I know it’s been ages since I’ve done one of these posts, and I apologize. Part of the reason was because they take me forever to compose and my attention span has been a bit wonky lately due to taking care of my child at home, trying to find a job and keeping afloat financially. I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, as I have hinted at in previous posts. The Northern Renaissance is my favorite time for art and was the first period that I got interested in when I decided to study art history. It is roughly the time between the 1400’s – 1600’s AD/CE. When I was 16, I had the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time since I was born. One of the coolest things I got to see while I was over there was at St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. It is an unassuming church but has, as I later found out, one of the most famous works of art of all time there. There was a separate chapel in the cathedral, where for a small fee, you could see The Ghent Altarpiece. Also known as The Mystic Lamb or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the painting was completed in 1432 by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert. The group I was traveling with, high schoolers and a couple of adult chaperones, had seen a couple of churches before so I knew what altarpieces were. I figured, what the heck. I was blown away when I walked inside, as the altarpiece took up the entire room, literally floor to ceiling. I ended up getting a poster of it, so I could remember all of the details. I believe that this work of art, plus the trip as a whole, was the reason I decided to study art in college.
This is the polyptych (panel paintings divided into scenes) of the open altarpiece.
This is the altarpiece closed.
The cool thing is that earlier this year, in February, the Getty Foundation teamed up with St Bavo’s Cathedral to “undertake comprehensive examination and documentation of the altarpiece”, by removing it from its glass exhibition case so that the polyptych could be conserved. While it was out of the glass, the Getty Foundation came in and digitally photographed every centimeter of the painting, so that it could be examined more closely on a website that they were creating for the project. The painting is so detailed that a lot of its components get ignored. That is no longer the case with this website, where you can literally zoom in on any aspect of the painting that you want. If you would like to learn more about how they did it, which is really pretty fascinating in and of itself, check out the Closer to Van Eyck website address listed above.
The painting itself is one of the high points of the Northern Renaissance style of new realism. As this article from the Met Museum on the painting states: “the astonishing realism of the altarpiece rests not only in the fidelity with which figures, plants, and animals are represented in a convincing space, but also in its ability to forge a sense of continuity between the pictorial and the real world. On the exterior, the frames between the painted panels of the Annunciation scene appear to cast shadows into the Virgin’s chamber, in accordance with the actual direction of light in the Vijd Chapel. On the lower level, the technique of grisaille is used to depict fictive statues of the two Saints John, possibly as a painterly challenge to the long-established convention of sculpted retables. More astonishing still are the near-life-size nudes of Adam and Eve on the interior, who appear to project out of the depths of their niches into real space.” The subject matter, as is the case with most Northern Renaissance artwork is religion. Most artwork created during this time period was to glorify God and the people who commissioned the painting, to get them one step closer to heaven. The patrons of this piece are depicted on the very bottom left and right of the closed altarpiece. The title The Mystic Lamb points to the central bottom open panel where the Lamb of God (Jesus) is standing on the altar and his blood pours into a chalice, which is reminiscent of the Eucharist that Christians celebrate in churches today.
Another painter I really like from this time period is Robert Campin, also known as the Master of Flemalle. His most famous work is the Annunciation Triptych (The Merode Altarpiece). Again the Met has one of the best descriptions of his work in the following article: Like Van Eyck, Campin (and especially this work), is known for “its detailed observation, rich imagery, and superb condition.” You can observe this in the way the two artists depict the drapery on the figures. In the Annunciation Triptych, the central panel is the focal point. We see the Virgin Mary calmly reading while the Angel Gabriel comes in and tells her that she is to be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. The left panel features the donors/patrons of the painting kneeling and listening into what is happening with Mary and the Angel. The right panel shows Joseph, Mary’s fiancée, hard at work in his carpentry workshop. According to the Met, the central and right panel were probably painted first and then the left panel was added at a later time.
The Merode Altarpiece, ca. 1427-32
A student of Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden (also known as the Great Master of Tournai), is another of my favorites. One of his most famous paintings is one that was intended for a chapel in Belgium, but ended up in the Prado Museum, in the Royal Collections, because of the Spanish occupation in the 1500s. This occupation is how so many fantastic works of Belgian/Dutch art ended up in the Prado, the most famous example being Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. It is entitled The Deposition or the Descent from the Cross, and shows Christ’s body being taken down from the cross after the Crucifixion. Again, notice the color of his sumptuous textured fabrics (such as Mary’s blue dress, created by grinding lapis lazuli) and as this website puts it, “the way he puts so many people (10 in all) in the scene without making it seem crowded, but rather intimate”. Jesus is being taken down from the cross by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (the older bearded gentleman). His mother has fainted and collapsed due to her son’s death, and is being supported by Saint John the Evangelist. Mary Magdalene is depicted down by Christ’s feet. Despite the small size of the painting here, the actual piece is 7ft tall by 8 1/2 feet across.
The Deposition, ca. 1435
If you are interested in learning more about Northern Renaissance art and/or the Ghent Altarpiece, check out The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context by Craig Harbison and Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story about the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece by Noah Charney. I also found this series of videos on famous Northern Renaissance paintings such as The Ghent Altarpiece and The Deposition.