The Altarpiece of Ghent

The first truly great masterpiece to demonstrate the possibilities available when working with oil paint, so they say, was the van Eyck brothers’ Altarpiece of Ghent. (The elder brother, Hubert, apparently did the general design, and his brother Jan painted it after the brother’s death.)

I ran across a reference during my studies of the history of Belgium, and found it interesting, though it is (at present) very unlikely to turn up in my novel.


A little research turned up a few worthwhile links, though:

While reading about this painting, I ran up against a couple of other odd links that connect to my own novel’s subject, though, and I thought I’d note them here, for the curious. There’s a lot of weird stuff that sort of all links up… or, well, looks like that, when you twist and adjust it, and squint a little while looking from the right angle, which is to say, when you look at it with a conspiratorial-playful mindset (without taking it all too seriously, of course). 

For example, when one reads about the comissioning of the Altarpiece of Ghent, it’s hard to miss the references Philip III, Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good, as he was called colloquially). He was, at the time, a prominent political figure and in fact was closely connected with the merchant who commissioned the painting… and anyway, Jan van Eyck was appointed as a painter in his court in 1425, so they were indeed connected directly as well. (Oh, and Philip happens to be the leader credited with the capture of Joan of Arc, incidentally.)

Philip the Good also stands out in Cammaerts’ history of Belgium, among other reasons, for being the founder of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a chivalric organization the name of which was very controversial since it referred, very obviously, to the pagan story of Jason and the Argonauts. A lamb of gold figures prominently in their iconography:


Philip the Good is also rumored to have been interested in alchemy, according to some websites; I don’t know how much to trust those sites even to convey mere rumors, but I can say it wouldn’t be surprising, given the state of science, medicine, and superstition at the time: after all, almost two hundred years later, a subsequent Duke of Burgundy named Philip (specifically, Philip II, King of Spain) was very much interested in alchemy, distillation, herbalism, and other such stuff.

But guess what? Back at least to the Byzantine era, there have been alchemical readings of the story of Jason and the Argonauts‘ quest for the Golden Fleece. By some, the story was taken as metaphorical for the search either for an alchemical text (for which the “Golden Fleece” was a metaphor); others took it to represent the search for alchemical knowledge. (For those with a tolerance for more of both banana and nut in their loaf, this page explores some of this more deeply. Others–like me–may prefer a more skeptical take.)

And of course, the “lamb” in Christian mythology comes to mind… which brings us back to Ghent, since the figure at the centerpiece of the main panel is a lamb–hence the alternate name of the altarpiece, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.”


Remember, this is in a society where alchemy was seen as an element of science, and even later on, in Paracelsus’ day, a clear division between science and theology did not exist: Paracelsus saw his study of nature as a study of the handiwork of the Divine, and alchemical study would not necessarily be seen as anything different–its “scientific” veneer increasingly helped to shield it from accusations of witchcraft or black magic, after all. But in the 1400s, one senses it would have been kept a little more under wraps… so hermetic elisions of Christian and alchemical iconography might not only make sense to people interested in alchemy, but might not even have been interpreted by practitioners as problematic in the first place. (Though I get the feeling they realized non-alchemists might probably have felt differently.)

And then there’s the fact that most Renaissance art historians described the painter of the Altarpiece of Ghent as an alchemist himself; whether or not there’s any substance to it, alchemy ends up being a part of the historical narrative of European art:

Artists in 15th-century Italy, where the renaissance began, were obsessed with creating a deceptive image of the world through single-point perspective – and yet they still used egg tempera paints with their hard, opaque blocks of colour.

That was why Van Eyck’s art looked so magical to them. That was why, it was said, a young adventurer from Sicily travelled north to sit at the alchemist’s knee and learn his secret.

The story is told by all the early historians of European art: by Giorgio Vasari in his 16th-century Lives of the Painters, and by Dutch art historian Carel van Mander in his 17th-century compendium of the lives of northern artists, The Painter’s Treatise.

It’s the origin myth of oil painting: Van Eyck discovering the secret in his alchemist’s laboratory before it is gradually carried across Europe, from north to south, until, by the beginning of the 16th century, oil painting is no longer a secret.

As I commented the other day: I feel like I know what it feels like to be a conspiracy theorist. Almost, anyway… I lack the credulity to take connections between ideas and individuals in a small population with very limited cultural boundaries as evidence of deep, dark secret conspiracies. But playing connect-the-dots with the world, that’s something I think could become addictive, for a certain sort of person.

In any case, the two Philips raise interesting questions about the independence of the Low Countries, something that was constantly hoped-for but rarely achieved during this period; my recent post mentions some of the political history of the region in relation to this. That, at least, seems much more pertinent to my novel. I doubt I’ll get into the paintings and van Eyck much: it all feels a little too Dan Brown (ie. The Da Vinci Code) for my taste… though the Jason stuff, and the political links with alchemy, those seem rather useful.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *