Ghent Altarpiece  

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"Take for instance the portrayal of Adam and Eve in the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Jan Van Eyck. […] Are these oblong, puffy and flabby bellies actually the beauty ideal of the day? Is that the perfect female form in the North? [...] Please make note of the hand of Eve: she holds the fig leaf all too carelessly and it slips far below her pubic area, giving us ample view of a magnificent bush of pubic hair, the first and also the fullest in the arts of Early Modern Europe." --A History of Erotica (2011) by J.-W. Geerinck

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The Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432) is a panel painting in the St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. Commissioned by the wealthy merchant and financier Joost Vijdt, it was begun by Hubert van Eyck, who died in 1426 whilst work was underway, and completed by his younger brother Jan van Eyck. The altarpiece represented a "new conception of art", in which the idealization of the Classical tradition gave way to an exacting observation of nature.


Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel

The upper front panels on the sides show Adam and Eve (to the left and right respectively), both facing the figures in the center. They are covering themselves with leaves, and Eve is holding a fruit that is not, in fact, the traditional apple but is a small citrus known as an Adam's Apple Garden of Eden. Adam seems to be walking out of the picture, giving it a three-dimensional look.

Above them are depictions in grisaille of Abel making a sacrifice of the first lamb of his flock to God and Cain presenting part of his crops as a farmer to the Lord, and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain with an ass's jawbone because, according to the Bible, Cain was jealous of the Lord's acceptance of Abel's offering over Cain's. Van Eyck makes the paintings look like statues, giving depth to the picture.

Fig leaf

In the 19th century, the naked representations of Adam and Eve were considered unacceptable in a church and the panels were replaced by dressed reproductions, which are still on display in the cathedral outside the Vijdt chapel.


Jan van Eyck produced paintings for private clients in addition to his work at the court. Foremost among these is the Ghent Altarpiece painted for Jodocus Vijdts and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. Started sometime before 1426 and completed, at least partially, by 1432, this polyptych has been seen to represent "the final conquest of reality in the North", differing from the great works of the Early Renaissance in Italy by virtue of its willingness to forgo classical idealization in favor of the faithful observation of nature. (Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art) It is housed in its original location, the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium.

It has had a turbulent history, surviving the 16th-century iconoclastic riots, the French Revolution, changing tastes which led to its dissemination, and most recently Nazi looting. When World War II ended it was recovered in a salt mine, and the story of its restoration drew considerable interest from the general public and greatly advanced the discipline of the scientific study of paintings. No less turbulent was the history of the interpretation of this work. Since an inscription states that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck - calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art) - finished it identifies it as a collaborative effort of Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. The question of who painted what, or "Jan or Hubert?" has become a mythical one among art historians. Some even question the validity of the inscription, and thus Hubert van Eyck's involvement. In the 1930s, Emil Renders even argued that "Hubert van Eyck" was a complete fiction invented by Ghent humanists in the 16th century. More recently, Lotte Brand Philip (1971) has proposed that the Ghent Altarpiece's inscription has been misread, and that Hubert was (in Latin) the "fictor", not the "pictor", of the work. She interprets this as meaning that Jan van Eyck painted the entire altarpiece, while his brother Hubert created its sculptural framework.

See also

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