Jan Van Eyck (≈1390-1441) was a Flemish painter who perfected the technique of oil painting. He painted in a realistic, naturalistic style on wood panels, mostly portraits and religious subjects. His paintings are full of allegory and made extensive use of disguised religious symbols. Exquisite detail and paint painstakingly applied in thin layers and glazes make of his paintings marvellous shiny translucent, jewel-like confections. His masterpiece is the altarpiece in the cathedral at Ghent, the “Adoration of the Lamb” (1432). Hubert van Eyck (Jan’s brother) worked alongside Jan.
Jan van Eyck has been credited with the “discovery of painting in oil”. Oil painting, however, was already in existence for many decades before Van Eyck, and was used to paint sculptures and to glaze over tempera paintings. The real achievement of Van Eyck was the development of a stable varnish that would dry at a consistent rate. This was created with linseed and nut oils, and mixed with resins.
The breakthrough came when Jan or Hubert mixed the oil into the actual paints they were using, instead of the egg medium that constituted tempera paint. This made of the medium a creamy, easily manipulated paste, which dried slowly, allowing for re-working and blending. The result in the finished painting was brilliance, translucence, and intensity of colour as the pigment was suspended in a layer of oil that also trapped light. The flat, dull surface of tempera was transformed into a jewel-like medium, at once perfectly suited to the representation of precious metals and gems and, more significantly, to the vivid, convincing depiction of natural light. The development of this technique transformed the appearance of paintings.
Little is known of van Eyck’s early life. The few surviving records indicate that he was born ca 1380–90, most likely in Maaseik. He took employment as painter and Valet de Chambre with John of Bavaria-Straubing, ruler of Holland, in the Hague around 1422, when he was already a master painter with workshop assistants. After John’s death in 1425 he was employed as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in Lille, where he remained until 1429 after which he moved to Bruges, working for Philip until his death there in 1441. It is known that he was highly regarded by Philip, and undertook a number of diplomatic visits abroad on his behalf, including to Lisbon in 1428 to arrange the Duke’s marriage contract with Isabella of Portugal.
Van Eyck painted both secular and religious subject matter, including commissioned portraits, donor portraits (with the donor kneeling before a seated Virgin Mary) and both large and portable altarpieces. He worked on panel, either as single panels, diptych, triptychs, or polyptychs. He was well paid by Philip, who sought that the painter was secure financially and thus had artistic freedom and could paint “whenever he pleased”. His work comes from the International Gothic style, but he soon eclipsed it, in part through a greater emphasis on naturalism and realism. Van Eyck utilised a new level of virtuosity, mainly through the use of oil as a medium; the fact that oil dries so slowly allowed him more time and more scope for blending and mixing layers of different pigments. He was highly influential and his techniques and style were quickly adopted and refined by Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden and later generations of Early Netherlandish painters.
The Ghent Altarpiece above, (also called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or The Lamb of God, Dutch: Het Lam Gods) is a very large and complex polyptych panel painting. The altarpiece is composed of 12 panels, eight of which are hinged shutters. The wings are painted on both sides, giving two distinct views depending on whether they are open or closed. Outside of Sundays and festive holidays, the outer wings were closed and often covered with cloth. It was commissioned from Hubert van Eyck, about whom little is known. He was most likely responsible for the overall design, but died in 1426. It seems to have been principally executed and completed by his younger and better known brother Jan van Eyck between 1430 and 1432.
Although there have been extensive attempts over the centuries to isolate the passages attributable to either brother, no separation has been convincingly established. Today, most accept that the work was probably designed and constructed by Hubert and that the individual panels were painted by Jan after his return from diplomatic duties in Spain. The altarpiece was commissioned by the merchant, financier and politician, Joost Vijdt, then holding a position in Ghent similar to city mayor. It was designed for the chapel he and his wife acted as benefactors for, today’s Saint Bavo Cathedral, at the time the parochial church of John the Baptist, protectorate to the city.
It was officially installed on 6 May 1432 to coincide with an official ceremony for Philip the Good. It was later moved for security reasons to the principal cathedral chapel, where it remains. While indebted to the International Gothic as well as both Byzantine and Romanic traditions, the altarpiece represented a new conception of art, in which the idealisation of the medieval tradition gave way to an exacting observation of nature and unidealised human representation. A now lost inscription on the frame stated 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) – completed it in 1432. The original, very ornate carved outer frame and surround, presumably harmonising with the painted tracery, was destroyed during the Reformation; there has been speculation that it may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music.
The altarpiece was opened on feast days, when the richness, colour and complexity of inner view was intended to contrast with the relative austerity of the outer panels. As viewed when open, the panels are organised along two registers (levels), and contain depictions of hundreds of figures. The upper level consists of seven monumental panels, each almost six feet high, and includes a large central image of Christ flanked by frames showing Mary (left) and John the Baptist (right), which contain over twenty inscriptions each referring to the figures in the central Deësis panels. These panels are flanked by two pairs of images on the folding wings of the altarpiece. The pair of images closest to the Deësis show singers in heaven, while the outermost pair show Adam and Eve, naked save for strategically placed fig leaves. The lower register has a panoramic landscape stretching continuously across five panels. While the individual panels of the upper tier clearly contain separate – albeit paired – pictorial spaces, the lower tier is presented as a unified mise en scène. Of the 12 individual panels, eight have paintings on their reverse visible when the altarpiece is closed.
Since its creation the altarpiece has been considered one of Northern European arts masterpieces and one of the world’s treasures. Over the centuries the panels have come close to destruction during outbreaks of iconoclasm, or damage by fire. Some panels were sold and others looted during wars. The panels that had been taken away by the German occupying forces were returned to St. Bavo’s Cathedral after World War I. In 1934 two panels, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist, were stolen. The panel of Saint John the Baptist was returned by the thief soon after, but the The Just Judges panel is still missing. In 1945, the altarpiece was returned from Germany after spending much of World War II hidden in a salt mine, which greatly damaged the paint and varnish. The Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken produced a copy of the stolen panel The Just Judges, as part of an overall restoration effort.