Detail of congregation holding heavy books

Seeing the Mass in the Ghent Altarpiece

In the second of her posts on the famous ‘Ghent Altarpiece’, Laura considers the imagery which reflects the Mass and elements of the lay devotional experience


The Ghent Altarpiece is made up of twenty-four panels. It is the largest and most complex (known and surviving) set of panel paintings made in the fifteenth-century Netherlands. No other painting by Jan van Eyck is known for certain to have been made for public display in a church. The visual programme of the altarpiece may have been devised by a theological adviser, perhaps the prior of St John’s, Olivier de Langhe, who was the author of a learned treatise on the Eucharist.



When the altarpiece is opened up, its upper register shows a deisis, a Byzantine artistic convention: Christ, the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist are seen enthroned in heaven, flanked by singers and musicians. Adam and Eve stand at the outer edges, below two scenes from the lives of their sons, Cain and Abel. Below, we see a mystical vision of the Adoration of the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei). It is set in an unparalleled landscape depiction of the heavenly gardens of Paradise. The towers and spires of the New Jerusalem behind them are real and recognisable buildings: the tower of Utrecht Cathedral and the tower of St Nicholas’s Church in Ghent can be seen, for example.

A depiction of the gardens of heaven in the Ghent altarpiece
The skyline of the Ghent altarpiece


The lamb stands on an altar flanked by winged angels. The angels hold various instruments of the Passion or swing censers before the altar, just as a priest would do in the chapel itself when the Mass was being celebrated. Blood pours from the lamb’s breast into a golden chalice, set on the altar beside him. The vision of an altar, a chalice containing the blood of Christ and angels swinging censers all vividly recalls the service of the Mass. It’s worth remembering that in medieval times, the laity took communion in one kind only, taking the bread (the body of Christ) but not the wine (the blood of Christ). The blood of Christ was consumed by the eyes alone- and in the Ghent Altarpiece, there is a splendid banquet for the eyes to feast on.

 ‘And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb’, Revelation 22:1




The Fountain of Life (Revelation 22:1, ‘And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb’), another symbol of the Eucharist, has been placed in the foreground. Water sprays from it from six spigots, symbolising the other six sacraments of the Church. All these elements of the panel particularly emphasise the redemptive and healing powers of the Eucharist, able to absolve all sins and guarantee your entry to the Paradise we see in the altarpiece. In the Middle Ages, ordinary lay people usually received communion only once a year, at Easter. They might attend daily Masses (and in fact, this was very normal- a staple of parish social and business life), but only to watch and pray. The sight of the Mass, a sight amplified in the Ghent Altarpiece in a way that carefully communicates its theological meaning and power, was key to lay devotional experience of the Eucharist. The Eucharistic themes of the altarpiece are especially appropriate for a chapel intended to save the souls of Joos Vijd and his wife through daily celebration of the Mass.

Several groups of figures converge on the sacred altar: Old Testament patriarchs, prophets and pagan philosophers; apostles, popes and bishops; holy martyrs and confessors, hermits and pilgrims, knights and just judges. Lots of these figures can be identified by their attributes: Virgil holding a laurel wreath, St Barbara with the tower she was locked up in by her father.


Detail of congregation holding heavy books


As you can see, lots of the heavenly ‘congregation’ are holding thick service books, as if they are also participating, like the angels, in the service of the Mass. When the Mass was celebrated each day in the chapel itself in Ghent, it would have been as if the clergy and any worshippers were ‘joining in’ with the eternal, heavenly Mass depicted in the lower register of the altarpiece.

You can even glimpse musical notation found on the pages of the service books. The sight of the Mass is important- but so is its sound…


Find out more about the role of music in the Ghent altarpiece in Laura’s next post.



Craig Harbison, Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism (London, 1991)

Elizabeth Dhanens, Van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece (London, 1973)

Barbara Haggh, ‘The Mystic Lamb and the Golden Fleece: Impressions of the Ghent Altarpiece on Burgundian Music and Culture’, Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap 61 (2007): 5-59.

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