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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Story of an Old Picture

by Sophia Armitt.
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 20-24

The Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece

The one that is almost certainly the oldest oil-painting in the world must, of necessity, be counted among the most interesting, simply from the fact that it is the first of its sort, and apart from its own intrinsic merits, however great they may be; and this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful pictures existing. There is a much older picture, also supposed to be the first of its kind now extant, whose age is computed not by hundreds but by thousands of years, and as many thousands as the first oil-picture has hundreds. Visitors to Egypt in this last decade of the 19th century have seen it in the great museum of antiquities near Cairo, where it may stand even more thousands of years, but it is wonderful from its age alone, it has not much of interest in its subject or of beauty in its treatment; it represents three geese, about life-size, walking in procession after their own manner one behind the other, and it has the appearance of a flatly tinted outline drawing. [probably a panel from The Geese of Meidum]

Very different is the old European oil-picture! Its subject is complicated, its treatment is exquisite, and its preservation is marvellous. It is not very distant, this old picture, almost anyone in this country can take the short journey to see it, and almost everyone will feel repaid when they stand before it, not quite intact, indeed, but still in the place for which it was painted, a church in the quaint old-world city of Ghent, where it was set up, as its inscription records, in 1432.

Rescued from beneath the coats of subsequent paint, and translated, the inscription runs thus:--"Hubert of Eyck, whom no one surpassed, began it; John, the second brother, with art perfected it, at the prayer of Jocodus Vijd. This verse invites you to contemplate that which was done on the 6th of May, 1432. The original Latin is curious, since its last line forms a chronogram, the Roman capitals making together, according to their value as numerals, the date on which the work was installed in position as the altar-piece of St. Bavon:

"Pictor Hubertus e Eyck major quo nemo repertus
incepit pondusque Johannes arte secundus
(frater) perfecit Judoci Vijd prece fretus
VersU seXta MaIVos CoLLoCat aCta tUerI"

Such are the words written by Jan van Eyck, who finished the picture, beneath the portrait of Jocodus Vijd the donor, the man who years before had commissioned Hubert van Eyck to paint this altar-piece, and who was a wealthy patrician in those sumptuous days of the Burgundian princes. That it took ten years to paint is a short computation; it may even have been begun quite early in the 15th century, since in 1410 the painters thereof were already resident in Ghent, which was not their native place. Three artists worked upon it, yet it is the chief work--the only work that is certainly known to be indisputably his--of Hubert van Eyck, the man who first mixed artists' colours with oil, and so deflected art from its more ancient manner of fresco. It is a gigantic altar-piece, and consists, not of one, but of many pictures. Hubert died in 1426, while the whole was yet uncompleted, and his younger and better known brother, a man from ten to twenty years younger than Hubert, worked upon it six years more, until it was set up on the date which he records. There is a legend that a sister of these two men, Margaret, also worked up some parts of the picture; there was also a still younger brother, Lanbert. The whole story of the lives of this family of painters has been utterly lost in the passing centuries; there was no northern Vasari living then to write their lives. [Giorgio Vasari wrote a biography of Italian artists in the 1500's] Van Mander's book, dated from Haarlem, 1604, gives only as a conjectural date for Hubert's birth, 1366; and Opmeer's "Opus Chronographicum" of 1569 is not more explicit. We know absolutely nothing of their predecessors, their teachers or their training; yet this their work remains bright, clear, vivid, as though it were buy just completed. The secret of that unfading, undimmed painting, done when the original mode of colour-making prevailed, each man grinding and mixing for himself, seems as utterly lost as the details of Hubert's history. From his name it is supposed that he was born at Alden Eyck, on the Maas, about 1366, and the younger Jan not till 1390; both dates are doubtful, but it is certain that there was much difference in age between the brothers.

The portraits of the two are traditionally said to be found in two figures of the [bottom] left wing of the altar-piece, where Hubert, with a gentle melancholy face and long brown hair, rides a white pony; his dress is of blue velvet, lined with fur. Jan is not far away, is a dark brown fur-trimmed dress, with his face turned to his brother; he gives the impression of a man young enough to be son of the elder, and it is supposed that he was the painter of this particular group of figures. It is possible that Margaret, also, may have been portrayed to the right of the right wing in one of two figures with heavenly light on their faces, and that Margaret herself may have painted them. The picture itself tells the least uncertain story, in its inscription, in its portraits, in its revelation of the characters of its painters; it is a long narrative of study, of knowledge, of thought, of reverence. It is as certain that it is the work of years and years, as that an adequate knowledge of it would take weeks and weeks. None the less, the first sight if it is a joy and a surprise never to be forgotten.

