Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Adoration of the Lamb

The Adoration of the Lamb

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441). Church of Saint Bavo. Gent.


The ‘Revelation to John’ is a vision of the catastrophic end of the world as enacted by God, the ending called the Apocalypse. You should read the following text and look at the same time at the opened altarpiece of the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’.

The Revelation starts with a scene of the Son of Man dressed in a long robe tied at the waist with a belt of gold. The Son of Man had white head and hair, eyes like a burning flame and feet like burnished bronze, a voice like the sound of the ocean. His face was shining like the sun; he was holding seven stars and out of his mouth came a sharp, double-edged sword. Around him stood seven lamp stands. The Son of Man asked John to give seven messages to the seven churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.

After the messages were delivered and explained, a door opened and John saw the second vision of his ecstasy. He saw a throne standing in heaven and the One who was sitting on the throne looked like a diamond and a ruby. A rainbow looking like an emerald encircled the throne. Round the throne were twenty-four other thrones on which sat the Elders, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their heads. In front of the throne there were seven flaming lamps burning, the seven Spirits of God. In the middle of the throne and around it were four living creatures all studded with eyes in front and behind. The first living creature was like a lion, the second like a bull, the third had a human face and the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each had six wings.

In the right hand of the One sitting on the throne there was a scroll that was written in back and front and was sealed with seven seals. A powerful angel called with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to pen the scroll and break the seals?” Nobody could be found to open it, so John wept. But one of the Elders consoled him and said, “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed and so he will open the scrolls and its seven seals.”

Then John saw in the middle of the throne a Lamb standing that seemed to have been sacrificed. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits that God had sent out over the whole world. Then, an immense number of angels gathered around the throne and they chanted:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was sacrificed
to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing.” G38
All angels, Elders and the four living creatures prostrated themselves in worship.

Then the Lamb broke the seven seals.

The first four seals brought forward four horse riders who the one after the other went from victory to victory, had the power to take away peace from the earth and set people killing each other, had the power to wage war and were death itself.

When the fifth seal was broken, all the souls of the righteous who had been killed on account of the word of God were seen under the throne, each dressed in a white robe.

When the Lamb broke the sixth seal there was an earthquake and the sun went black. Then all the kings of the earth, the governors and commanders, the rich people and the men of influence, the whole population, slaves and citizens, all fled because the end of the world was at hand.

John saw four angels, standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the world. And another angel rose, carrying the seal of the living God. The four angels were to devastate the land and the sea, but a voice told to wait until a seal was put on the foreheads of the servants of God, who numbered a hundred and forty-four thousand, that is twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Then a huge number of people from every nation, race, tribe, and language stood in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hand. They shouted in a loud voice, “Salvation to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” An Elder told John that all the people had been through the great trial; they had washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb. He said the Lamb would be their shepherd and would guide them to the springs of living water, and God would wipe away all the tears from their eyes.

The Lamb then broke the seventh seal.

Seven angels were being given seven trumpets. Another angel came to the altar with a golden censer and a huge quantity of incense. This angel went to the golden altar that stood in front of the throne and from the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense went up in the presence of God and with it the prayers of the saints. The angel filled the censer with fire from the altar, which he hurled down onto the earth. Immediately there were peals of thunder and flashes of lightning and the earth shook. The seven angels with the trumpets now sounded their instruments and all disasters fell to the earth.

Above is an abbreviated version of the first part of the ‘Revelation to John’. It is a terrible story, even though told in a lyrical and epic style of images. The breadth of its vision covers the entire universe and no subsequent text could be grander. Since it tells the end of the world and the coming of the glory of God, not just in pity and love but also in vengeance, its Greek name of the ‘Apocalypse’, which only means ‘revelation’, has been a synonym for the destruction of the world as we know it.

Yet, the Biblical School of Jerusalem gives another definition of the word apocalypse: ‘a form of literature promising, normally in coded imagery, release from present misery and a glorious future for God’s people’. The prophet Ezekiel first described this longing for the spiritual kingdom that would replace the material world. The vision was popular in Judaism from 200 BC onwards, and occurs in the New Testament in Mark and the Revelation to John G38 .’ This softer definition is quite different from the way in which we commonly understand the word. It defines the word in the spiritual realm and diminishes the terrible pictures of John’s Revelation that inspire us such fear.

