Angels concentrating on a musical score

Singing to Heaven in the Ghent Altarpiece

In her final post in this series, Laura looks at the role of music in the images of the Ghent Altarpiece, where holy sounds seem just as important as holy sights.  To read Laura’s other work on the altarpiece, please see the preceding posts.

A full image of the Ghent Altarpiece which will allow you to zoom into the details can be found via Wikipedia by clicking here.


The churchmen seen in the lower register with their service books, joining in with the Mass in song, have been identified by art historian Elizabeth Dhanens as three contemporary popes, all wearing the jewelled papal tiara: Martin V (in profile nearest to the service book), the ‘antipope’ Alexander V, and Gregory XII. Whatever schisms have occurred on earth, all three have been admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Men in papal tiaras hold a heavy musical score


We can see musical notation in the service book in front of them, and it’s not the only glimpse of music in Ghent Altarpiece.  In the upper levels, we see figures (usually identified as angels, although we cannot see any wings) singing and playing instruments.


Angels concentrating on a musical score


Frowning and focusing hard on their singing, the angels are clearly concentrating- perhaps to keep in time, as if they are singing elaborate, fashionable polyphonic music. The panel may again allude to the singing that accompanied the service of the Mass, as well as the eternal, unceasing praises of God sung by the heavenly choir described in Revelation 5: 9-13, ‘And they sung a new canticle…’. The angelic singers wear the clerical robes worn by deacons and subdeacons and are grouped around a pulpit with a carved image of St Michael the Archangel defeating Satan below. Referring to the events described in Revelation 12: 7-9, here is another allusion to the Last Judgement and the heavenly Paradise that awaits afterwards. Along the bottom of the pulpit is a carved border of fruits and vines, another reference to the blood of Christ and the wine of the Eucharist (John 15:1, ‘I am the true vine’). The tiles below them include images of the Lamb of God and the monograms of Jesus and Mary. Below the singers is an inscription: ‘Melos deo laus perhennis gratiarum actio’, which Elizabeth Dhanens translates as: ‘Songs of supplication, songs of praise, songs of thanksgiving’.


the inscription underneath the angelic musicians


The angels gathered around the pipe-organ on the viewer’s right of the altarpiece, playing a harp and viol, are in the same (heavenly?) place, as we see the same tiles beneath their feet. And there is another inscription, this time a quote from Psalm 150:4, ‘Laudate eum in cordis et organi’, ‘Praise him with strings and organs’. Whether on earth watching the performance of the Mass or in heaven, flanking Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist, holy sights and holy sounds came together.


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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