Hubert and Jan van Eyck sourced two biblical passages as a basis for the composition of the Lamb of God panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. One is the prophecy by Isaiah when he spoke of the Coming of the Virtuous King and the Return of the Exiles (11:1-16, 12: 1-3); the other is the Feeding of the Multitude account recorded in all four gospels.
Isaiah stated that the Lord “will bring back the scattered people of Judah from the four corners of the earth (11:12), hence the four groups of people gathered around the altar and mirroring the four corners of the earth. They stand on ceremony waiting to be fed by the Lamb of God, to eat and drink from the Lord’s table, as did the apostles who shared the Passover meal with Jesus at the Last Supper.
In the section referred to as Witnesses to the Old Covenant the figures are pieced together with more biblical references, each figure dependent or related to another. In some instances the figures are grouped in threes, having a particular common connection.
Other figures in the group of ‘Witnesses’ have more that one identity. This pairing or doubling-up process can be understood in three ways – firstly as a pointer to the miracle of the multiplication of loaves (John 6:1); secondly in the way that Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs to proclaim the gospel (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1); and thirdly as both clean and unclean ‘saved’ creatures of the earth entering Noah’s ark two by two (Genesis 7:9). All three ways point to God’s saving grace and entry to the “Heavenly Jerusalem”.
The apostles are featured in a unique way and mirrored in two groups: as prophets linked to those from the Old Testament in the foreground group on the left side of the fountain, and in the facing group on the right side of the fountain.
There is also a distinct difference within the group of Witnesses to the Old Covenant, compared with the people represented in the other groups who are mostly focused on the Lamb of God present on the altar. In the Old Covenant group almost half the number have their heads raised, looking heavenwards and not at the altar. They are witnesses to some kind of celestial phenomenon which has caused their faces to light up. This cues another narrative expressing the “Heavenly Jerusalem”, a symbolic chart of constellations. Van Eyck, be it Hubert of Jan, takes the reference to constellations to pun with the word consolation and point to the opening words of chapter 40 from the Book of Isaiah: “Console my people, console them” says your God. “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for…”
Also embedded in the group of witnesses are several passages from both the Old and the New Testament, which helps to explain why the Van Eyck brothers have linked Old Testament prophets to the Apostles and followers of Jesus. For instance, the number of opened books is five, representing the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. The five books can also refer to the first five books of the New Testament, four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Viewed as the New Testament the books help identify four of the figures that the four gospels are attributed to, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Matthew is the disciple in the front row wearing the white turban. The bald-headed figure to his left is Luke. On Matthew’s right wearing the red hat is Mark, and behind him is John.
Matthew’s hat is shaped as a white pearl and refers to the parable told by Jesus known as the Pearl of Great Price. Only Matthew’s gospel (13:44-46) records this parable. This exclusion theme is linked and applied to the identity of Mark.
The gospels of Mark and Matthew both tell of the time the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds saying the only sign the evil and unfaithful generation will be given is the sign of Jonah [when he was in the belly of the beast for three days and three nights]. In Mark’s gospel Jesus responds to the Pharisees by saying “no sign shall be given to this generation” (8:11-12) and makes no mention of Jonah.
Notice that Mark’s right hand is covered. It is shaped as a sea monster raising itself from the blue turban representing turbelent water. The sea monster’s jaws are open, symbolic of releasing Jonah the prophet, preacher of the word of God, from the depths of disaster and death, an event that forshadowed the saving death and resurrection of Jesus after three days in the tomb. So although Mark’s gospel excludes the mention of Jonah, the Van Eyck’s have emphasised the point by resurrecting the link to Jonah and binding it to Mark.
There are two other visual clues to identify Mark. His hair is shown as a lion’s mane and the sides of his hat are shaped as wings, for Mark is symbolised in art as the winged lion mentioned in the Book of Revelation (4:7). As to the shape of the hat’s crown, this represents the jar of nard oil that was used to anoint the head of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (Mark4:1-9). The passage describing this event falls in the fifth and last section of Mark’s gospel which relates the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. It comes immediately before the short account of Judas approaching the chief priests and offering to betray Jesus. The colour of the jar represents the colour of the blood shed by Jesus. The hat’s wings also represent his rising from the dead, his resurrection.
The neck of the oil jar points to another figure in the scene, that of Judas, dressed in the same colour as the jar. His head is turned away from the altar and looking at the viewer. Judas was one of the people who complained that the anointing was a waste of expensive perfume which could have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12:5). The aromatic nature of the perfume explains why another apostle, Jude – placed left of Mark – is portrayed with his nose close to the jar of anointing oil.
The Van Eycks add further links to the anointing theme. As Jude’s nose absorbed the scent of the nard oil, so also does the nose of Judas absorb the scent produced by the anointing of SimonPeter, christened by Jesus as Cephas, meaning rock. Peter was commissioned and therefore anointed as the first priest of Christ’s chuch on earth.
Mirrored on the opposite side of the group is Aaron, commissioned by God to be the High Priest of the Israelites and annointed by Moses his brother. Yaweh said to Moses: You must also anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them, so that they may be priests in my service. Then you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘You must hold this chrism [oil] holy from generation to generation. It is not to be pured out on the bodies of common men, nor are you to make any other of the same mixture. It is a holy thing; you must consider it holy. Whoever copies the composition of it or uses it on a layman shall be outlawed from his people’” (Exodus 30:30-33).
Close inspection of Aaron’s face shows beads of oil running down his face after his anointing.
The seven column markings on the fur fringe of Aaron’s hat, represent the seven lamps of the Temple menorah kept lit continuously with olive oil. The menorah was also a symbol for the early Christians, hence the similar markings on Peter’s fur-rimmed hat. The blue dome represents the dome of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the colour blue being a symbol of heavenly holiness.
The Jonah reference, the leper’s house and the jar of oil all connect to two other figures in the group of Witnesses to the Old Testament. I shall describe more about this and the Judas connection in a future post.