Conspiracy theories and the Ghent Altarpiece

  For the purpose of this study I'm focussing mainly on the Garden of Paradise panel showing the Lamb of God on an altar, surrounded by a host of people and various symbols – a fountain, flowing water, and a chalice. There’s lots going on here, and writers on art such as Elisabeth Dhanens(1), Noah Charney and others have explored its meaning in depth.  

   So have many others - just put 'Ghent Altarpiece' into Google and you'll see what I mean.

    So: van Eyck was an alchemist in secret communion with Leonardo da Vinci (whoops - van Eyck died more than ten years before Leonardo was born),  the altarpiece is full of Hermetic and Kabbalistic secrets, and on and on.  The van Eycks were Gnostics, they were Mandaeans. Hubert van Eyck didn't exist at all - he changed his name to Jan (John) when he adopted the Mandaean cult of John the Baptist, a key figure in the painting and the dedication of its chapel. (Presumably the entire cathedral clergy as well as the citizens of Ghent kept quiet about this – now that is a conspiracy theory before its time.)  
   The fact that bits of it have been stolen, and it certainly does have a chequered history, only adds to the swirling mystery. One panel, showing the Just Judges, was stolen in 1934 - clearly this panel had particular mystical significance, otherwise it wouldn't have been pinched. (Except some people believe that it was mysteriously replaced again and the supposed 'copy' is actually the real thing.) 
   As far as my research so far can tell, aliens have yet to show any interest in this painting, but - you'll never guess -  the Nazis did. In true Indiana Jones style, they had to have it! Indeed, during the war it was looted and taken to Germany, but whether that was to decode the mystical secrets that would enable them to take over the world, or whether they just liked helping themselves to paintings, I'll leave you to decide. 


Altarpiece closed

Altarpiece open

  So let's have a look at it and consider one or two common sense, if less dramatic ideas.  Yes, it's certainly full of strange images not often met with in other paintings. Conspiracy merchants might do well to consult  Dhanens rather than Hollywood, however. She makes a strong case for the iconography of the picture to be based on the theology of the twelfth-century theologian Rupert of Deutz, who came from Liege, not that far from Ghent.  He wrote extensively (and I mean extensively) on the Gospel of John, and it is this gospel, with its mention of the Lamb of God, along with the Book of Revelation (also supposedly by John) that is at the heart of the iconography of this picture. 

   The altarpiece is not a static picture, but a journey. With the shutters closed, we are presented with images of the incarnation. At the top are the prophets and sibyls that foretold the coming of Christ. In the centre is the Annunciation. Below are the donors, and between them the two key figures in the story: John the Baptist, who came up with the phrase Lamb of God,  and John the Evangelist. 
   When the panels are opened, the Evangelist's story reaches its conclusion, with images of redemption based on the Book of Revelation. One point often missed by the conspiracy theorists is the amount of didactic text included on the altarpiece, explaining the meaning of the various panels. Perhaps the most important are these words from the mass: Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi, 'Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the World'.
   The main scene shows the Lamb of God surrounded by hosts of people: prophets, patriarchs, saints, martyrs, precursors of Christ, churchmen, apostles, confessors. The side panels show hermits, pilgrims, judges and knights. All of the these represent 'the great multitude, which no man could number' (Revelation 8. 9) 
  Around the Lamb are angels, with items connected with the crucifixion: the scourge, the nails, and so on.  In front of it is the fountain of life, and this is at the heart of the interpretation of the painting. Again, the picture has helpful text, this time around the fountain: Hic est fons Aque vite procedens de sede Dei +Agni. 'This is the fountain of the water of life proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb'.
     Rupert of Deutz had particular views on the Eucharist: his ideas, known as impanation (the body of Christ embodied in bread and wine) were not unlike transubstantiation, but sufficiently different to be regarded as heretical. (If you want to follow this us up, there's a very brief article on impanation on Wikipedia, which includes a useful link to the Catholic encyclopaedia. It's pretty arcane stuff.)  Perhaps better than reading this, imagine the scene at the Eucharist.  The priest stands before the painting. He holds up the chalice; the blood flows from the altar to the fountain of life, and, from  the communicant's viewpoint, the water from the fountain pours straight into the chalice. It's not just a picture, it's an active participant in the drama of the Eucharist. 
     These ideas would almost certainly have been supplied to the van Eycks by a member of clergy. It really wasn't the job of a painter to come up with the detailed content; they painted to order, and slipping in their own heresies was definitely not encouraged. 
    But why the Lamb? As we've seen, its portrayal is unusual. Doesn't this raise questions? Well, here's an idea.
  The donor of the painting was Joos Vijd, a wealthy financier, who made his fortune from wool. In the Middle Ages Ghent was the centre of the wool trade in Europe.  For this reason a lamb, and by association John the Baptist,  was an important symbol of the city, as shown here on the medieval great seal of Ghent (left). The current coat of arms (right), from the town's website, shows the lion of Judah, that strange combination of lion and lamb described in Revelation chapter 5.


   So, when the priest raised that chalice before the great altarpiece, immediately behind it was the Lamb - attribute of John the Baptist, patron of the chapel, and symbol not only of Christ and the Eucharist, but also of the donor and the city itself.  Complex theology,  and maybe just a little local self-congratulation, merge to create one of the greatest paintings in the world.
   So - mysteries solved? Not quite. Look again at the figure in the Papal tiara immediately above the Lamb of God. Here's an enlarged version. Who is it? 

   The text ought to sort this out for us. It begins Hic est Deus potentissimus propter divinam maiestatem. 'This is God, the Almighty by reason of his divine majesty'.  But there is a problem. On either side of this figure are images of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. In all ways but one this is a familiar Last Judgement scene, with Mary and John acting as intercessors. But for that to be right the judgement figure should be Christ, not God. When we look behind the figure there is a tapestry, and on the tapestry are woven grapes and pelicans - symbols of Christ. 
   Christ seems to be the most likely candidate - and yet - notice something about the hand? No 'holy wounds' caused by the nails at the crucifixion. A quick check through other versions of the Last Judgement show that, for the most part, these were included.

   Was this ambiguity deliberate? Again, the text on the image should help. The text on the robe includes 'King of Kings and Lord of Lords' from Revelation. This text was amplified in the writings of Rupert of Deutz:
   'Behold this crowned King, behold his purple robe . . . . I am King of Kings and Lord of Lords.'  Elsewhere, Rupert describes Christ as 'Magnus Pontifex' (High priest): 'He is God and Man, King and Priest.'  (2)
  This would certainly explain both the Papal tiara and the 'more God-like than Christ-like' image. 
  Does it solve the mystery? Perhaps. But let's allow this extraordinary picture  to hang on to just a few of its secrets. 

    1  Elisabeth Dhanens Van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece.  Art in context series, Viking Press NY 1973
    2 From the writings of Rupert of Deutz collected in
Patrologia Latina by Jacques Paul Migne  published between 1844 and 1855.

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