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  • Terry Glaspey

Lenten Journey with Art #11

Jan van Eyck, The Adoration of the Lamb, 1432

Commonly referred to as The Adoration of the Lamb, this is the central panel—the largest of twenty connected panels—of the altarpiece at the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, and it was the first major masterpiece created with oil. Whether van Eyck pioneered the use of oil as a binding agent for paint, or whether he was simply the first to use it so effectively, the difference was immediately apparent. The use of oil gave his painting a vivid, glowing intensity and allowed him to create a canvas filled with tiny details. There are nearly 200 figures in the entire altarpiece, and most of them can be found in this central panel, which is teeming with activity. Van Eyck has given a great deal of attention to the landscape, both in the wide vista and in the minutest details. One could spend a great deal of time just studying the small flowers that are scattered throughout the picture (there are 42 different species of plants and flowers featured), as well as a detailed landscape glimpsed in the far distance. Van Eyck took care with both. In fact, this is one of the earliest paintings in Western history to spend so much effort on portraying the natural world. As art historian Noah Charney describes it: “Viewers can make out tufts of grass, the wrinkles in an old worm-eaten apple, and warts on double chins. But they can also see the reflection of light caught in a perfectly painted ruby, the folds of a gilded garment, and individual silvery hairs amid the chestnut curls of a beard.” The landscape is peopled by a mass of humanity, both past and present, rich and poor, representatives of every social class, saints, pilgrims, hermits, religious leaders, political figures, and a group of nuns, all of them crowding together around the central figure on an altar. Each one is a careful portrait of an individual soul. They kneel or sing or recite words from their holy books. A lamb, the Lamb of God, stands upright on the altar, a halo radiating from around his head. He is surrounded by worshiping angels, two of whom hold up a large cross. The lamb has been wounded, and an orderly cascade of blood flows from his breast and into the golden chalice that rests upon the altar. He who was dead is now alive forevermore, still offering Himself for those who would partake of His gift. This altarpiece was displayed within the cathedral right above the place where the Lord’s Supper would have been celebrated. Though most of the painting is teeming with figures, there is a vacant space in the middle at the front of the composition—empty except for the fountain that also splashes its praise. The artist is, I think, inviting us into that sacred space—a place where the risen Lamb of God will forever be worshiped and adored.   Come, let us worship and bow down.

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