It is this last view of the apocalypse that Hubert and Jan Van Eyck have rendered in their altarpiece of the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’. But as it will be clear when reading the Revelation and looking simultaneously at the central panel of the altarpiece, the inspiration of the Van Eycks came from the grand mind-images of John’s Revelation.

The Adoration of the Lamb

Let us first go briefly over the various pictures of the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’.

The panels were made in the fifteenth century in the Flemish town of Gent. They have been preserved in this town and in the church and chapel for which they were commissioned. The Gent altarpiece shows in its closed form twelve panels. The four panels below contain the two donors, Judocus Vijd and Isabella Borluut who were a married couple of wealthy burghers of Gent. The middle lower panels show John the Baptist in his haircloth dress and carrying the Lamb, and John the Evangelist pictured in the traditional way with the cup of poison he was proposed to drink.

The upper panels represent the Annunciation. To the left is the archangel Gabriel. He carries the white lilies that were a symbol of the purity of the Virgin Mary. To the right is Mary herself, also depicted traditionally before her book of wisdom. She is shown in a state of ecstasy with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above her head. These scenes are set in a low-ceilinged house of Gent. Through the Gothic windows medieval Gent unfolds. Above the panels of the Annunciation are lunettes, small panels filled with the prophet Zacharias and Michal. These were added to fill the panels that needed to cover the majestic inner altarpiece.

The opened altarpiece shows twelve panels. In the upper row at the extreme left and right are Adam and Eve, with next to them two panels of angels making music. On the left panel angels are singing in front of a Gothic stand on which lie their papers. On the stand is a woodcarving of Saint Georges slaying the dragon. Higher up we can denote two woodcarvings of prophets. On the right panel is the heavenly orchestra. The central instrument is a small organ, but angels also play on violins and harps. All the angels are pictured in marvellous robes, painted in complete detail of the golden brocade patterns. The various expressions of the angels can be admired, yet all angels also resemble each other in faces and in headdress. All the angels wear crowns, again rendered by Van Eyck in elegant detail.

The upper middle panels carry the real glory of the altarpiece. God the Father is seated on a throne flanked by Mary and John the Baptist. The splendour of detail and the glory of these figures are almost unbelievable. God especially wears robes bordered with gold. He has the tiara of the Popes on his head, or the crown of the Kingdom of the Heavens, whereas the crown of the Kingdom of the Earth is at his feet. The Virgin Mary is shown also enthroned in all her majesty, adorned with magnificent jewels. John the Baptist is clad more modestly and he points to the real power, to God.

On the lower level are six panels. On the left are the ‘Just Judges’ and the ‘Knights of God’. To the right are the ‘Hermits’ and the ‘Pilgrims’. The vast bottom middle panel shows the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’.

As in the Revelation God - ‘the One’ as called by John - sits on his throne above the central panel. Other thrones flanked him in John’s story of the Apocalypse but Van Eyck only painted Mary and John the Baptist. Above the altar but still in the bottom panel is the dove of the Holy Spirit so that the picture shows the Holy Trinity: God the Father on his throne, the Spirit, and the Lamb representing the resurrected but sacrificed Jesus. Beneath the throne stands an altar on which stands the Lamb. The Lamb is the sacrificial living creature representing the passion of Jesus; therefore blood rushes from its hearth into the chalice of the Eucharist on the golden altar. Angels surround the altar, all as told in the Revelation. The Revelation tells that an angel came with a censer to the altar and so in the picture also we find two angels in front of the altar sending smoke of incense upwards to God. Still more in the foreground is the fountain of life. The spring of water and flowing water is emphasised several times in John’s apocalypse.

We will look at these wonderful pictures into more detail.

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck

Four lines in Latin are written on the lower frames, which freely translated mean something like: ‘Painter Hubert van Eyck, a greater was never found, started the work and his brother Jan, the second in art, finished the work as asked by Judocus Vijd. With this verse he places this accomplishment for you to see.’ In the last phrase capitals are used in unexpected places, in the middle of the Latin words. These capitals refer to Roman numerals, which give the date of May, 6 1432. Jan Van Eyck knew not only how to use symbols, he also frequently added texts to his pictures and he hid numbers inside the text.

