Faith through Art: Praying with images in The Ghent Altarpiece

By Norman Farmer

“Sursum corda” or “Lift up (your) hearts!” This, one of the oldest known liturgical phrases, succinctly defines the purpose and meaning of The Ghent Altarpiece: to praise God and to lift up our hearts to the glories of the New Jerusalem. One of the world’s most famous masterworks of sacred art, it was painted by Jan van Eyck ( 1395-1441) and installed in 1432 in a private side-chapel of St. Bavo’s Cathedral at Ghent, Belgium. After surviving the ups and downs of war from the age of Napoleon through World War II, it is once again home.
This massive, copiously detailed ensemble (11 feet by 15 feet) was designed to evoke and sustain contemplation upon the Communion of Saints at the Supper of the Lamb (Rv 5: 6-9). When the hinged panels are closed, one set of 12 images is visible. When it is opened, a second and vastly more spectacular set is revealed, giving the altarpiece a narrative dimension with deep roots in the Morning Divine Office for All Saints as well as the Mass of the Solemnity of All Saints, which we celebrated on Nov. 1. The images cross salvation history from the fall of Adam and Eve to the Annunciation and Incarnation of Our Lord to John’s vision of the “holy city, a new Jerusalem ... prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rv 21: 1-2). 
On its cover panel, the original donors – Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut – pray for the intercession of John The Baptist (who announced Christ’s coming) and John The Evangelist (who explains Christ’s mission) as they anticipate the panels opening to reveal the Communion of Saints. Through this beautiful piece, we reflect today upon the mysteries of the Annunciation and its consequences, among them the mystery of Mary’s “Behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord” (Lk 1:26-38). Inscribed here in gold, in reverse order and upside down, her words remind us that only a complete reversal of our worldly perspectives will permit us to know what those words truly mean. 
The altarpiece guides us into a dramatic epiphany of “the City of Jerusalem and of its King ...” God the Father, made visible in the person of his Son, is enthroned. By jeweled embroidery upon his stole, he is identified as “Lord of Hosts.” The tiara proclaims him “Trinity.” And at his feet, the crystal crown of a worldly king proclaims that he is the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rv 19:16). 
The praise eternally “sung in the assembly of saints” is inscribed on golden arches above the enthroned Deity, where we are to read, recite and ponder them: “This is God most powerful, because of His divine majesty.” Standing witness in Heaven to God’s infinite mercy, Adam and Eve, life-size in their human nakedness, wear the fig-leaves that signify the wound that Mary healed and the ever merciful God forgave.
Words of praise, too, circle Peter at God’s left and Mary, the Queen of Heaven, at his right. With such accolades, we see the splendors described in the First and the Second Readings of Morning Prayer on the Solemnity of All Saints. 
In the great center panel, from Revelation 5:6-9, we witness “Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne ... a Lamb that seemed to have been slain... Between the throne ... and the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, a Lamb that had been slain ... and the elders fell down before the Lamb.” 
Surrounding the Lamb is van Eyck’s precise enumeration of the Saints as described in a sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). “Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us ... a longing to enjoy their company ... We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs [left foreground], the ranks of prophets [also, left foreground], the council of apostles [those closest to the Lamb on the right], the great host of martyrs [in red robes behind them], the noble company of confessors [top left] and the choir of virgins [top right]... Come … We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven.” 
Above the Lamb, the Holy Spirit illumines the landscape that inspired the Psalmist to sing: “When you send forth your breath ... you renew the face of the earth ... I will sing praise to my God while I live” (Ps 104: 30-33). 
Christ promises “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture says, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him’” (Jn 7: 37-38). This river, “sparkling like crystal, flow[s] from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1) directly into the hearts of all who contemplate the mysteries envisioned by the Ghent Altarpiece, the mysteries that prepare us for the celebration of Mass.
Suggested further reading Scott Hahn, “The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth” (Doubleday, 1999).