Jan Van Eyck had an eye for detail, which resulted in unparalleled realistic masterpieces. Thanks to these meticulous details, the Flemish master has left us with a wealth of information about fifteenth-century life and customs. The Ghent Altarpiece, for example, not only reveals which plants and herbs were known in the Middle Ages, but also which instruments were played. These instruments have been painted so realistically that you can even see how and from what kind of wood they were made. So there is much to say about the two music panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. Read on and go on a musical journey through time!
Few medieval musical instruments have been preserved. Most of our knowledge about them comes from the iconography and art of the time. The Ghent Altarpiece is a good example of this. What is striking is that the panels with the singing and playing angels occupy a prominent place in the altarpiece. The reason for this is that, according to many medieval visions, heaven opens up to the tones of divine music. That is why the panels with the angels are so close to the central panel with the figure of God.
What's remarkable is that the angels look very human without their wings. They seem to be ordinary musicians and choir singers who used to take care of the liturgical services at the time. Van Eyck chose this human representation to bridge the gap between the unknowable heavenly liturgy and the audible earthly liturgy. The musical angels had to be a heavenly reflection of the mass that was held every day in front of the polyptych.
Purely instrumental music was rather rare in the Middle Ages. Vocal music was preferred and instruments were mainly used to accompany a choir, for dances and during processions. This also applies to the Ghent Altarpiece: the singing angels take the lead and are accompanied by their musician colleagues. The angel in front of the group of musicians sits behind a small organ. Like most medieval musical instruments, the organ originated in antiquity. It has existed since 300 B.C. and for a long time it was only known in Byzantium. It was introduced in Western Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. Although the organ was originally mainly used for secular purposes, it was increasingly considered to be a church instrument between the 9th and 12th centuries.
In medieval iconography, we mostly find the smallest version of the organ: the organetto. The organetto has two or three dozen pipes and a maximum range of two octaves. The organist operates the keyboard with one hand and the bellows with the other. The organ depicted on the Ghent Altarpiece can be played with both hands, because the bellows are operated by another angel. On the far left of the panel you can just see a strand of that angel’s hair. From the wood pattern it can be deduced that the organ case was made of oak. Moreover, the handle tells us that the instrument was portable.
Instruments of courtly love
The other two instruments on the panel of the music-making angels are a harp and a vielle. Instruments other than the organ were not really commonly used in church at that time, but in Van Eyck's heaven other rules apply. The term 'vielle' can refer to many different instruments. During the Middle Ages, the naming of instruments was not consistent and there was no fixed pattern to build them either. That is why this period in history is characterised by a rich diversity of musical instruments in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
A vielle is usually a stringed instrument with an oval or rectangular body that rests on the shoulder or in the lap. The angel does not play the vielle, but simply holds the instrument. This makes it difficult to determine how the instrument was played. With the exception of the soundboard – which is made of softwood – the instrument usually consists of one piece of hardwood (e.g. maple).
During the Middle Ages, the vielle and the harp were held in the highest esteem because they were played by troubadours and trouvères and were therefore associated with courtly love. The harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world. The earliest preserved example dates back to 2600 B.C. Characteristic of the medieval harp is that the soundbox is made of a single piece of wood. The strings are made of gut. Van Eyck painted this instrument with such detail and realism that you can distinguish the thick strings producing the low tones from the thin strings producing the high tones.
Do you hear them sing?
On the left side of the figure of God, a group of singing angels stands around a richly decorated lectern. This group forms the counterpart of the organ on the other music panel. The lectern is another fine example of detailed work. It incorporates a sculpture of the battle between the Archangel Michael and the dragon, a reference to the Book of Revelation. On top of the lectern there is an open manuscript revealing a few notes: ut [fa] ut [la]. The notes are written in mensural notation, which is characteristic of polyphony.
Although it was customary in the Middle Ages for singers to read from a single score, the manuscript is almost never looked at. The singers know the pieces by heart and the score is merely a reminder. Researchers cannot say with certainty which piece of music the angels are actually singing. What is certain is that Van Eyck did not paint a haphazard mishmash. Judging by the different facial expressions and frowns, we can deduce that the angels are singing in polyphony and from the position of their mouths it can be deduced who is singing which voice: soprano, haute-contre, tenor or bass.
The Ghent Altarpiece is a valuable source of information not only for researchers, but also for musicians from all over the world. Although it is more than 500 years old, musicians, composers and instrument builders are still inspired by Van Eyck's masterpiece. The Ghent Altarpiece is so much more than just a piece of world heritage, it is a living icon that continues to bring about contemporary musical interpretations. Come to Ghent in 2020 and hear for yourself how the angels come to life in beautiful compositions and concerts!