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The Ghent Altarpiece Speaks: David Clayton Reviews Magnificat’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Frabrice Hadjadj. Magnificat (New York 2015), 96 pp., $39.95.

One of the greatest masterpieces ever painted, the Ghent Altarpiece, created in the 15th century by Flemish brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, is the second most viewed work of art in the world (after Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa).

And now, about 500 years later, thanks to French art historian Frabrice Hadjadj, the world has easy access to this masterpiece through his newly published book The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

Taking its title from the official name of the Ghent masterpiece, this richly illustrated monograph is not another coffee table book. Once the reader discovers its treasures, the book will be in reader’s laps more often than on the coffee table. Replete with beautifully realized photography and commentary by Hadjadj, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb provides readers with a personal tour of this storied altar’s finer points and overall grandeur.

Word and image

The book’s photography alone—some of the most beautiful reproductions of the altarpiece available—is worth the price of the book. The images and Hadjadj’s words gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of the Ghent Altarpiece. With ample room in its 12-inch- by-12-inch girth, the book highlights numerous carefully chosen details of the altar (certainly enough details for this reader, who has never seen the original). The photography is particularly noteworthy for grasping the Van Eycks’ sublime skills. (Both Van Eyck brothers are credited with the work’s creation, but because Hubert died early on in the process, historians credit Jan as the altarpiece’s primary craftsman.) In addition, the book’s editors provide a removable glossy card that depicts a two-sided photographic reproduction of the whole reredos. This card also opens and closes, emulating the hinged design of the original.

Yet, as sumptuous as the book is to the eye and the mind, I approached this book with more than just intellectual or aesthetic curiosity; as a Catholic artist, I wanted to understand how the style and composition of such a great work engages the worshipper during the liturgy. 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 important to Christ—and to the Van Eycks—the prophets Zachariah and Micah, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and two sibyls. Also making an anachronistic appearance in the scene are the Van Eycks’ Dutch patrons, Joos and Isabelle Vijd. To include one’s patrons in a work of art is a typical device for honoring those whose generosity helped make a work of art possible.

While the figures of the two Johns in the scene are depicted as stone statues lacking life, the doors opened onto a scene that is, in contrast, glorious and bright with color, and dominated by the two largest central panels. The lower panel contains an image from which the whole piece takes its name, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In this scene, the heavenly hosts adore the Lamb of God—Christ—standing ‘as if slain’ (as it is cryptically described by the Book of Revelation (5:6)). Above this scene is the figure of God enthroned who looks down blessing us with his right hand. There is some ambiguity as to whether this figure is intended to be the Son or the Father, a detail that I will discuss later. This image of God is flanked on the left by Our Lady, as Queen of Heaven, and in contrast to the monochrome rendering of her in the altar’s Annunciation scene, she is painted here in gorgeous blue. On the right of the enthroned figure of God is John the Baptist, now painted in vivid apple-green robes.

On each upper extreme of the painting, Adam stands on the left and Eve on the right, looking inwards at the redemptive act which reversed the destructive results of their own disobedience and exile from Eden. The Van Eycks depict our first parents after the Fall, hiding their full nudity with hands and fig leaves in deep shadow. In accordance with tradition, Adam and Eve are not yet redeemed, unlike the saints in the scene, who emit a saintly light with minimal shadow cast around them.

The Van Eycks’ manipulation of contrasting shadow, light and color conforms to the tradition in which shadow represents the presence of evil and suffering in a fallen world, and Light represents “overcoming the darkness.” Also, the lack of vegetation and life in the image when the panels are closed points up a time prior to the historical life, death and resurrection of Christ. This wasteland of sin is contrasted with the lush garden of Paradise restored in the interior image (when the panels are opened) with plants in full bloom.

Comment and response

The commentary in the book has good, clearly presented information about the content of the painting. Hadjadj systematically goes through the piece, panel by panel, so that all the figures are identified, and each inscription is translated and explained. We are told the prophesies of the prophets and of the sibyls (pagan figures who represent the Gentiles; their prophesies in classical Roman literature were seen by the Church Fathers as anticipating the coming of the Messiah).

The commentary explains the strongly Eucharistic themes of the altar. Most obviously, the figure of the Baptist evokes his words, “Behold the Lamb of God,” in a Eucharistic context. Nevertheless, Hadjadj could have placed even greater emphasis on some more broadly liturgical aspects of the masterpiece. Liturgical art is not intended primarily as decoration or even to teach us about the underlying theology in the liturgy, although it does fulfil these functions. Rather, liturgical art is an integral part of the liturgy itself, revealing those aspects of the ritual that we cannot immediately perceive. For example, when the panels of this work are opened we see the heavenly hosts who join us here on earth, in reality, through the sacred liturgy in perpetual worship of God. At that moment, art assists our temporal participation in heaven’s eternal reality.

Father and Son

Despite its title, the Ghent altarpiece is not only about the adoration of the Lamb, but also about the worship of the Father, through the Son—the Lamb of God—in the Spirit. When we worship God in the liturgy we are drawn into the mystery of the Trinity. The altarpiece reinforces this point.

