Underground music

There was a news item published last week about scientists in Wales looking at how slag heaps can be used to remove CO2 from the air in the fight against climate change.

It caught my attention – but not for the most obvious reason. Slag, the waste left over from old ironworks, features in one of the panels in the Ghent Altarpiece, the Musical Angels (Praise with Strings and Organ).

It’s represented in the black blooms featured on the organist’s gown. The organ doubles up for a bloomery, an early type of furnace used for smeting iron, a by-product of which would be steel, hence the shiny steel organ pipes.

A close look at the left edge of the picture frame reveals a fiery figure and what appears to be a set of bellows, pumping air into the furnace and at the same time into the organ. The furnance dust and smoke has seemingly dulled the garments of the other ‘angels’ when, compared to the vivid colours of the ‘angels’ in the opposite panel.

Van Eyck makes another point by weaving the black blooms with expensive gold cloth. So from bloom he rhymes to ‘loom’ and the steel pipes now become the warp while the angel wefts her way across the keyboard, the outcome being the dark and shiny garment ‘drop’ from the loom onto the tiled floor.

As part of the musical narrative Van Eyck switches focus to mythology and the competition between Pan and Apollo as to who was the best musician, Pan on his pipes or Apollo on his lyre. The mountain god Tmolus was the judge. Also present was King Midas, now a follower of Pan. Tmolus judged Apollo the winner. He can be recognised in the painting as the angel holding the lyre and touching Apollo on the shoulder. Notice also the bovine shape of the lyre and its two horns – pointers to the death suffered by Tmolu after being gored by a bull.

King Midas disagreed with Tmolu’s decision and questioned the judgment. Apollo responded by declaring that Midas “must have the ears of an ass!” and with that the king’s ears turned into those of a donkey. The donkey’s ears are featured in gold below the organist’s shoulder. Everything that Midas touched, even his ears, turned to gold. But why did Van Eyck depict Tmolus holding the lyre and not Apollo? What made him want to switch the instruments in this way? He had his reasons, which I shall explain in another post.

At surface level the organ-playing ‘angel’ represents St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Jan has also portrayed her as being blind. This is a pointer to another chapter from Chaucer’s The Canterbury TalesThe Second Nun’s Tale – which relates the story of St Cecilia and how she was able, with faith in God, to see beyond the ‘material’ world.

Much more on the Musical Angels panel and identifying the angels in a future post.

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Images: closertovaneyck