The Ghent altarpiece
For all their obvious differences there are a number of similarities between Masaccio's fresco in Florence and this altarpiece painted for a church in distant Flanders. Both show the pious donor and his wife in prayer at the sides, and both center on a large symbolic image - that of the Holy Trinity in the fresco, and on the altar the mystic vision of the Adoration of the Lamb, the lamb, of course symbolizing Christ. The composition is mainly based on a passage in the Revelations of St John (vii. 9), 'And I beheld... a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and kindred and people and tongues which stood before the throne and before the lamb...', a text that is related by the Church to the Feast of All Saints, to which there are further allusions in the painting. Above, we see God the Father, as majestic as Masaccio's but enthroned in splendor like a Pope, between the Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist, who first called Jesus the Lamb of God.
The altar, with its many images, could be shown open, which happened on feast-days, when its glowing colors would be revealed, or shut (on week-days) when it presented a more sober appearance. Here the artist represented St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist as statues, much as Giotto had represented the figures of Virtues and Vices in the Arena Chapel. Above, we are shown the familiar scene of the Annunciation, and we need only look back again at the wonderful panel by Simone Martini, painted a hundred years earlier, to gain a first impression of van Eyck's wholly novel 'down to earth' approach to the sacred story.
His most striking demonstration of his new conception of art, however, he reserved for the inner wings: the figures of Adam and Eve after the Fall The Bible tells us that it was only after having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge that they 'knew they were naked'. Stark naked indeed they look, despite the fig leaves they hold in their hands. Here there is really no parallel with the masters of the early Renaissance in Italy who never quite abandoned the traditions of Greek and Roman art. We remember that the ancients had 'idealized' the human figure in such works as the Venus of Milo or the Apollo Belvedere. Jan van Eyck would have had none of this. He must have placed naked models in front of him and painted them so faithfully that later generations were somewhat shocked by so much honesty. Not that the artist had no eye for beauty. He clearly also enjoyed evoking the splendors of Heaven no less shall the master of the Wilton Diptych had done a generation earlier. But look again at the difference, at the patience and mastery with which he studied and painted the sheen of the precious brocades worn by the music-making angels and the sparkle of jewelry everywhere. In this respect the Van Eycks did not break as radically with the traditions of the International Style as Masaccio had done. They rather pursued the methods of such artists as the Limbourg brothers and brought them to such a pitch of perfection that they left the ideas of medieval art behind. They, like other Gothic masters of their period, had enjoyed crowding their pictures with charming and delicate details taken from observation. They were proud to show their skill in painting flowers and animals, buildings, gorgeous costumes and jewelry, and to present a delightful feast to the eye. We have seen that they did not concern themselves overmuch with the real appearance of the figures and landscapes, and that their drawing and perspective were therefore not very convincing. One cannot say the same thing of Van Eyck's pictures. His observation of nature is even more patient, his knowledge of details much more exact. The trees and the building in the background show this difference clearly. The trees of the Limbourg brothers, as we remember, were rather schematic and conventional. Their landscape looked like a back-cloth or a tapestry rather than actual scenery. All this is quite different in Van Eyck's picture. In the details we have real trees and a real landscape leading back to the city and castle on the horizon. The infinite patience with which the grass on the rocks and the flowers growing in the crags arc painted bears no comparison with the ornamental undergrowth in the Limbourg miniature. What is true of the landscape is true of the figures. Van Eyck seems to have been so intent on reproducing every minute detail on his picture that we almost seem able to count the hairs of the horses' manes, or on the fur trimmings of the riders' costumes. The white horse in the Limbourg miniature looks a little like a rocking-horse. Van Eyck's horse is very similar in shape and posture, but it is alive. We can see the light in its eye, and the creases in its skin, and, while the earlier horse looks almost flat, Van Eyck's horse has rounded limbs which arc modeled in light and shade.
It may seem petty to look out for all these small details and to praise a great artist for the patience with which he observed and copied nature. It would certainly be wrong to think less highly of the work of the Limbourg brothers or, for that matter, of any other painting, because it lacked this faithful imitation of nature. But if we want to understand the way in which northern art developed we must appreciate this infinite care and patience of Jan van Eyck. The southern artists of his generation, the Florentine masters of Brunelleschi's circle, had developed a method by which nature could be represented in a picture with almost scientific accuracy. They began with the framework of perspective lines, and they built up the human body through their knowledge of anatomy and of the laws of foreshortening. Van Eyck took the opposite way. He achieved the illusion of nature by patiently adding detail upon detail till his whole picture became like a mirror of the visible world. This difference between northern and Italian art remained important for many years. It is a fair guess to say that any work which excels in the representation of the beautiful surface of things, of flowers, jewels or fabric, will be by a northern artist, most probably by an artist from the Netherlands; while a painting with bold outlines, clear perspective and a sure mastery of the beautiful human body, will be Italian.
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