like weathered stone, the frames cast shadows into the Virgin’s chamber. The painted shadows are compatible with the actual light in the chapel in which the painting resided, illustrating how Van Eyck took the altarpiece’s intended location into account during painting, to avoid disrupting the illusion of reality. 


The Ghent Altarpiece: Open

ghent altarpiece
Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


The opened Ghent Altarpiece is a wonder to behold. In a moment of ceremony and performance, the dulled, almost monochromatic color scheme of the exterior panels is banished in an explosion of color. When open, all the lower panels create a continuous landscape, where crowds of people travel from all areas of the earth to witness the Lamb of God upon the altar. There seems to be a stark contrast between the lower and upper registers of the altarpiece. See how the bottom half consists of vast swaths of countryside, distant cityscapes, and many tiny figures. In contrast, the upper register has fewer portraits, all are significantly larger, and very little background detail aside from ornate floor tiles. 


Different as the two halves may be, the eye can still trace a vertical line from God the Father, enthroned in the upper center, down to the dove of the Holy Spirit, and then the Lamb of God (symbolizing Christ, the Son). The line continues, carrying the blood of the sacrificial Lamb to a fountain, where it trickles through a trench towards the bottom of the altarpiece. In doing so, Jan van Eyck creates a direct correlation between the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, as well as a link between the painted blood of the altarpiece with the actual blood present on the altar below it during Mass. 


The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

adoration of the mystic lamb
Mystic Lamb detail in the Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


The Ghent Altarpiece was made to be just that: to sit upon an altar and be ritually opened at Mass for the priest’s public consecration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist was at the very heart of fifteenth-century Christian doctrine, explaining why the multiple crowds gather around the miracle taking place. Catholic doctrine states that, during Mass, the consecrated bread and wine are transformed (or transubstantiated) into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Due to their heavy association with Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and thereby his complete redemption of humankind, the body and blood are supposed to possess redemptive qualities. 


As such, Jan van Eyck has incorporated both subtle and explicit eucharistic iconography into its design. The lamb, positioned near a wooden cross, bleeds into a eucharistic chalice upon a cloth-adorned altar. Both the cloth and the chalice are contemporary items, common to the fifteenth century, and likely would have resembled the altar and accessories in the painting’s designated chapel. 


Adam and Eve 

adam and eve
Detail of Adam in the Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


Jan van Eyck near-lifesize portraits of Adam and Eve serve to further themes of redemption alluded to in the panels below them. In this case, the two figures demonstrate that which needs redemption: sinful acts. In her hand, Eve holds the strange fruit she is about to eat alluding to her role in the Fall of Man. Above their heads are statuettes showing the murder of Abel his brother Cain – the first instance of murder in the Bible. Through their consumption of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve commit what is known as Original Sin. Christians believe that because of this one action, everyone was henceforth born with Original sin, and heaven was thereby inaccessible to all. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross redeems this sin, thus making it possible for someone to enter heaven and be, at last, reconciled with God. 


Though steeped in Christian symbolism, Adam and Eve also demonstrate Jan van Eyck’s illusionary ability, and what you see here were the first-ever large-scale nude portraits in Northern Europe. Note Adam’s foot, mid-step: the illusion of reality is so strong that he appears about to step out from his painted world, into our own. Even in the sixteenth century, the portraits were considered remarkable – in 1565, Lucas de Heere asked: whoever saw a body painted to resemble real flesh so closely?


Microscopic Detail In The Ghent Altarpiece

details ghent altarpiece
Detail of Adam in the Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


Jan van Eyck illustrates that he is not only able to expertly mimic architectural spaces and inanimate objects but the smallest details of human anatomy. The illusion of reality does not falter upon closer scrutiny, instead, it grows stronger. For example, in this extreme close up of Adam’s chest, we see each of the individual, wispy hairs on his arms, as well as the veins in the hand that crosses his body. Directly below Adam’s hand, we can just make out a faint, vertical line over his ribs. Could this be a scar? Is Jan van Eyck hinting at the biblical explanation for Eve’s creation? 


Heavenly Music

musicians ghent altarpiece
Detail of the donors in the Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


Perhaps one of the most incredible aspects of the Ghent Altarpiece is the angelic musicians. Believe it or not, Jan van Eyck’s attention to detail is so accurate and precise that we can tell what notes are being played on the organ. Historians have also noted that we can tell which of the singing angels is a soprano, alto, tenor, or bass, simply through their painted expressions. 


Not only this but as very little survives in the way of medieval instruments, the Ghent Altarpiece actually offers a wealth of information about medieval objects that may have been lost to history otherwise. However, Early Netherlandish painters, like Van Eyck, sometimes invented fantastical objects and interiors to demonstrate their imaginative and artistic capabilities. So, we can’t always trust what we see!  


The Heavenly Portraits

donors ghent altarpiece
Detail of the donors in the Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


The altarpiece’s design culminates in the heavenly portrait of God Enthroned, or Christ in Majesty, flanked either side by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Christ’s (or God’s) hand is held up in blessing, and he is adorned in priestly vestments. There are many inscriptions in the image, one being on the hem of his red robes, embroidered in gold and pearls, spelling a Greek quote from Revelation: “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” 


All three figures are richly ornamented, dripping in gold-embroidered drapery and shining gems. Indeed, it is a wonderfully ornate image. Behind each of the figures are cloths of honor made from cloth of gold. Luxury textiles were probably the most expensive item you could buy in Renaissance Europe, making them fitting backdrops for a heavenly portrait. 


The Ghent Altarpiece: Restored 

ghent altarpiece restoration
Ghent Altarpiece (closed); left to right: before, during, and after restoration, by Jan van Eyck, 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, via Closer to Van Eyck


Since 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece has been undergoing restoration by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. In the project’s early stages, restorers soon discovered that almost 70% of the altarpiece consisted of overpainting and varnish layers yellowed with age. As evidenced through the image above, the painting has had a miraculous transformation and is finally restored to its original splendor. As part of the restoration project, the painting can be viewed in ultra-high definition at the Closer to Van Eyck website. No painting begs such detailed and concentrated looking more than the Ghent Altarpiece. Despite Jan van Eyck never intending the altarpiece to be inspected so closely, his own eyes seemed to work on a microscopic scale. With its refined symbolism coupled with its unparalleled naturalism, the Ghent Altarpiece truly is a testament to the art of painting. 


Author Image

By Jordan CookMA Medieval Studies, BA (Hons) English LiteratureJordan Cook holds a First-Class BA(Hons) in English Literature and an MA in Medieval Studies. She is currently an AHRC-funded Ph.D. candidate with The National Gallery and the University of York. Her thesis, entitled "Settings and Subjects in Early Netherlandish Painting," interrogates the painted backgrounds of fifteenth-century religious art. Passionate about writing accessible and engaging educational content, Jordan has written scripts for 'Simple History' as well as a curatorial content for York Art Gallery's "Making a Masterpiece" exhibition.