The verse explains that Judocus Vijd commissioned the work. Vijd was a lord of Paemele and a rich banker of Gent. He was a member of the Town Council of Gent, may even have been its mayor G58 . Vijd was married to Isabella Borluut who also was from a well-known family of Gent. The altarpiece was made for a chapel that Judocus Vijd had installed in the Saint John’s cathedral of Gent; a cathedral now called of Saint Bavo.

Hubert van Eyck must have been over sixty or even over seventy years of age in 1432. So it seems unlikely that he did more than design the composition of the paintings. His much younger brother Jan must have done most of the work but just what part of the altarpiece is difficult to determine. Whether Hubert and Jan were real brothers is uncertain. The only testimony to that is the text of the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’. The painters may have been family without being brothers in blood. They may have been spiritual brothers or had bonds of teacher and pupil of the same village Eyck in Limburg. Jan Van Eyck could not have worked for long years at the altarpiece for he was employed by the Duke of Burgundy. He must have asked a special permission to leave the court for maybe two years to work at the panels.

The altarpiece

The altarpiece had a memorable history of several restorations and of moves. It remained in the Vijd chapel until the end of the eighteenth century. After the French Revolution, when the French armies occupied Flanders, the panels were moved to Paris but brought back after the French defeat of Waterloo. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the clergy of Gent sold several panels and these pictures landed in Berlin. The Peace Treaty after the First World War stipulated however that the panels would have to return to Gent, and this indeed happened so that the altarpiece was complete again.

In April of 1934 two panels were stolen, namely the panels of John the Baptist and the ‘Just Judges’. The thieves returned the painting of John the Baptist. The main thief Arsène Goedertier had confessed the theft only while dying and his accomplices Achille De Zwaaf and Joos Lievens died before so that a mystery remains as to the whereabouts of the second panel. The ‘Just Judges’ panel was never found and is now replaced by a copy. Arsène Goedertier left a letter in which he wrote that the panel would be found in a place where only the bishop of Gent could withdraw it without being seen. Many think that Goedertier hid the panel in Saint Bavo cathedral. Since then, a treasure hunt has gone on for the lost panel but it was never found. The quest for the ‘Just Judges’ remains one of the main mysteries of Flemish folklore.

Just before the Second World War the altarpiece was brought to safety in a castle of the town of Pau in the Pyrenees. But the Germans who occupied Belgium confiscated it, gained possession of the altarpiece by the exchange of thousands of prisoners and hid it first in the famous Bavarian castle of Neuschwanstein, later in a salt mine of Austria G58 . The Germans also sought after the lost panel and a strange hypothesis was recently formulated by a young Flemish writer, Patrick Bernauw, that the Nazi’s art historians were looking for possible clues of the hidden Grail in the symbols of the ‘Adoration’. The central panel of the altarpiece shows the Grail in which flows the blood of the Lamb.

After the Second World War the panels returned once again to Gent. Today they are shown under bulletproof glass in the de Villa chapel of Saint Bavo cathedral. The ‘Adoration’ was restored in 1952 and at that occasion a few lines were engraved in the Vijd chapel, ‘Pious hands saved this masterpiece from terrible iconoclasts. Three times it returned to Gent during wars; a fire could not destroy it and the centuries respected it, because the renovated splendour of this altarpiece sings God’s love’.

The panels

In the central panel many references are made to the ‘Revelation to John’ or the Apocalypse of the Gospels. The Lamb is standing on an altar as told in the Revelation and blood flows from its hearth into a chalice. The Lamb has been offered, like Jesus, but it is standing like the resurrected Christ. Blood ripples down on the altar, consecrating the table on which the Eucharist is served. The altar or throne is inscribed with golden signs. Angels behind the altar hold the symbols of the last passion of Jesus. The angels on the left side hold the cross and the lance, the crown of thorns and the nails. To the right they hold the column of the flagellation and the lance with the sponge drenched in vinegar, plus the whips of the flagellation.

