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Ghent Altarpiece
What Michelangelo was to painting in the South, Jan van Eyck was in the North. Although a couple generations older than Michelangelo (he was more nearly a contemporary of Masaccio) not only did he practically invent oil painting, but he was to be the primary inventor of Flemish painting as well; his influence the dominant force in the work of this geographical area at least until the advent of Rembrandt some 200 years later. And although he is probably best remembered for his Arnolfini Marriage, painted in 1434, his real masterpiece is the Ghent Altarpiece, painted a couple years earlier. The work is a folding polyptych. That means it is made up of several different panels (12 in all), hinged to fold in such a way that the two side units fold toward the centre like double doors. And on the back of these doors are another twelve painted panels.

Opened up, the work is massive. It is 11.5 feet tall and 18 feet wide, painted in oils and currently the centrepiece of the St. Babo Cathedral in Ghent. The work has a colourful history, once having been nearly destroyed by the Calvinists. It was dismantled in 1816 when some of the panels were sold, while the remainder was damaged by fire in 1822. It was finally reassembled and restored in 1922. The work is organised on two levels. The upper tier depicts Christ enthroned, wearing a triple tiara, in the centre panel; flanked on the left by Mary and on the right by John the Baptist. On the "doors," on either side, are angels playing musical instruments; while on the far left and right, are full-length, nude portraits of Adam and Eve. Over their heads are small, monochromatic paintings of the sacrifices of Cain and Abel on the left; and the killing of Abel by Cain on the right.

On the lower tier, in the same infinite detail characterising all Flemish painting, is a single, panoramic scene spread over five panels depicting the Adoration of the Lamb. The lower tier alone has over one hundred individual figures ranging from full length foreground figures to mere heads in the crowd groupings. In the distant backgrounds are cities, cathedrals, and all manner of exotic plant life; all painted with the same exacting realism pioneered by van Eyck and destined to become the hallmark of the Northern Renaissance. The overall effect is so hard to describe as to demand comparison in terms of colour, detail, and scope to a modern-day motion picture. Nearly a hundred years after its completion, no less an artistic personage than Albrecht Dürer viewed the altarpiece and declared it "stupendous." Perhaps art historian, Erwin Panofsky, said it best regarding van Eyck, "His eye was at one and the same time a microscope and a telescope."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 January 1999

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