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The Ghent Altarpiece, also known by the title The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is one of the most famous images in art history. The additional title is important as a signal to the viewer to pay close attention to where the image leads us through an evocation of the narrative of salvation.
Jan van Eyck was born in the fourteenth century in present-day Belgium and settled in the city of Bruges, where he accomplished his major works during the Northern Renaissance. He and his artist brother Hubert began this altarpiece together in the 1420s, but an inscription on the original frame notes that it was finished by the “second best artist,” that being Jan van Eyck. Jan, however, was no minor artist. In fact, he was the towering figure in the painting world of the Early Northern Renaissance, with this altarpiece for St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium included among his many impressive works.
The altarpiece is a polyptych—a set of individual painted panels, framed and hinged together so as to be foldable and able to be reconfigured. When the wings are closed, different images can be seen, including a painting of the Annunciation. The view we see here is a typical configuration, showing major elements with rich significance. It is also important to note that the richness extends to the medium of the paint. While previous generations used egg tempera or water-based fresco, van Eyck was an early innovator of oil as a medium, which imparts a depth of color and luminosity not found in tempera or fresco. It would take decades before oil was adopted by the painters of the Italian Renaissance, and today oil still reigns as queen of all painting media.
The sections of the altarpiece can be understood as an outside-of-time, typological concert of figures and scenes set into two registers or rows of panels, upper and lower. If we begin with the presence of downcast Adam and Eve, we can recognize the Fall of our first parents. Their presence here marks the beginning of the narrative of salvation. We also understand that Jesus is the new Adam who accomplishes our salvation. This joins Adam and Jesus in a typological relationship—a once-perfect man causes our downfall; a divine man restores us. Just above Adam and Eve, we notice small narratives from Genesis: the sacrifices of brothers Abel and Cain and the murder of Abel by Cain. Both of these events typologically prefigure Jesus in the Paschal Mystery as the perfect sacrifice and the innocent victim.