A group of four angels flank both sides of the altar, a number that can be remarked in numerous Flemish and Italian paintings. Two angels burn incense in front, as told in the Revelation, even though van Eyck has pictured two angels instead of one to satisfy his sense of harmony and symmetry. Symmetry of colours, sometimes reversed as in the angles holding the passion instruments, can be discerned already in this scene. Golden rays emanate from the Lamb that is looking straight at the viewer, thus interpellating the viewer directly. The same golden rays shine from the dove above the Lamb. The dove represents the Trinity and thus the two most mystic elements of Christianity were brought together closely in the same image.

The central panel is about the Apocalypse, but no horrors can be found in its distinct images. How different is this for instance from the gruesome pictures of hell, torture and pain inflicted by monsters to humans in for instance the frescoes of Hell and Last Judgement of the Campo Santo of Pisa. There are all the iniquities, humiliations, horrors, tearing of bodies and souls amidst ugly creatures shown to scare humans out of sin. Van Eyck only showed veneration, exaltation, lifting of the spirit. The panels of the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ are the image of a noble mind directed towards beauty and dignity. Van Eyck’s mind was one of peace, of delicacy, of admiration of nature and of elevation of man. Van Eyck had confidence in the power and love of God. He glorified the Spoken Word as an offered Lamb. Although Van Eyck was still very much an artist of the northern Gothic, still linked to medieval tradition, he had a mind of Renaissance without doubt.

In front of the altar stands the fountain of life out of which pours the water of life. The water is gathered around the fountain and becomes a small river. This scene refers to various images of the Bible, not just to the Revelation but also to the Song of Songs and the psalms. A bronze angel with open, protective wings guards the fountain. This picture of the fountain was the example of numerous copies made by subsequent Flemish Primitives.

Adam and Eve

The panels of the top of the altarpiece contain Adam and Eve. Van Eyck was doubly courageous to place these figures in the altarpiece. Firstly, Adam and Eve were the original sinners whereas the altarpiece was a song of veneration. Secondly, both figures are as nude as they can be but for the fig leaves they hold over their private parts. Van Eyck must have used models to draw these figures and the clergy must have apprehended that. Van Eyck was revolutionising and his figures were painted so much to nature may have shocked the clergy. The artist had a good argument though. Adam and Eve were born in the bliss of God and unaware of their nakedness until the original sin. Van Eyck painted Adam and Eve in this state, perfectly at ease in their nudity and unaware of shame. This already was a whole new program that broke with old conceptions. The exaltation of mankind was thus not a monopoly of Italian Renaissance artists even though such northern images in religious art were rare. Van Eyck arrived early at the same view of the prominent place and pride of humanity as the artists of the Florentine Renaissance. Adam and Eve’s nakedness certainly did shock later so that in the nineteenth century the panels were even replaced with Adam and Eve dressed up with robes and skins.

Eve holds an eastern citrus fruit, which could be a symbol more according to the real Jewish tradition than to Christian tradition G58 . Van Eyck points to the original sin with his Adam and Eve panels. He wrote for Adam on the frame, ‘Adam draws us into Death’ and for Eve, ‘Eve brought damage by killing’. For medieval scholastic thought sin was equal to death in Christ.

Above Adam we find the offers of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam. Above Eve is a small panel of the slaying of Abel by his brother Cain. These were the first victims of the sins of Adam and Eve.

Look at the immediate naturalism and vividness of Van Eyck’s pictorial representation. Adam’s foot literally steps out of the frame, calling a rare and strange sensation of surprise in any viewer who remarks it. In Adam and Eve Van Eyck continues his vision of dignity however. His figures are quiet, serene, calmly standing in a natural poise, untortured and with such dignity that they remain in harmony with the rest of the panels. Van Eyck had no need to express painful feelings of sin and shame nor a heavily muscled Adam. Eve may be shown as pregnant of following generations, thus of humanity.

Heavenly Music

The panels next to Adam and Eve are the angels singing and making music. Here all the skills of the genius artist show clearly, as well as the patience and love whereby van Eyck relentlessly handled the smallest detail. The brocaded cloaks of the angels are masterpieces of observation and composition. One finds complete images, icons, miniature paintings and entire scenes mirrored in the gemstones of the jewels that for instance clasp on the cloak of the front angel of the choir. Pictures of the Madonna and images of Jesus can be seen on the rich dresses of the angels. Each angel wears a crown, but the jewels of various colours are perceived from a distance as flower crowns. The colours of the scenes are warm and harmonious with the brilliance of the new paints of translucent oils and fine suspended pigments that Van Eyck used so that the colours remained as fresh as ever.