This focus on God the Father explains also the ambiguous depiction of God I mentioned earlier. As Hadjadj explains, in some respects the figure of God has the characteristics of the Son—his youth for one thing—and in other respects, the figure has attributes generally associated with the symbolism of God the Father, such as his attire and crown. Upon further consideration, this ambiguity seems intentional. It appears to be a depiction of the Father seen through our understanding of the Son. Perhaps we are meant to take the figure as both Father and Son at once. Other things in the painting point to the Trinitarian mystery. For instance, the sun is rising in the east above the horizon, which is the symbol of the risen Christ—Christ in glory. But the viewer only sees half of the sun. Its upper half is replaced by that curiously ambiguous image of God. Perhaps it is the Son enthroned, the “visible image of the invisible God.” Through Christ, the Ghent piece seems to say, we see the Father.

But further details of that fiery semi-circle also reward study. Within the image of the rising sun there is a dove, which represents the Holy Spirit. So, not only do we see the Father, through the Son, but we also see him in the Spirit. To emphasize this point, we see rays of light, lines of gold leaf emanating from the Spirit that touch all of those who are gathered. We who participate in the earthly liturgy are part of the mystical Body of Christ and, like the adoring saints and angels in the painting, are touched by the uncreated light of divinity.

Interactive art

At the time the Van Eycks were working, how would congregations have engaged with this painting in the liturgy itself? The Ghent altarpiece is a reredos, a painting or program of images installed behind the altar. According to some liturgical historians, the reredos developed in the Roman Rite in the Middle Ages because of the growing liturgical emphasis on the visible elevation of the host and chalice by the priest. As a backdrop to this event, the reredos is intended to draw our attention to the elevation and to increase our understanding of what is happening.

Therefore, an artist who paints a reredos should be aware of two things. First, at this critical point in the Mass, the images behind the visible elevated host should illuminate the fact that Christ is really present with us. Second, the portion of the reredos which serves as backdrop for the elevated host ought to allow us to see the small white circular wafer in clear relief. Hadjadj does not tell us what we would see at the point of elevation if we were in the congregation gathered before the Ghent altar. Which part of the Ghent image is designed to serve as a backdrop for the host? Is it designed, for example, to be contrasted with the green of the foliage or with the effusive red that colors the altar’s face. I like to think that the Van Eycks designed their altar so that at the elevated host appears directly in front of the rising sun, straddling the conjunction of the two panels, the one featuring the sacrificial Lamb and the other presenting the glorified Christ-cum- God the Father. It is exciting to think that at the point of elevation the congregation would see the golden rays of the semi-sun as if they were emanating from the host itself.

Because the reredos is no longer in its original location but in a side chapel and no longer services the liturgy, we do not know exactly what worshippers would have seen. We also have no information about when the reredos panels would have been opened or closed in the course of ordinary use. In the Middle Ages, churches commonly displayed monochrome images during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, and brightly colored panels for Easter and the rest of the year. If the cathedral in Ghent that housed the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, then during these periods prior to Christmas and Easter, the panels would have been closed so that congregations saw only the Annunciation scene. What the congregation saw, then, would be doubly appropriate because just as the doors’ staid colors serve as prelude to the celebratory colors of the altar’s interior, so too Advent and Lent anticipate Christ’s coming. The biblical scene that inaugurated the Incarnation is a fitting way to enhance this anticipation. Nevertheless, without precise information, it is difficult to say how the painting helped those attending Mass relate to the liturgy’s celebration.

Hadjadj is puzzled that the Ghent altar’s scheme contains no image of the crucifixion. But since this reredos was very likely not the only image in the church, it was probably painted to be seen in relation to all other images that were present – including that of a crucifixion elsewhere in the church. During the Middle Ages, altar rails were customarily expanded upwards into a chancel or ‘rood’ screen—which consisted of transparent tracery and was often carved in wood. This screen would often be surmounted by a sculptural representation of the crucifixion (the word ‘rood’ is an old English word for cross). If there was something similar in the Ghent cathedral, then the congregation would have been able to see all three: the Lamb, the enthroned figure of God and the crucifixion simultaneously. After the Council of Trent, the call to make the celebration of the Mass more visible to the faithful resulted in many chancel screens being removed (although in fact they weren’t condemned explicitly). I believe Ghent underwent this same sort of revision.

Art and time

According to most art historians, the Van Eyck’s painting style is described as part of the “Northern Renaissance.” Whatever we call their style, it is to my mind more a culmination of the Gothic that preceded the Northern Renaissance than it is an anticipation of the High Renaissance that followed this interim period of art. Certainly, like the Renaissance style, it is highly naturalistic. But this increased interest in natural appearances and curiosity about the natural world did not begin with the Renaissance or with the Van Eycks. More than two hundred years prior, the newly rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle, among other things, inspired men to look anew at the natural world.

