The Adoration of the Lamb on the Throne ... the main panel in the Ghent Altarpiece
The Lectionary readings from last Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter (11 April) until the Sunday after the Ascension Day (16 May), provide an introduction to – or a synopsis of – the Book of Revelation.
The two readings tomorrow (18 April, Revelation 5: 11-14) and the following Sunday (25 April, Revelation 7: 9-17) are similar in imagery and content, with the heavenly hosts worshipping the Lamb on the throne.
One of the best known images in art illustrating these readings is the Ghent Altarpiece or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), which is one of the most important pieces of Flemish art and one of the great masterpieces of the world.
According to the art historian John Drury, former Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and former Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, this painting can be described as “the paradigmatic masterpiece of Christian painting, not least because it integrates the joy and social peace achieved by sacrifice around its crucial trauma.”
The Ghent Altarpiece ... the fully opened panel on display
This altarpiece, in Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, is a large and complex polyptych panel painting, made up of 24 compartmented scenes. It was commissioned by the wealthy merchant and financier Joost Vijdt as a memorial to him and his wife, Lysbette Borluut, and was originally part of their private chapel in what was then the Church of Saint John the Baptist, and from 1540 the Cathedral of Saint Bavo.
Hubert van Eyck was still working on this masterpiece when he died in 1426. The work was then completed by his younger brother, Jan van Eyck. An inscription on the frame once stated that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (the first in the art) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck – calling himself arte secundus (the second in the art) – finished it in 1432. The original, ornate carved outer frame and surround may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music. But we shall never know … it was destroyed during the Reformation.
In this masterpiece, the van Eyck brothers pay as much attention to the beauty of earthly things as to the religious themes. The clothes and jewels, the fountain, nature surrounding the scene, the churches and landscape in the background- everything is painted with remarkable detail.
In all, the altarpiece is made of a total of 24 compartmented scenes. These make up two views, open and closed, changed by moving the hinged outer wings. On Sundays, during the celebration of the Eucharist, the wings were open, displaying the lower register or row of the central panel, with The Adoration of the Lamb of God. But on weekdays, these wings were closed, showing the Annunciation to Mary and portraits of the donors, Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette (Elizabeth) Borluut.
The open panel
The central scene gives this masterpiece its name, The Adoration of the Lamb. In this scene, people are streaming in from all sides to worship the Lamb of God, while from the sky above, the Holy Spirit, represented as a dove in an aureole, illuminates the scene.
Paradise below is depicted as a landscape with an enormous richness in vegetation, much of it non-European. This is a meadow full of flowers and flowering shrubs, palm trees and rivers, with views of fantastic cities in the background, representing the Heavenly Jerusalem.
The Lamb of God on the altar
But instead of being seated on the throne (Revelation 7: 9), the Lamb is standing on the altar, with blood spurting from his breast into a chalice on the altar.
On the altar frontal beneath the Lamb are written the words: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
The Lamb is surrounded by 14 angels. To the left, two hold the cross; to the right, two hold the pillar on which Christ was scourged. On each side of the altar, two groups of four angels kneel in adoration, holding the instruments of Christ’s passion, including the cross and nails from his Crucifixion, the lance that pierced his side, and the sponge used to moisten his lips while he was dying on the cross. Two more angels are kneeling in front of the altar, with thuribles, censing the Lamb and the altar.
In the foreground, the fountain of life is flowing into a small river, and the bottom of the fountain is covered with jewels: “for the Lamb … will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7: 17). It is as if the water from the fountain is flowing through the river down onto the altar of the chapel below, where the Eucharist was being celebrated.
In all, there are more than 300 figures surrounding the throne, for “there was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb” (Revelation 7: 9).
The Jewish prophets and the philosophers of the world before the throne
In the foreground, to the left, the Old Testament prophets are kneeling as a group, each holding the Bible. Behind them are philosophers and writers from throughout the world, from all nations and backgrounds: some have Oriental faces, they all have different types of hats and head coverings, and the figure in white is probably Virgil, who was seen as a Christian avant-la-lettre: “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7: 9).
Popes, bishops, priest and deacons before the throne
To the right, the Twelve Apostles and the Apostle Paul are seen together in a group. Behind them are male saints, with Popes, bishops, priests and other clergy at the front. Among these saints is the first martyr, Saint Stephen, robed in the dalmatic of a deacon and holding the rocks with which he was stoned.
The male martyrs before the throne
In the background are the martyrs, men to the left and women to the right, all carrying the martyr’s palm: “there was a great multitude … with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7: 9). Some of the women are identifiable from the attributes they carry.
The women martyrs
This one central large panel is flanked by two panels in each of the wings representing four further groups of people coming to gather before the Lamb on the Throne. The two panels to the left show the “Just Judges” and the “Knights of Christ.” On the right are two panels showing “The Hermits and “The Pilgrims,” among them Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. However, the original panel showing the Just Judges was stolen in 1934. It has never been recovered, and has been replaced by a copy made in 1945 by Jef Vanderveken.