The angels all look alike. They are impassive and uncommitted. They are lost in the concentration on their songs and music. All are alike, with hair of the same colour, shape and texture, the same crowns and long, slender hands.

The choir consists of eight angels like the octave of the western system of music and in the orchestra old instruments have been reproduced in detail. The music instruments, such as the organ for instance, are decorated with woodcarvings and so is the bookstand of the choir. Each small detail is meticulously rendered, such as the placeholder in the book of songs or the wood carving of Saint Georges slaying the dragon on the music stand. In the ‘Revelation to John ‘also a dragon appears and Van Eyck seemingly loved such ornaments since we find them back in several of his pictures.

Van Eyck used a static composition in the choir of angels, underscored by the long vertical green triangle formed by the open cloak. This is an angular element that corresponds to the straight oblique lines of the organ on the other panel. More than anything else we grasp in these details of composition the subtle sensibility to harmony of the artist. In the musicians’ panel the composition is more nervous with the prominent oblique lines that intersect each other, so an angular element was needed between the softer curves of the choir panel. Even the chair under the organist angel is composed of oblique lines that fit with the rest of that panel. There might here also be a subtle play on the calm Adam and the supposedly more fickle mood of Eve. Remark the almost obsessive eye for detail in the tiles on the floor. We find here various symbols such as the Lamb, the letters IHS that were the very name of Jesus.

The sense of detail in the ‘Holy Lamb’ altarpiece is a culmination of the thought of the Middle Ages. The whole world, all things created, was the result of the will of God. Therefore all things were to some extent permeated with the soul of God. The creation was not perfect, sin had corrupted humankind, and the benevolent presence of God was withdrawn from earth, but the divine soul still rested in all living and non-living elements. Therefore these were worthy of being painted in every detail as everyone should admire and respect the creation of God. Only by painting the most intricate detail could the creation of God be lauded. This idea could have inspired the Van Eycks and the Flemish Primitive painters to show such level of detail in their work.

God, Mary and John the Baptist

The three central panels of the top row represent the Virgin Mary, God the Father or Jesus and John the Baptist. The figure of God above the Apocalypse scene of the Lamb is in line with the Revelation to John, in which is told that God’s throne stood above the altar. God is depicted as a young man, with a countenance as traditionally attributed to Jesus. The figure is not the old wise man but the serene youth that Jesus was. Van Eyck has left a double meaning and referred to the double nature of Jesus as God.

In the three panels the splendour of the jewels and crowns, of the tiara, sceptre, borders of cloaks, and brocades is staggering. This dexterity and consistence in brilliant detail was present in art before Van Eyck but never with such obsession. It was rarely equalled especially on such a scale, after this artist.

Van Eyck applied also many inscriptions on the circles around the three figures. The arches serve partially as grand haloes. Van Eyck combined pictures and words, a combination that was aimed at even better explaining the meaning of the scenes. This was not so rare in Van Eyck’s times, but it was rare that an artist used such lines within the surface of his painting instead of on the frame. We have to wait surrealist artists of the twentieth century like Magritte to rediscover combinations of the written word and the image.

Rays of gold emanate from the three figures. The thrones are richly decorated. In the brocades behind Jesus a pelican is tearing at its breast to feed its young. This was a traditional symbol of the offer of Jesus. Jesus wears the tiara, the symbol of the Popes and a simpler crown lies at Jesus’s feet. This symbolises the pre-eminence of the spiritual world over the material world. This concept is also underscored by Mary and John who read from books, thus placing them in the sphere of the learned and the spiritual. God’s throne is situated in the composition of the panels above the dove so that the image of the Trinity as represented by God the Father, Holy Spirit and Son is enforced. Around God is written, ‘This is God Almighty because of his godly majesty.’ To Mary, ‘She is more beautiful than sin’. Mary’s crown is adorned with roses and lilies whereas the small white flowers that are strung on delicate stems are among the first to bloom in spring in Western Europe. They bloom around April, the usual time of Easter. They are called ‘Easter Bells’ in Flanders and are thus both references to the white purity of the Immaculate Mary and to the passion of Christ at Easter. The roses and lilies are Mary’s traditional symbols. Here also, as in the old Italian pictures of the Maestà we find star motives and there are twelve stars, as told in a phrase of the Revelation, over the head of Mary. Mary’s hair is very similar to the hair of the angels, a detail that places her in the realm of the heavens.

