Born Hubert Van Eyck but was later
Born around 1390, Jan Van Eyck is considered to be one of the most influential Flemish painters. He is known to be the most significant northern European painter of the 15th century. He was a pioneer and a master in the oil painting technique and his attention to detail and the high contrast in his paintings are the reason behind his success as an artist. He had the ability to exquisitely paint shiny metals such as gold and very rich compositions that caught everyone’s eyes when they walked passed them. Van Eyck was one who painted both religious and secular matter, including portraits and altarpieces. The panels he worked on were either single, diptych or polyptychs.
Only about 23 pieces of artwork are confidently attributed to him and out of which only ten are signed and dated which includes The Ghent Altarpiece. This work of art is painted on several hinged oak panels which was started by Hubert Van Eyck but was later finished by Jan Van Eyck in 1432. Even after hundreds of years and “given its many trials and tribulations, the altarpiece has weathered well. Only one of the original 12 panels has been lost” (Hickson).The painting is currently ” housed at Saint Bavo cathedral in Ghent, belgium and it has suffered a varied history over the centuries. Dismantled, stolen, and damaged many times over, it was reassembled, cleaned, and restored after World War II” (The Ghent Altarpiece).
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Van Eyck represents one of the largest revolution know in the art of painting. Art around the 15th century is usually referred to as International Gothic or International style and there is a reason behind this. Artist during that time period traveled a lot to different countries and brought their knowledge and experience back with them to share with others. One of the characteristics of medieval art and art around 1400 as well are the examples are constantly copied.
Artists, whether you’re a young assistant or a master, had model books. If they travelled or saw a painting of their interest, they would make models of them. Though it is not confirmed, it is thought that Van Eyck also got inspiration from other artists to paint one of his most well known paintings, The Ghent Altarpiece. In the closed painting, one can notice two figures praying and between the two are statutes. The statutes are of the two saint John, John the baptist and John the evangelist which refer back to the original name of the church. The colors in the painting are relatively subdued except for the donors, who are wearing the color red, and this is perhaps a little unusual because the statutes of this time were generally painted.
The function of this painting is to help save the souls of the donors because masses are believed to reenact the crucifixion of christ. At the top of the closed view, we see prophets and sybils. Sybils are the classical wise woman from ancient Greece and Rome and the prophets are old testament hebrew prophets and christians would read the prophecies and interpret them as the coming of christ. Below the prophets and the sybils are the annunciations. The two main figures of the annunciation include the Angel Gabriel and the the Virgin Mary. The annunciation is in the christian bible and it tells the story of how the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bare the christ child.
Right next to the angel’s mouth and also next to Mary’s, are some words that read “Ave gratia plena” which means “Hail, full of grace.” This was the beginning of the most popular prayer of this time: “Hail, mary full of grace.” Above the Virgin Mary’s is a bird that is symbolic of the holy spirit. Next the window seat, there is a clear vessel with clear water inside which symbolizes the purity of the Virgin. In most annunciations, one can notice the placement of lilies in a vase next to the Virgin Mary but in this case, the Angel Gabriel is carrying them.
The lilies are symbolic of Mary’s virginity or purity. The “empty” panels between Gabriel and Mary show an arched window that looks over the town and a niche which has three distinctive shapes. The niche includes a lavabo, basin and a cloth which are used for cleansing thus symbolising the purity of the virgin.The interior of the Altarpiece shows all the Saints in Heaven and the lower level shows the Saints coming in to adore the mystic lamb or the lamb who is the symbol of Christ as a sacrificial victim. Next to the figure of Christ, is the painting of the Virgin Mary. Jan Van Eyck’s style is clearly portrayed through this image because of the immense amount of detail that reproduce the natural world. The texture of the very fine hair, the smooth skin and the beautiful jewels reflecting light all add to make this image so much more realistic.
There are also living plants that are growing from her crown also that add on to make a greater effect. Flanking the center figures, there are two panels of musical angels where on one side they are singing and on the other side they are playing a musical instrument. Next to these panels are two other ones that show the sculpture of Adam and Eve. They look like living figures rather than statues in a niche. They are singled out because they are the representatives of original sin. There is a scene above Adam of the sacrifice of Adam and Eve and above Eve is the scene of the first murder where Kane is killing his brother Abel because god rejected his sacrifice.
Van Eyck was one who painted both religious and secular matter, including portraits and altarpieces. The panels he worked on were either single, diptych or polyptychs. Only about 23 pieces of artwork are confidently attributed to him and out of which only ten are signed and dated which includes The Ghent Altarpiece. This work of art is painted on several hinged oak panels which was started by Hubert Van Eyck but was later fined by Jan Van Eyck in 1432. This painting is displayed in its original setting in Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.