Nothing is what it seems in the Ghent Altarpiece, which is full of symbolism. Even the most banal detail tells a whole story. This makes Jan Van Eyck not only a masterful painter, but also a great storyteller. In this blog post we go deeper into the iconography and unravel the symbolic meanings behind the scenes and details on the Ghent Altarpiece.

1. Floor tiles

You almost literally have to look at it with a magnifying glass, but the tiled floor on the panels with the singing and music-making angels has a beautiful pattern. And not just any pattern. The blue and white tiles are decorated with the Christ monogram, the Marian monogram and representations of the Lamb of God. The acronym AGLA can also be seen on various tiles. This stands for Atha Gibor Leolam Adonai, "Thou art mighty forever, О Lord ". Van Eyck uses even the smallest details to continue the religious theme of his altarpiece.

2. Angel brooch

The Ghent Altarpiece is like a complex film that never gets boring: the more you see it, the more ingenious details you discover. On the panel with the singing angels, the angel in front is wearing a blue brooch, which shows a reflection of the window of Vijd’s chapel. This chapel is the original location in St Bavo's Cathedral for which the triptych was intended. While painting his masterpiece, Jan Van Eyck even took into account the incidence of light in that specific place.

3. Mary’s flower crown

This detail is full of symbolism too. On the front of the altarpiece, the Virgin Mary wears a crown of flowers, pearls and gems. The flowers all refer to the month of May, also known as the Marian month. In addition, each flower has a symbolic meaning that can be associated with her. The lily stands for virginity, the rose for love, the lily of the valley is known as a bringer of happiness and the columbine with its curved leaves symbolizes humility. And coincidence or not, but on the frame of the polyptych is the date on which it was officially installed in St Bavo's Cathedral: 6 – yes, you’ve guessed it – May 1432.

4. The pincers with the tongue

The central panel depicts plenty of figures, but anyone who thought that Van Eyck would just throw a bunch of people on canvas (read: panel) is wrong. It is clear that the Flemish master had thought very carefully about the worshippers of the Lamb of God. In the far right group of martyrs, you can distinguish two saints: Saint Livinus and Saint Stephen. Livinus can be recognised by the pincers and tongue that he is holding. Livinus was the patron saint of Ghent and, during a sermon in Esse, his tongue was torn out by a group of heathens. Right in front of him stands Saint Stephen, who carries a pile of stones in his dalmatic. Stephen is known as the first martyr. He was stoned to death after having accused the high priest of the murder of Jesus.

5. Pelican

It seems as if Van Eyck is really trying his best to hide as many details as possible in the altarpiece. Behind the central figure of God hangs a tapestry with a pelican motif. The pelican on the tapestry is piercing its own breast with its beak to feed its young. In the Middle Ages, this was a commonly used symbol for the sacrificial death of Christ. Above the pelican, there is a banderole with text: IHESVS XPS, or Jesus Christ. To give you an idea of how impressive his detailed work is: the pelican young on the tapestry are only 1 centimetre tall!

6. Instruments of the Passion

The central figure on the altarpiece is of course the Lamb of God. It occupies such an prominent place on the central panel, that your eyes are immediately drawn to the sacrificial animal, and you would almost forget that there is also a lot going on in the background. The attentive spectator sees that the bleeding animal is surrounded by a group of angels who carry the instruments of the Passion. The Lamb is the personification of Jesus who sacrifices his life to save mankind from its sins. The instruments of the Passion depicted refer to his crucifixion. The two angels on the right behind the altar carry the pillar of flagellation and a whip, on the left you see the cross with the crown of thorns and the lance.

7. Quatrain

Van Eyck filled not only the panels with countless details, but also the frames. In 1823, during the cleaning of the frames of the outer side panels, a quatrain (a poem consisting of four lines) was discovered. And Jan Van Eyck would not be Van Eyck if he did not do something special with it. In the last line a number of letters have been marked. If you add up the Roman numerical value of these letters, you get the number 1432, the year in which the Ghent Altarpiece was revealed. 

Pictor Hubertus e Eyck . maior que nemo repertus
Incepit . pondus . q[ue] Johannes arte secundus
[Frater] perfecit. Judoci Vijd prece fretus

VersU seXta MaI . Vos CoLLoCat aCta tUerI

The quatrain can be translated as follows:

The painter Hubert van Eyck, greater than whom no one was found, began this work. His brother Jan, second in art, having completed this difficult task at the request of Joos Vijd, invites you by this verse to see the result on 6 May [1432].

Do you want to see the details with your own eyes? Then come to Ghent and visit the most famous altarpiece in the world!