On Mary’s crown are very many pearls. We know that these were often associated with Mary in medieval times. The Virgin had given birth to Jesus in an Immaculate Conception. Her son was Jesus, the ultimate jewel of the creation. Pearls were likewise created in an unpolluted way inside the shells and from the dew of the skies.

John the Baptist wears a robe of hair but a splendid green cloak hangs over his shoulders. John prepared the way of Jesus and so he points to Jesus with his right hand. All attention of these panels returns to the God-Jesus figure. God holds his right hand in a gesture of judgement. Remark the striking similarity in features of the faces of God and Adam. The Bible wrote that Adam was made to the image of God and Van Eyck was one of the rare painters to take these words so literally. This idea of representation was new and daring in the Gothic era and heralded the new times of proud confidence in man. Details such as these indicate the mature, profound reflection that must have accompanied the designs of the compositions of the Van Eycks.

In all the upper panels the figures are painted serenely. They are inwardly turned. Not one figure looks straight at the viewer except Jesus. Thus is emphasised the pre-eminence of God over all other figures, just as told in the Revelation. All figures support Jesus and are subordinated to him. Mary, John, Adam, Eve and the angels seem to have no power but to intercede between humanity and God. They are painted here as if they had turned away from humanity in humble obedience to God. The figures around God seem to live for themselves; the only figure that can condemn and forgive is God. In the Revelation God’s majesty and power is indeed the major epic feeling. Van Eyck has remained true to these texts of the Revelation.

The majesty of the altarpiece is undeniably built on the splendour of the jewellery of the main figures. Gems and pearls in all shapes and forms are lavishly used to a wealth that could not but have deeply impressed the faithful that came to pray in the Vijd chapel. Gent was rich, but the very wealthy were few. There could be no fuller expression of the grandeur of the heavenly kingdom than through the display of this wealth of jewels. Add to this the solemn dignity of Jesus, the sweetness and serene beauty of Mary and the wisdom expressed in John the Baptist and we have here indeed the most majestic images that were ever expressed in the visual arts. These elevated feelings of the power of spirituality and of transcendence were the main source of inspiration of the high Gothic cathedrals of northern France, Flanders and Wallony. They are expressed in Van Eyck’s panels with an unequalled vision.

The Lamb

In the central panel below, the Holy Lamb thrones. It draws the attention of the viewers as its altar is encircled by angels and from the four corners of the earth the human race centres on it. The human race has come to honour the Lamb with its adoration.

From the northeast come the virgins and the female saints, wearing the long palm branches as told in the Revelation. The saints of the front row wear the symbols of their martyrdom. Agnes has the Lamb, Barbara her tower and Dorothy the basket with the fruit of paradise. In the middle is a saint without specific signs but with the wonderful white and green gown of a princess. This might be Ursula who led her companion virgins, but a figure somewhat behind holds an arrow and that is a usual sign of Ursula who was shot by arrows. The rich gown may indicate Catherine of Alexandria who was considered to be a bride of Christ and the patron of young girls. Catherine thus also could be claimed as the leader of the virgins. To the right of this group grow high lilies, signs of the purity of the virgins.

From the northwest come the bishops and cardinals and these also hold the branches of palm trees as were used to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. Next to this group grow wild roses, maybe a sign of the ardour in faith of the group and a reference of course to Jesus’s passion.

From the southwest come the representatives of the Old Testament. The prophets are knelt in the front row. Behind the prophets come the Jewish leaders of the Bible and some of their kings. Most of these are elder and bearded men, referring to the great age from which they have come to venerate the Lamb.

From the southeast come the representatives of the New Testament and of Christianity, led by the twelve apostles. They are fourteen. Probably the most important missionaries of the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ were added, that is Paul and Barnabas. The Popes and the Deacons of the church follow them. The first Deacon, Stephen, can be easily recognised for he holds in his lap the stones with which he was martyred. Several priors of abbeys have also come with this group.

