Laura stopped off in Ghent on her way to the recent ‘Transnationalism at Court’ event in Liège, and it was an ideal opportunity for some project-related sightseeing. In this series of blog posts, Laura considers the famous ‘Ghent altarpiece’, from Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.
The recent MALMECC workshop in Liège provided an opportunity for me to follow in the footsteps of Philippa of Hainault: by visiting Ghent, where on 6th March 1340, Philippa gave birth to her third son, John of Gaunt, later duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV of England. ‘Gaunt’ is a Middle English corruption of Ghent.
I think it’s possible that Philippa named her son after the patron saint of the city of Ghent, St John the Baptist. The city’s oldest parish church was dedicated to St John the Baptist. Rededicated around 1540, today it is better known as St Bavo’s Cathedral.
St Bavo’s is the home of one of the most important works of art in late medieval Europe, the 11ft by 15ft Ghent Altarpiece (c.1432).
Albrecht Durer visited it on a journey to the Netherlands in 1521, writing in his diary that it was: ‘a most precious painting, full of thought’ (‘ein über kostlich hoch verständig gemähl’). Originally commissioned sometime before 1426 by a wealthy member of the urban patriciate in Ghent, Joos Vijd, from local artist Hubert van Eyck, the work was completed in 1432 by his more famous brother, the renowned Flemish artist Jan van Eyck. The work was made for the chapel personally founded by Joos Vijd in 1435 to celebrate a daily Mass for the soul of himself and his wife, Elisabeth Borluut. They are depicted on the sides of the altarpiece when it is closed, below an image of the Annunciation to the Virgin and grisaille (grey) images of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. At the very top of the closed panels are sibyls and prophets.
Both patron and painter had strong connections to the courts of the Low Countries. Joos Vijd was from a minor noble family. Jan van Eyck worked for both John of Bavaria, count of Holland and Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. In fact, he became a trusted courtier as well as court painter for Philip the Good, attaining the title of ‘varlet de chambre’. In 1426, Jan van Eyck travelled on pilgrimage to Jerusalem on behalf of the duke. His first-hand knowledge of the city accounts for the accurate depiction of the skyline of Jerusalem in a painting sometimes attributed to Jan, his workshop, or his brother Hubert. This is the c. 1410-1426 Three Marys at the Tomb. Notice the circular form of the Dome of the Rock in the centre of the painting: a building which still dominates the Jerusalem skyline, especially if you’re looking across at the Old City from the Mount of Olives
Jan made a ‘secret and far trip’ on Philip’s behalf at the same time, perhaps visiting cities in the Ottoman Empire. In 1428, he visited England and Spain on his way to Portugal, to help negotiate Philip’s third marriage to the Infanta Isabella of Portugal. Jan van Eyck painted two portraits of the princess to send back to Burgundy, and was again able to go on pilgrimage, this time to Santiago de Compostela.
But amongst all these courtly travels and delicate diplomatic missions, Jan van Eyck found the time to complete the Ghent Altarpiece by 1432…
Thanks for reading – we’ll have more of Laura’s thoughts on the altarpiece next week!
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.