What links the Van Eycks to the Gothic stylistically is the sense of emotional distance between the figure and the observer in their work. The whole Gothic movement has this same sense of emotional distance as the the iconographic styles that preceded them. Although sometimes we do observe some emotion in the figures, these emotions do not engage us directly; we are still in some way detached, observing from a distance. In capturing the dynamic of the observer’s interaction with the image, the beauty of the painting draws us in and we want to engage, but we cannot because that distance is inherent within the composition and style. It is there even if we have our noses pressed against the panel. Our desire to be part of what we see then takes our attention beyond the painting to the reality that it portrays, which in the Ghent altarpiece is nothing less than heaven itself. The Van Eycks’ painting first pulls us in and then it sends us up to heaven. This dynamic, paralleling the action of prayer, is built into the style of the painting and is part of what makes the fruit of the artist’s skills stylistically appropriate for the liturgy.

In his commentary Hadjadj refers to this Gothic connection but also compares this 15 th century work to that of 20th century artists such as Barnett Newman, Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko. Such comparisons are unconvincing—there is little or no correspondence in the working methods, style, content or worldview between these artists and the Van Eycks.

Every artist needs to know that truth is communicated through style as much as it is through content. Therefore, any representation of man must indicate both the visible and the invisible aspects of man— his body and his soul. Furthermore, a Christian artist must paint man so that he is recognizably human—the image must look like a person. At the same time the artist must indicate invisible truths (the soul, holiness, heaven, etc.) by deviating from a strict adherence to physical appearances. Through such a controlled partial abstraction of the concrete, the artist reveals a fuller truth about the human person. How an artist executes this abstraction allows us to recognize an artist’s characteristic style.

Timeless style

The process of such a style can be executed with greater and lesser degrees of success. Pope Benedict XVI describes the three authentic liturgical traditions—iconographic, Gothic and Baroque— as communicating this balance of physical naturalism and spiritual abstraction well. Good Christian art is always a controlled balance between the representation of the physical appearances, and partial abstraction by which, symbolically, the soul is revealed. (Any artists or lovers of art who are interested in knowing more about this process and how Christian artists have done accomplished it in the past should read my book, The Way of Beauty.)

This artistic process is done badly by swinging too far in one direction or another. Either the artist renders an excessive naturalism on the one hand—too much body, so to speak, and not enough soul—or on the other hand the artist neglects appearances, leading to a grave inhuman abstraction—that is, a distortion of nature, human or otherwise.

The 20th century artists have a worldview that is governed by a dualism in which the spiritual aspects of man are exaggerated at the expense of the physical. These modern artists were not reflecting a Christian anthropology, and they knew it—the explicit aim of abstract expressionists exhibited by Newman and Rothko was to represent man as pure disembodied spirit. The corollary to this is the style known as photorealism in which there is total neglect of the spiritual and only the material aspects of man are considered and represented.

While there is always room for new and fresh art, no matter what style, Christian art must reflect this balance between body and soul. Pius XII said as much in Mediator Dei (195): “Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the Church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism nor to excessive ‘symbolism,’ and that the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration rather than the particular taste or talent of the individual artist.”

As far as our understanding of the Ghent altarpiece is concerned, Van Eyck painted in the Gothic style, which means his work was both naturalistic and also incorporated a symbolic element. While the surface of each object he paints is represented in exquisite and minute detail, the overall form of what he paints, the substrate to which all that detail is fused, is appropriately stylized according to Gothic sensibilities so as to imbue the subject with a sense of the sacred. One of these Gothic aspects is compositional—that portrayal of the figures in the middle distance (already described above), which creates a particular dynamic of interaction with the observer, especially in the context of prayer.

Figuring the soul

Another Gothic aspect is found in the form of the figures. In many ways the Gothic is a naturalized form of the iconographic tradition that began in the early Church. This gradual increase in the naturalism of painted figures follows from the late Romanesque/early Gothic art of the 13th century (as in this illumination from the Westminster Psalter), through later Gothic art (such as the work of Duccio), and culminates in the work of such Flemish artists as the Van Eycks.

Even today, what is true and good radiates with glory from the Van Eyck’s work. When we perceive this quality in art, or anything else for that matter, we call it beautiful. And that beauty is irresistible. This is the message of John Paul II’s Letter or Artists and the numerous writing about the via pulchritudinis—the Way of Beauty—by Benedict XVI. Thus, the Van Eycks can teach artists, even today, that if people are not climbing over each other eager to see an artist’s work, the reason is simple. It is not beautiful enough.

For proof of this truth, I suggest we need look no further than the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Hundreds of years after it was painted, this altarpiece is still the second most viewed painting in history. When it comes to beauty, modern man has voted with his feet—or to be more precise, with his eyes and his mind.

David Clayton is the newly appointed Provost of Pontifex University, the Catholic online education provider currently at pilot stage; he is a visiting fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH; and author of the book The Way of Beauty published by Angelico Press in 2015.

Magnificat’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb costs $39.95 and can be purchased through www.magnificat.com.

David Clayton

David Clayton is the newly appointed Provost of Pontifex University, the Catholic online education provider currently at pilot stage; he is a visiting fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH; and author of the book The Way of Beauty published by Angelico Press in 2015.