Both brothers were admitted to the Corporation of Painters at Ghent, in 1421. All Hubert's work previous to the great picture has been lost. The St. Jerome extracting a thorn from the paw of a lion, in the Naples gallery, may be by him, since it is one of the finest of the early Flemish pictures in Italy, [possibly the one by Colantonio, who was influenced by Flemish painters at the time Jan Van Eyck was in Naples?] but I have met with no other that has even been suggested to be his. Did he do nothing else? It seems impossible that such work should ever be destroyed or passed over unnoticed, now or at any previous time. It is one of the things that one would like to know and never can know. As a great contrast, the works of the younger brother are numerous, and in every gallery in Europe; our own National Gallery has three of them, and each one of the three is an important picture and beautiful extremely, and another that is attributed to Margaret van Eyck.

Hubert worked upon the great altar-piece, which was built up of twelve pictures--two centre-pieces, one above the other, with four wings to each of them, and these latter painted on both sides, back and front, to be seen open or closed--till he died, in 1426, on September 18th, and was buried in the vault of Judocus Vijd, in St. Bavon's, at Ghent, where the picture afterwards erected and where the bulk of it that was his work still stands. The two centre-pieces are supposed to be his work alone, as well as the upper and outer wing, and the nude figures of Adam and Eve now in the Brussels gallery. It is somewhat surprising that any part of the picture is still at Ghent, so many dangers and vicissitudes has it undergone. Phillip II of Spain tried to get possession of it, but as he did not succeed, contented himself with having a copy made by Michael Coxie, in 1559. The picture was rescued from Puritanical outrage in 1566, and from fire in 1641. The Emperor Joseph II disliked the figures of Adam and Eve, and caused the church-wardens to keep the picture locked up. Finally, in 1794, the whole was taken away to Paris, and though the centre-pieces were returned in 1815, the wings have never come back at all, and the original effect is only simulated by copies of them hung on to the centre panels; and the copies; though old and by Coxie, are not absolutely true, but variations on the same theme. Of course one judges better the intended effect by having them there, and it is happily possible to study the originals in other places, the Adam and Eve being at Brussels, and the six others the chief glory of the Berlin gallery, where they are admirably hung to show both inner and outer faces.

The central upper part attracts one first, a rich gorgeous mass of colouring, portraying the Eternal, throned, sceptred, crowned, bejewelled, noble and dignified, in the prime of manhood, with the raised right hand blessing the world. The Virgin sits in robe of blue, with long fair graceful flowing hair. St. John the Baptist on the other side, green-robed, with long hair and beard, austere and splendid. The colour of the flesh is brown and glowing, the hands graceful and well drawn, of startling realism. To the right, again, St. Cecilia plays on an organ of oak, accompanied by angels on viols; to the left, a group of choristers. The old Van Mander deems the singing angels so skillfully done, that one knows the different keys in which the voices are pitched.

Below is the scene which names the picture--The Adoration of the Lamb; it is a landscape of green hills and trees, with the domes and towers of a city rising in the distance. The Lamb stands upon a square altar in the centre, surrounded by kneeling angels; two processions approach from the distance, popes, cardinals, bishops, monks advance from the left--St. Barbara, St. Agnes, and others after them from the right. In the middle foreground is the fountain, which, being in the same picture with the altar, proves the Van Eycks to have been unacquainted with the correct theory of perspective, since the receding lines of the two, fountain and altar, vanish upon different horizons. Two large groups of figures mass themselves on each side of fountain, and prolong themselves into the lower wings, which are again rich landscape scenes, with town and church and vista of blue mountain. The figures are all perfectly natural and dignified, the horses are admirable in attitude and movement. The colouring is splendidly rich, the detail unimaginable, the whole a perfect work, perfectly indescribable in words, though they may recall it with pleasure when it has once been seen, and they may help to a better realization of its different parts, as do the pages thereon in Crowe and Cavalcaselle's Early Flemish Painters. [The Early Flemish Painters: Notices of their Lives and Works, by Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle]

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[Wikipedia states, "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."]

Proofread May 2011, LNL