The golden rays of the dove of the Holy Spirit permeate all these figures.

The procession of humans that have come to adore the Lamb is continued in the side panels.

The wealth of the figures and of the whole central panel has been admired for centuries. Here we see all the splendour of the rich Flemish cities displayed. Van Eyck’s art was not an art rooted in the common people. We find here no image of the farmers working in small huts in the country and no artisans of the towns. The image needed to be an image of the heavenly kingdom but for Jan Van Eyck this elevated kind of image was very natural. He lived and worked for the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, the most splendid court of Western Europe. The King of France, the Dukes of Orléans, of Berry and of Burgundy were of the same royal French descent. Their courts, however cruel, were dedicated to the admiration of beauty. The display of wonderful dresses, the ostentatious display of wealth was formidable at the courts where one needed to be remarked so much that the courtiers wore gold pieces and bells on their dresses. The courts challenged each other in external show of wealth. Robes and cloaks were the richest of Europe, as could be easily manufactured in the cloth industries of Flanders and Artois. Van Eyck’s art is the art of a courtier entirely, of a courtier living in a splendid illusionary world of extravagant outward poising. Van Eyck had the genius to represent this wealth that Flanders could well afford, as dedicated to religion and devotion so that the wealth does not shock nor became vulgar but was directed to a higher purpose.

The Judges and Knights

To the left are the ‘Just Judges’ and the ‘Knights of Christ’. The Christian knights advance proudly and defiantly in full gleaming armour wearing their banners and shields with the signs of the resurrected Christ. The French historians of the beginning of the fifteenth century wrote often about the splendour of the gleaming armour of the knights on white horses entering in victory cities, aware of their power and status.

From the right come the pilgrims led by the giant Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers. Behind Christopher one of the pilgrims wears the scallop-shell of Saint James of Compostela on his hat. Next to this panel are the hermits, led by Saint AnthonyG58 and followed by Mary Magdalene who also ended her life as a hermit. Mary Magdalene is recognisable by the pot of balms with which she is traditionally associated. Whereas various types of trees and in particular a palm tree indicate the direction of the pilgrims, that is to the warm south, the rocks allude to the caves of the hermits.

The most striking in the lower panels is the extremely rich lush-green nature in which Van Eyck situated the scenes. All the figures advance in a paradise. All kinds of trees, bushes, low grass, and shrubs grow between the procession of men. In the meadows around the Lamb grow all sorts of flowers, some with ancient Christian meanings of plants that divert malice. The landscape is not flat but small green hills have been painted, as for instance behind the group of virgins. The horizon is if formed by far views of towns with their medieval Gothic slender towers and churches that proudly rise to the skies. Birds hover in the skies of the side panels over the pilgrims, since birds also do migrate. More secular buildings, castles and bell-towers are painted on the panels of the Judges and Knights.

We turn our attention to the back panels.

The back panels

On the back panels of the altarpiece other figures are painted. The altarpiece remained closed most of the time, only to be opened during High Mass in the Vijd chapel. Often, the panels on the backside of similar altarpieces were only painted in grisaille as if the figures were sculptures. Van Eyck continued this habit. Thus the artist created a sensation of space since the painted sculptures stand as if in niches, emphasising the three-dimensionality of these panels. These would have blended well with the colours of the light grey stones of the chapel. Two figures are painted in full colour however: Judocus Vijd and his wife Isabella Borluut, the two donators. They stand around John the Baptist, who wears the Lamb, and John the Evangelist who conjures the snakes that crawl out of his poisoned cup.

The panels in the middle row show colour and these represent the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel is drawn on the left, holding the lilies of the Immaculate Conception. The Virgin Mary is shown on the right, under the dove of the Holy Spirit and in a representation that feels very medieval. The Virgin was reading from her book of wisdom and slightly turns in surprise towards the viewer. Gabriel makes a calling movement with a finger, asking Mary to join her destiny. The small middle panels are a view of a street of Gent that scholars have recognised, and a washing stand, which again refers to the purity of Mary.

