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The art has existed throughout the history of the human; however, the period between 1420 and 1550 was perhaps the most amazing era of artistic achievement in the Burgundian Netherlands, which were commonly referred to as the Low Countries. Early Netherlandish artists enriched the art of painting with new styles that manifested extreme realism (Panofsky 205). Jan Van Eyck was one of the most renowned painters in Europe; eventually, he acquired the legendary status of the pioneer of oil painting. His famous works include the Ghent Altarpiece and the New York Diptych, also known as the Crucifixion and Last Judgment diptych. In 1953, the researcher, Erwin Panofsky, published a book entitled the Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origin, and Character. The book, which is still the most significant study of the fifteenth-century painting, focuses on the early years of the Netherlandish painting. The aim of this research is to answer a series of questions concerning the works of Jan van Eyck using Panofsky’s book, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origin, and Character.
The Ghent Altarpiece is perhaps Jan van Eyck’s most renowned and admirable piece of art. Commonly referred to as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, it is an early Flemish polyptych panel painting, the history of which dates back to the 15th century, specifically the period between 1425 and 1432 (Panofsky 207). In Early Netherlandish Painting: It’s Origins and Character, Panofsky uses iconography for developing a detailed explanation of how this iconic painting was done and how Jan van Eyck represented his subjects the way he did. Panofsky considers each symbol used in the panel. They all have clear symbolic references to various complex Christian religious concepts. Jan van Eyck gave them an appearance of a real life, in such a way that the painting portrayed separate objects, textures, and light with an astounding sense (Panofsky 208). Overall, the Ghent Altarpiece has a magnificent technical virtuosity, which is attributable to Jan van Eyck’s keenness in details, persistence, and tolerance.
In its broadest view, the Ghent Altarpiece contained twelve hinged panels, and its content is put on both the inner and outer sides of the altarpiece. Different images can be seen when it is either open or closed. Thus, the masterpiece can be analyzed from the interior and exterior perspectives. First, one should look at the exterior perspective. When the Ghent Altarpiece is open, it comprises two storeys: the upper and the lower ones. The upper storey presents the Annunciation surmounted on lunettes elaborated into little-curved chambers. Below, there are the Erythrean Sibyl and Prophet Zachariah to the left and Prophet Micah and the Cumaean Sibyl to the right (Panofsky 207). In contrast, the lower storey presents the portraits of Jodocus Vyd and his wife, Isabel Borluut. This couple was the donors and patrons of the Ghent Altarpiece painting. Between them, there are John the Evangelist and John the Baptist.
Secondly, one should look at the interior perspective. When the Ghent Altarpiece is closed, it also contains two storeys just like when it is open. In the upper story, there is Jesus surrounded by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Around the three, there are singing angels. At both ends of the upper section of the story, there are two spectacular full-size portrayals of Adam and Eve made up with incredible naturalism (Panofsky 223). The central panel of the lower storey displays a Community of Saints facing the Fountain of the Water and Life and the Altar of the Lamb. Twelve angles are seen surrounding the Altar of the Lamb in a semicircle. To the right of the fountain, there are twelve disciples, Saint Paul, St. Barnabas, and a group of martyrs, including Saint Stephen and Saint Livin (Panofsky 209). To the left of the fountain, there are the Minor Prophets, the Patriarchs, and the Gentiles. From the way the Ghent Altarpiece is made, it is acceptable to infer that Jan van Eyck strived to reflect on what the people of the 15th century thought about the world around them and the role that religious beliefs played in their everyday life.
As the most prominent oil painter of the 15th century, Jan van Eyck can be said to have been interested in Christian religious themes as much as he was concerned with the worldly beauty (Panofsky 212). Most of his pieces of art, in particular, the Ghent Altarpiece and the New York Diptych, are millenarian implying that they reflect the belief in the Millennium of the Christian prophecy. Conventionally, the followers of Christ believe that at the end of time, Christ will return in all His might in order to gather the just together and establish a Kingdom on the earth that will reign for one thousand years. During this period, the righteous will enjoy the highest spiritual and material blessings. In a Millennium, the Kingdom will end, and the Day of the Final Judgment will come (Panofsky 211). The just will be rewarded with the eternal life and will enter the heaven; on the other hand, evil people will be condemned to eternal sufferings in hell and death.
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When a viewer looks at the Ghent Altarpiece and the New York Diptych, it is easy to reflect on the narrations from the Biblical Old and New Testaments about the end times and what will happen then (Panofsky 237). The Ghent Altarpiece uses the characters of Adam and Eve to reflect how sinful the human race is. Besides, it employs the symbols of God, Mary the Virgin, Jesus, John the Evangelist, and John the Baptist in order to demonstrate how God seeks to redeem people from the bondage of sin. In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the Son of God capable of taking away all the sins of the world by dying on the cross. The Crucifixion uses the image of a sacrifice, which is based on the Old Testament’s belief that sacrificing a lamb as a sin offering will allow people to make peace with God. In the Crucifixion, God gives Jesus as the final offering by allowing him to die and save sinners (Panofsky 232, fig. 301). The Last Judgment strikes emotions of what will happen after the Last Day of Judgment. It shows Christ on the throne surrounded by Mary the Virgin, John the Baptist, and the righteous people allowed into heaven. Archangel Michael is seen controlling the underworld, in which sinners experience eternal condemnation in hell (Panofsky 237, fig. 466).
Being considered the founding father of the Western style of the oil painting, Jan van Eyck, without a doubt, influenced the establishment of the most popular forms of art in the 15th century and later eras. His Eyckian style of painting was based on a strong division of realism that constituted an important aspect of the development of the later medieval art (Panofsky 205). Among his works that depicted the oil painting technique of perfect realism included Adoration of the Magi, the Crucifixion, and the Bearing of the Cross, among some others. These works saw other painters trying to copy Eyck’s styles and skills while striving to perfect their talents in these means of painting (Panofsky 229). Many future generations of painters produced works that had a direct imprint of the Van Eyck’s style. However, these paintings and some others were either stolen or lost over the years, and their absence meant a significant setback to the artists that used Jan van Eyck’s works as the manual for their style and skills (Panofsky 225). As such, it is reasonable to say that other painters’ development of painting skills suffered immensely because a trove for treasured painting styles was no longer available.
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The paper, based on Panofsky’s Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origin, and Character, answered various questions on Jan Van Eyck’s paintings attributed to the Netherlandish painting of the 15th century. The paper describes how the Ghent Altarpiece was made; moreover, it discusses why the Ghent Altarpiece and the New York Diptych are millenarian. The research also explained how the loss of Eyck’s paintings such as the Adoration of the Magi, the Crucifixion, and the Bearing of the Cross has affected other painters.