Monday, March 10, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - The Ghent Altarpiece (Jan Van Eyck)

When I look at Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, I see a complete mastery of the oil medium.  In a time where oils weren't even the most popular type of medium for painting, Van Eyck changed the paradigm, and it soon became the medium of choice for so many other artists, replacing the tedious medium of egg tempera.
Interestingly, it is said that the overall concept and the piece were begun by Jan's brother Hubert.  The odd sense of perspective throws certain parts off.  But Van Eyck's handling of paint always seemed to be flawless.  At one point, people were afraid of Van Eyck because of this altarpiece.  They literally thought he was some sort of magician.  With this new medium of oils, and the amazing effects that Van Eyck could achieve with it, people were astonished by what this one man could do with mere paint and wooden boards. 
Van Eyck was clearly well-practiced with egg tempera, a medium that practically forced a tedious technique because it dried almost instantly on the surface.  Van Eyck appears to have worked with oils in the same way because you can truly see every little detail - every strand of hair, every blade of grass, and every precious jewel.  A couple hundred years later, these were things that artists discovered could be depicted with mere suggestion without having to paint each part in full detail. 
The Ghent Altarpiece itself is a beautiful vision of the afterlife, where the communion of saints gathers together to enter eternal life.  It is a vision of the new creation, the new Jerusalem.  And the way in which Van Eyck has painted the perfectly symmetrical composition of this scene, where each person is positioned in such a way that the gathering points toward the center where Christ sits on his throne, suggests Van Eyck's allegory of what heavenly perfection is like.  Perhaps Van Eyck's handling of the paint suggests that as well, as if to say, "I want my painting to be perfect as eternal life in heaven is perfect."  Today, the Ghent Altarpiece is carefully on display behind bulletproof glass and under certain lighting conditions at the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent.

Ghent Altarpiece (wings closed)

Ghent Altarpiece (wings open)

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