The four panels of this middle row are small masterpieces of observation. The gowns of Mary and of the angel flow naturally to the floor in many folds and each of these folds has been rendered completely by the shadows of the light that does not anymore pervades the whole scene but definitely comes from a particular side. Van Eyck’s altarpiece stood on an altar of the Vijd chapel and the windows of the chapel were to the right of the panel, light came indeed from that side. Marvellous here also is how the painter has continued the lines of the windows over the four panels from left to right, linking all the panels as if they were truly one action in the same room. Van Eyck also has continued the lines of the beams of the roof over the four panels, enhancing the effect of space he had started to create with the sculptures in the lower row.

Above the middle row we find smaller panels of the prophet Zacharias on the left, the Erythreian and Cumaean Sibyl in the middle and the prophet Michal on the right. These figures testify of the old prophecies on the coming of Jesus and thus these panels occupy a logical place above the Annunciation. The texts in the panels also refer to these prophecies. Van Eyck has used the Sibyls as later Michelangelo would do in the Sistine Chapel, in the roles of ancient secular prophets of the heathen world and thus accepted them in the Christian themes.

Van Eyck has not depicted Vijd and Borluut in the inner central panel, as was tradition. But by placing them on the outer panels the two donators were seen most of the time, since the altarpiece remained closed during the week. Van Eyck gave a position of humility on the outer panels to which Vijd and Borluut could hardly protest. But he spared them the humiliation of having to show them on the main panel in smaller dimensions than the saints, as was the custom. He gave the donators predominance on the outer panels because they are in the only panels there painted in full colours and he painted them as tall as the other figures. The donators are calm, severe and humble. One discerns intelligence and some cunning in Vijd and determination in Borluut. In this couple, the wife was probably the harder driver.


The ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ is an exceptional work of art.

We know of wonderful miniatures of before the times of the Van Eycks, but the extraordinary patience and endurance with which Jan pictured every detail is unequalled. We have no evolution of various paintings that led gradually to this sense of detail and of completeness. The ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ is a bright, sudden star in the history of northern art.

The ‘Adoration’ showed the grandest of images of Christian thought. In order to express the transcendence of Christian thought, Van Eyck did not paint the Resurrection of Christ or any other scene that might hold some direct link to the tangible life of the figures of the Bible. Van Eyck looked to the mystic visions of the ecstasy of John. Like John, he radically placed his pictures in the realm of the spiritual and made his pictures subservient to ideas of the mind. In this, Jan or Hubert proved a reflection that was new, rare and splendid. The brothers could have shown the Apocalypse in all its horrors but instead they brought a work that is only exaltation and elevation of the spirits. They were aesthetes. Their example was an extraordinary pledge to the confidence and hope for better times. They showed to the monarchs of their times that not destruction and raw power were the first values, but the spiritual values of the Redeemer as symbolised by the Lamb. The Lamb testified to forgiveness and altruism contrary to the urges that drove the powerful to wars.

The Van Eycks pictured a spiritual realm. Yet they reached their grandiose effect on viewers by showing the most direct splendours of real life. These splendours of life Jan Van Eyck knew well. He lived amidst the wealthiest court of Europe and he held a position of prestige there. He could not but be tempted to show to the people of Gent what that splendour could amount to. The Van Eycks observed nature and showed all detail of lawns, hills, trees, skies, birds and flowers. They used models of real people and drew Adam and Eve from nature. They did not scare away from this most palpating of all views of the nakedness of man and woman. They combined the splendour of nudity with the splendour of the inorganic world, the profusion of jewels and gemstones. They definitely sought to create space to paint the vastness of the natural world of meadows, towns, forests, rocks and mountains. They painted their altarpiece in the brightest light, a metaphysical light that was of God’s creation.

Very many paintings have lost their lustre and their colour over time. The Van Eycks used oils and pigments that by almost a miracle have guaranteed for almost six centuries now brilliant colours. The panels have been cleaned several times, but the brightness of the views must be as fabulous as when the Van Eycks painted them. The variety of colour also is splendid. And the artists added symmetry and harmony with a skill and feeling for beauty that is astonishingly perfect.

The ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ came as a comet in the skies of northern art. The brightest star was the complete, definite work of art. No subsequent painting could ever surpass either its visual magnificence or its depth of thought. The greatest miracle is probably that this rare piece of art was saved during all the centuries since it was conceived, in such a good state that we can still admire its beauty in its original environment.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.