EYCK, Jan van
(b. before 1395, Maaseik, d. before 1441, Bruges)

The Ghent Altarpiece (wings closed)

Oil on wood, 350 x 223 cm
Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

The realism of the figures of Adam and Eve at the far right and left on the open altarpiece struck contemporary viewers forcefully, and this style continues on the outside of the panels when the altarpiece is closed. The external decoration shows the Erithraean and Cumaean Sibyls, Prophets Zacharias and Micheas, the figures of Jodocus Vyd, the donor, and his wife Isabelle Borluut kneeling on either side of two grisaille (painted in gray to resemble statuary) representations of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and the Annunciation with the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. The angel and the Virgin of the Annunciation are separated by two small panels, one with the representation of an arched window looking out upon a city square, and the other with a wash basin and ewer set into a niche and a white towel hanging from a rail beside it.

A striking feature is the disparity in the scale of the various figures: no less than four changes of scale exist of the outside of the wings. There are also disparities in approach; some parts are almost prosaically factual, others almost visionary in approach. Three orders of reality are present: a narrative representation of a sacred subject (the Annunciation), two highly factual donor portraits and two simulated sculptures. Yet there is a strong attempt to impose a uniform framework on these disparate elements through the governing factor of the light, which falls uniformly in all the panels from the right, and also through the use in the upper panels of a beamed ceiling running through the whole scene, and, in the lower panels, of the same cusped trefoil arches to frame the figures.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 6 minutes):
Josquin Desprez: Benedicta es coelorum Regina, motet