A Day in Ghent
We went to Ghent last Monday with Geert and Fabienne, our close friends here in Belgium. To say it was a “lovely day” is an understatement of huge proportions. The atmosphere was clear and the gentle breeze was blowing a cool relief amidst an early June day of crystal clear azure blue skies. The medieval city of Ghent and its sister city of Bruges (where we went last year) were thriving with industry and trade in the Middle Ages—and became cultural hubs for the Northern Renaissance in the 1400’s.
The Duke of Burgundy at this time, Philip the Good, was a kind of Medici of the North. Flanders fell under his lands of rulership, and the area was experiencing an economic boom of monumental magnitude. Bruges and Ghent were economic influencers at the time, all over Europe, and considered the major cultural centers of Flanders and the Netherlands. The merchant class burgeoned in these areas, which made it possible for prominent citizens who were not aristocracy to finance major works of art. This was the case with the Ghent Altarpiece. Jodocus Vyd, from an extremely wealthy family of Ghent financiers, commissioned the Ghent Altarpiece to be painted by Hubert Van Eyck in 1420.
Our Day Was One of Wonder and Exaltation
Religious Paintings of the day were highly scrutinized by the ecclesiastical sects, and the local theologians had power to wield the thumps up of content approval or thumbs down to the aesthetic license of many a forward seeing visionary—especially when church money was being used in the financing of these paintings. These religious artworks were primarily housed in public cathedrals and churches where the congregation could take them in and be edified.
But in spite of the ecclesiastical baloney, the “Lamb of God,” The Ghent Altarpiece, is an amazing piece of work. Hubert Van Eyck was not able to complete the work. He died in 1426 after working for six years on the major panels, and it was his younger brother, Jan Van Eyck, who took up the brush to complete it. Already a court painter in the court of Philip the Good, Jan Van Eyck the Younger, whose facility was as accomplished as his older brother, brought his sensitivity to the project and completed it in 1432. It was installed in the Vyd Chapel of the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent on May 6th, 1432.
Whatever one may think about the contrived symbolism and sanctioned iconography of the Catholic Church, there is an unprecedented beauty and exaltation one feels looking at this “Lamb of God” painting. I was in awe of the intensity of attention sustained over a 12 year period to create this visually magnificent work. Mind you, Jan Van Eyck was majorly employed, both artistically and diplomatically, by the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. When his older brother died in 1426, and the progress on the Altar came to a halt, it was not until 1430 that Van Eyck the Younger was able to get to Ghent to complete it. But indeed he did, and the work is here to attest to his tenacious and uncompromising genius.
The Back Is As Interesting As the Front
Mind you, patrons of the arts, especially religious arts, want to be remembered in heaven. Lord help them if they were unscrupulous in medieval business maneuvers, but in God’s Eyes they would like their purchasing power—channeled to the remembrance of Holy Scenes and Characters in the form of public art works—to be their ticket through those pearly gates. Jodocus Vyd and his wife, Lysbette Borluut, wanted their piety to be noted in the “afterlife.” Indeed, nearly 600 years later, we are happy to remember their patronage of this amazing art work. God save them and bless them. Joe is on the left, next to a painted statue of John the Baptist, and Izzie is praying in a reverent kneeling posture on the right, next to John of Patmos, the Evangelist, who wrote Revelations. Red robes are the symbols of their pious passions.
Above them is the Annunciation with the Arch Angel Gabriel informing the Virgin Mary she will be with child. The Dove of the Holy Spirit descends upon her, and the view of Ghent in the background gives the painting a “modern context” as if an artist today would comfortably depict the holy scene amidst the sky scrapers of New York or Dubai. Various patriarchs and a single matriarch hover in the top spaces of half circles and split central arch, but these are more place holders than any major personages. They are more 15th century fashion icons than anything—swirled with some Latin pennants of various lofty utterances.
In its early days, the Altarpiece would only have been opened on Holy Days. And the patrons and the Annunciation would have been mostly on view to the public, occupying the train of mundane periods of regular religious penance and piety.
