The great and the small

Lately, I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) and have discovered three versions of John the Baptist. He is depicted on the top register as John the Baptist Enthroned (left) and also as one of the Hermits in the lower register (centre), standing alongside St Anthony the Great. His third appearance is next to the colossus figure of St Christopher on the adjacent Pilgrims panel (right).

John the Baptist enthroned in glory… in certainty… and in doubt.

It was John the Baptist who pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God. He stared hard at him as he passed and said to two of his disciples: “Look, there is the lamb of God.” (John 1 : 36).

The left foot points to temptation – the right foot to the Lamb of God and saving grace.

On the Hermits panel at the feet of the Baptist and his companion Anthony the Great alongside him there is a representation of a sacrificial lamb outlined on the stony ground. St Anthony’s right foot steps on it. Poets out there should consider this symbolism as a ”lambic foot”. On the chest of St Anthony is the outline of a Tau cross, symbol of the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony, a congregation founded late in the 11th century.

Anthony’s comfortable-looking footwear is something special. Are the uppers made of lambskin? Their soft, silvery appearance, along with Anthony’s ‘pruned’ walking stick, point to a folded clip of silver lying on the ground. This is a variation on the story associated with the saint when he went into the desert and the devil attempted to distract him by placing silver in his path. The placing of the Baptist a step back from St Anthony the Great is a pointer to John’s discussion with his followers when he said: “He [Jesus] must grow greater, I must grow smaller.” (John 3 : 30).

St Christopher assisting pilgrims (and Christ) in making the crossing to the New Jerusalem.

The great and the small theme carries through to the next panel. The colossal figure is probably better recognised as St Christopher, patron saint of travellers. Looking somewhat uncertain, John the Baptist is the man again positioned a step behind the leader – Christopher, which means Christ-bearer, and so named because of the legend that he carried a child on his back across a river who revealed himself to be Christ (Annointed One). When John was in prison he became uncertain about Jesus and so sent two of his disciples to question him and ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” ( the Christ).

The Terminus boundary marker and the buried head in the sand, possibly of John the Baptist.

The weather-worn headstone at St Christopher’s right foot can be viewed as a boundary marker, a crossing point, particularly in its position at the edge of the frame. It can also be understood as the separation point between the Old and the New Testaments represented by John the Baptist as the last OT prophet and Jesus as the NT prophet. In Roman times boundary markers were dedicated to the god Terminus. The headstone also points to the decollation of John the Baptist on the orders of the pagan ruler Herod Antipas. Could that be the outline of the Baptist’s head buried in the sand – a motif similar to the lamb outline on the ground seen in the Hermits panel? For certain the stone is meant to connect to the huge sculpted head of Constantine the Great who converted to Christianity on his deathbed – his terminus). The stone is still on display in Rome today. The head of the young man at the rear of the group is based on the Constantine sculpture. One of the identities given to this figure by Jan van Eyck is himself!

Three heads… Terminus, Constantine the Great, and a young but growing Jan van Eyck.

The Pilgrims scene has figures that represent the major pilgrimage sites of the day: Rome, Canterbury, Santiago Compostella and Jerusalem.

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