By: Dr Philip Crispin
St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent is the home of one of the most celebrated pictures from the Middle Ages: the Ghent Altarpiece. Complex and multi-panelled, this was painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in the early fifteenth century, and it features Christ in Majesty, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Adam and Eve en grisaille, and, at its heart, in a great central panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The Lamb of God stands on an altar surrounded by angels, and a fountain of life wells up directly beneath. Around the Lamb, throng martyrs, prophets and saints, while in other panels, soldiers, religious and sinners approach from further away. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers over the Lamb and beams of heavenly light radiate from the bird.
A copy of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb can currently be found in a fascinating exhibition at the National Gallery: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites (notably William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais) are certainly known for their medievalism, and Ruskin, for one, though a great admirer, was suspicious of their 'Catholic tendencies'. In Jan Van Eyck, the Brotherhood found a hugely inspiring combination of attentiveness to nature and the significance and symbolism of certain key objects, notably in The Arnolfini Portrait, housed then as now at the National Gallery. Here, the pale-skinned Arnolfini husband and wife join hands, both with eyes averted from the spectator. Their little terrier, on the other hand, gazes out at the viewer from floor-level. The picture is celebrated for its convex mirror on the back wall in which Van Eyck the painter, it is commonly believed, can just be gleaned, and which reveals a world beyond the opulent interior with its rich palette of colours, wealthy furnishings, garments and luxurious drapery. Fruit within and without suggest a fruitful marriage; there is also a statue of St Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy. For a long time the woman was thought to be pregnant but now it is thought more likely that she is holding up her gown's rich fabrics around her womb in the fashionable style. A sole candle burns above the head of the man while only some wax remains in a fixture above the woman's head. Some think this is in fact a memorial portrait of Constanza Arnolfini who may have died in childbirth. The confident gazing dog, of course, also signifies fidelity.
The exhibition, beautifully co-curated by Susan Foister of the National Gallery, and Alison Smith at the Tate, includes a range of works by the PRB and their acolytes which demonstrate the deep influence of the Arnolfini Portrait upon them, notably in the use of palette and plays of light; costume and furnishing; and symbolism, especially the convex mirror. Rosetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Hunt's The Awakening Conscience, and Millais's Mariana all demonstrate sensitive studies of thoughtful women caught between the inner and the outer worlds. This is also true of Hunt's Lady of Shalott with her glorious and luxurious belle chevelure tossed in passionate désarroi. The stained-glass Annunciation and the burning lamp in Mariana, and the rich furnishings in this picture and in The Awakening Conscience also reveal an indebtedness to The Arnolfini Portrait.
The exhibition also includes Van Eyck's canny, assessing Portrait of a Man. The direct gaze, along with the punning inscription Als Ich Can (As I/Eyck Can), suggests that this is a self- portrait. The wearer's turban is truly glorious and suggests an absolute artistic flair.
Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites
2nd October 2017 - 2nd April 2018
Trafalgar Square, London
For more information see: www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/reflections-van-eyck-and-the-pre-raphaelites
Dr Philip Crispin is a Lecturer in Drama at the University of Hull