A Serious Art Look Here
Now let’s open up the thing and take a close look at why it is so famous. And rightly so. God is front and center, and in the place where the King of Heaven, Jesus, usually sits being pointed at by his harbinger, John The Baptist. Mother Mary on the left reads in her Book of Days. Scholars have argued this is God himself on His Kingly Throne of the Universe, presiding over the “sacrificial Lamb” about to be offered up on the Altar of the most Holy Act, in the panel just below. We are given a lot to ponder here.
The detail in the Northern Renaissance works is stunning. The ability to depict light and color with the draped clothing captures our attention. And the orderliness of it all. It’s in perfect balance and harmony, as not a stroke of content is superfluous. One can feel the intensity of attention the artist required of himself to pull this off. His subjects are bejeweled. His spaces are infused with a kind of other worldly dimension. It is as if the holiness of the Characters descends upon our gaze, and we are transformed along with the artist in observation of someone blessed in the Eyes of God.
And the Jewels! The Jewels, the Jewels, the Jewels! No New Age crystal shop could have done it better, as we are inundated with the encrustation of precious and semi-precious stones. Mind you, some of the pigments themselves that form the brilliant colors of the painting are semi-precious stones ground down to a pulverized powder, then mixed with a medium of linseed oil to bind them in a painterly paste!
Mary is a manifestation of the Divine Mother. We are somehow calmed in her presence, and as Queenly figures go who are crowned with such opulence, we really enjoy her ascension to the thrown of our royal adorations. She is at the pinnacle of her power, but also in the approachable humanness of her personal connection with us.
God, or the Christ, or Both?
There is some controversy whether the Kingly figure in the Blazing Red Robe is Jesus or God? In his position as the ruler of Heaven, Jesus is usually pointed out by John the Baptist, and in this case he is right there pointing. But as a royal sceptered sovereign, this central King of Kings is often considered a depiction of God Himself. The distinguishable gap between God the Father and God the Son is very thin here. And we are asked to blur that distinction and accept Jesus as a Divine Incarnation of deified dimensions. He could be Jesus—or He could be God—no worries either way, mates.
What can one say? Far-fetched—yes. A church generated Holy fantasy—probably. A mesmerizing possibility of Divine Aspiration—as well true. A testament to the intensity of skill, stamina, passion and interest of the painter—well, that is the most plausible focus of actuality. And it is also the one connection we would do well to insist upon with any preponderance of this wondrously determined work. The Hand of God is in it, but not quite under the ecclesiastical thumb of a “god projected,” designed to quell the detractors and keep the congregation aligned with a domineering church authority. This Person could well emanate the lofty lusciousness of a Savior in our midst. There is a welling compassion in His gaze, and a blessing in the mandala of jewels emanating from his heart chakra. We can receive His love absolute. Why not receive it. Just the red alone could give us a beatific vision of the Heavenly Realms. Look again, and let go of all your “Churchianity” that might taint your view. You could receive a real “darshan” if you are open to it.
Look Down Upon The “Lamb of God”
Below these regal figures is a curious scene in a totally different scale. This is intentional of course. The Monumental figures above are almost unreachable in humanly, mundane terms. But nevertheless, we can reach them. But the scene below incarnates us in a kind of “society of Divine Happenings” that goes beyond our worldly affairs, while engaging the very attention we need to get the scoop of the story. It is a story, albeit of Divine Magnitude. Remember that most of the Church visitors would be illiterate, and the visual outpourings of paintings and statuary in the Church settings were didactic to the masses. People learned through pictures, and the painters were the chroniclers of these stories that edified the congregation.
The “Lamb of God” was then, and is now a symbolism as old as Christianity itself. Jesus the shepherd, and Jesus as the “sacrificial lamb of God” were images and stories the people were brought up on in the Christian Faith. The innocence of the lamb, and the notion of “sacrifice” were embedded in the nomenclature of Church Dogma, and the people were fed with the notion that Jesus “died for our sins.” In the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur all the “sins” of the community were pinned on the “scapegoat” that was subsequently sent out into the wilderness to die (and thus absolve the villagers of their “sins” and transgressions). This “sacrifice” of the “Lamb of God” was very much in the religious psyche of the day.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The truly pious will receive some sort of Divine Wisdom, but the gentleness of the lamb comes with some degree of sagaciousness of the serpent. That Jesus was the innocent Who fully realized the Love of God is clear. But that he also knew the treachery of the ego’s thought system was within the scope of His Self-Realization. He knew ahead of time the trials of the crucifixion that he was willing to endure, but he also knew of the PROMISE of the RESURRECTION that would establish him as the Christ.
Another Northern Renaissance painter of reputed status, Matthias Grünewald, who painted a generation later well into the 1500’s, completed the Christian Mystery with this effulgent summation that established Jesus as the Christ by virtue of His Resurrection. This panel is from the Isenhiem Altarpiece that was painted in 1512-16 in a small village near Colmar, France. The triumph of Life over “Death” is the real end result of the Christian message. Here it is, so rarely painted in the liturgy of Catholicism.
What is this “Lamb of God” who “takes away the sins” of this earth? Sin, seen merely as a collection of our mistakes, of which we all have many, meets up with an inner correction of the Christ. We begin to see the whole drama of suffering and its correction (the “crucifixion” and it’s subsequent “resurrection”) as our own life drama. We Awaken to the Self we Share with Christ—our Real Self—that was always in us. Now, this ART LOOK is not meant to be a liturgical discourse on the differences between the message of A Course in Miracles and that of traditional church theology. The Ghent Altarpiece takes us far beyond that dilemma. But I am asking us to see, to ART LOOK through a different lens. And that “lens” is to show what is actually there, even symbolically, as the physical veracity of the painted forms are crystal clear in their depictions.
That a whole community of figures is gathered on a pastoral hill outside of town for an Adoration of civic proportions is obvious. The learned scholars, the church fathers, the ladies in waiting, the apostles themselves, and a cadre of well focused angels kneel and congregate around this central Altar of the Lamb. No gory facts are presented when telling the passions awaiting the Christ in his march to Golgotha and his culmination through crucifixion. Much has been painted and sculpted about that. There is something far beyond suffering, and its foreboding, in this scene. It truly is an Adoration of Innocence. It is a preparation for Ascension, that has already taken place by the way, on such a grand scale as Above. The Monumental personages in this Holy Drama—Mary, Jesus or God, and John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin in his Mission, sit on their thrones of Heaven already benefitting from a Heavenly Coronation.
The “Lamb of God” is below them, but not not in the sense of “less than.” The “Lamb of God” is them. The Innocence and Simplicity of this stalwart creature shows the vulnerability of the Truth. The Truth will set us free, but the Truth must first clothe itself in the emblem of Innocence that the Christ represents. No defense or attack is possible in this kind of Identity. As gentle as the Lamb is, there is a poise and certainty that can transcend even the notion of a blood sacrifice. The Lamb spurts out blood into the Holy Grail of communion. Of this we are meant to drink in Remembrance of Him—who is ALREADY IN US, I might add.
Do We Really Know What We Are Adoring?
We can get all dressed up in our finery and go out to the Holy Hill to view the innocent “Lamb of God” about to be sacrificed. We can sit in the Vyd Chapel in the Bavo Cathedral and gaze at this 15th Century masterpiece until we are blue in the face. But do we really know what we are adoring? There is a story we have been told many times before, and it went into so many ears and out the other ears we hardly can have one ear that can actually hear anymore. We are tainted in our views, and this stain on our ability to see and hear blocks our deeper adoration.
I appreciate our friends, Geert and Fabienne, for making our day in Ghent meaningful. I hardly knew about the Ghent Altarpiece. After ART LOOKING at it for a few days now, the deeper Presence of it is sinking into me. Gradually but steadily, a 600 year old Altarpiece that is also a masterpiece works on the psyche of human kind. Can we really see it? Can we really adore its message in the sense that we are transformed into our own innocence? Can we see that the “Lamb of God” is actually in us, before we were besmirched by the bumps and bruises of our daily lives? We must. The Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, patronized by the banker “Joe” and his pious wife, “Izzie,” along with the “Good Philip” of Burgundy, congregated together to bring us this moment of inner awakening.
And whether the “red-robed-royal” front and center, ascended from the silence of the lamb below, is God or Jesus or a model next door wrapped in raiment for Van Eyck to get all the visual details straight, we have to reckon with ourselves, and come to the “Lamb of God” in us. This painting helps us do it. But will we? That is a question only you can answer.
Love to you all who read this,