Great Paintings: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck (Interpretation and Analysis)

The Ghent Altarpiece is probably one of the most famous and most valuable pieces of art in the world. This fifteenth-century polyptych contains twelve panels; the upper register depicts Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, choirs of angels, and Adam and Eve. The bottom panels show a gathering of pilgrims and saints worshipping the Lamb of God. Over its long history, the altarpiece has become known as one of the “most stolen” pieces of art ever. According to my research, the altarpiece has been stolen or attacked at least four times. Most recently, The Ghent Altarpiece was stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Fortunately, it was recovered in the famous Altaussee salt mine-a storehouse of stolen Nazi art-towards the end of the war. Today, the piece resides in a thirty million Euro, custom-built, climate-controlled case of bulletproof glass.

One could write an entire book about The Ghent Altarpiece (and many people have); however, today, I want to look at one small piece of altarpiece: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This panel is the central piece of the lower register; it depicts several groups gathering around the Lamb of God, which stands on an altar in the center of the panel. The worshippers include prophets, apostles, church figures, confessors, martyrs, just judges, and the knights of Christ, all approaching the lamb from different directions. A silver fountain stands in the foreground, engraved with the words “This is the fountain of the water of life, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.”

However, the lamb itself is probably the most interesting part of the painting. A white dove hovers above the lamb, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. The altar itself is inscribed with the words “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A stream of blood gushes from the chest of the lamb, a reference to Christ’s sacrifice. Angels surround the lamb, bearing symbols of Christ’s passion and death.

Most interestingly, The Ghent Altarpiece recently underwent a major restoration, which ended early in 2020. During the restoration process, it was discovered that over seventy percent of the altarpiece had been overpainted. When this later paint was removed, conservators found that the original Lamb had a bizarrely human face. The Lamb’s frontal eyes and direct, challenging stare are deeply disquieting. Clearly, later artists found the Lamb equally alarming and decided to overpaint it with a more sheep-like head.

However, I think the strange appearance of the Lamb is intentional. It’s important to remember that the Mystic Lamb isn’t really a sheep; it is a spiritual symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, which saved the world from sin. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist sees Jesus and says “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). So, here, we see the van Eyck brothers painting Christ as an actual lamb. However, I can imagine that the artists would have felt that it was disrespectful to make the Son of God look too much like a common sheep, thus the creation of the weird half-human, half-sheep hybrid we see in this painting.

As I noted above, I find the Lamb of God to be the most interesting part of this painting. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the entirety of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is a masterpiece. The level of detail and skill displayed in this painting is frankly extraordinary. While I think the spiritual and symbolic message of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is fascinating, it is also just a beautiful work of art. After you finish staring at the before and after faces of the Lamb, take a minute to study the other amazing details in this work.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on March 19, 2022.

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