The upper panels:
The Crowned Image ... is this God the Father or Christ as King of Kings?
In the upper register or row above the scene of the Adoration of the Lamb, the three central upper panels show the Virgin Mary to the left and Saint John the Baptist to the right. However, the identity of the central figure is the centre of much debate and several theories.
Most critics agree that this Christ the King, who is enthroned and who is crowned with a triple crown or tiara as the King of Kings or King of Heaven, with an elaborate crown of temporality at his feet. However, some critics say this is Christ as the Great High Priest, others say this is God the Father, while others say this is the Holy Trinity amalgamated into a single person, marked out as such by the triple tiara.
However, if this central figure is seen as God the Father, then, when viewed vertically, the altarpiece displays the Holy Trinity appearing as God the Father as King of Creation, God the Holy Spirit represented by the Dove, and God the Son as the Lamb Enthroned who is also the Sacrifice of the Eucharist.
The image of the Virgin Mary crowned
This central figure is flanked on the right by the Virgin Mary, who is robed and crowned as a queen, and on the left by Saint John the Baptist, who is wearing an opulent, jewelled robe over his traditional clothing of animal skins.
A detail of Saint John the Baptist
And so, if this central figure is seen as God the Son, Christ is flanked by the Virgin Mary, through whom the Incarnate Godhead entered the world as Man, and Saint John the Baptist, who preached the coming of salvation.
In the paired wings are images above of Angel Singers to the left and Angel Musicians to the right. Their clothes and their instruments and the floor are shown in remarkable detail. Through close study of the facial expressions of the singing angels, art historians have identified the notes each angel is singing. The organ, at which Saint Cecilia sits, was painted in such detail that modern musicologists have recreated a working copy of the instrument.
Adam and Eve flank the singing and musical angels on either side, Adam to the left and Eve to the right, each facing the figures in the centre. They are covering themselves with leaves. But they are also seen in a totally different order of reality from the heavenly vision they frame. They are truly human, and so in this one work we are presented with images of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
Adam seems to be walking out of the picture, with one foot protruding from his niche into the world of the viewer, giving this part of the work a three-dimensional appearance.
Eve is holding a fruit – not the traditional apple but a small citrus known as an Adam’s Apple. In the 19th century, the naked representations of Adam and Eve were considered unacceptable in a church and the panels were replaced by dressed reproductions.
Above Adam and Eve are depictions of Abel, making a sacrifice of the first lamb of his flock to God; Cain, presenting part of his crops as a farmer to the Lord; and the murder of Abel by Cain with the jawbone of an ass.
The closed altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece with the panels closed
On weekdays, the wings of the Ghent Altarpiece were closed, and those who came to view this masterpiece saw the depiction of the Annunciation to Mary and portraits of the donors, Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette (Elizabeth) Borluut.
The main register panels show the Annunciation to Mary across four panels. To the left we see the message of the Archangel Gabriel, to the right the answer given by Mary, which is written upside-down for God to read.
In the two central panels between Gabriel and Mary are filled with the secene in the room. The window has a central Romanesque column – a device often used to portray the Old Dispensation that ends with the Incarnation – and some critics wonder whether the view from the window was the view from van Eyck’s workplace in Ghent. In the niche are a water vessel, basin and towel, symbols either of the Virgin at the Annunciation, or of the washing of the disciples feet at the Last Supper.
In the top register or row, in niches above the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, are two prophets, Micah and Zechariah, and two sibyls, Erithrea and Cumae, each identified by their texts. Micah and Zechariah look down from lunettes on the fulfilment of their prophecies, which are contained in banderols floating behind them. Between them are the two sibyls, whose prophecies were also thought to have foretold the coming of Christ.
Below are grisaille paintings of the two Johns – Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist – presented as fictive statues on two plinths. Saint John the Baptist was the patron of the church at the time this altarpiece was commissioned, before it was rededicated as a cathedral in the name of Saint Bavo. Saint John the Evangelist is represented because the altarpiece and the chapel were dedicated on his feast-day.
Beside them, on each side, are the two donors, Jodocus Vijd on left and his wife, Lysbette (Elizabeth) Borluut, on the right, who are praying before their patron saints, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, but who are praying too before the celestial vision depicted inside.
Jodocus Vijd was a very wealthy merchant in Ghent. He and his wife Lysbette had no children and perhaps they hoped their names would live on in another way as the patrons of this monumental painting. Like Adam and Eve, this couple appear to belong to the real world rather than the world of Adam and Eve. They too are waiting to be called into the company of the heavenly host, before the Lamb on the Throne.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a tutorial group with students on the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) course and part-time students on the MTh course on 17 April 2010 as part of a residential weekend.