The annual Midwest Catholic Family Conference is coming up this weekend and my husband and I plan to attend the Saturday sessions. The theme is the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, illustrated with the central panel of Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, which is in St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC offers this analysis:
As the defining monument of the "new realism" of Northern Renaissance art, the Ghent Altarpiece was regarded as both the foundation of a distinguished tradition, and an exemplary achievement to challenge all later artists. In 1495, an early visitor named Hieronymus Münzer justly described it as encompassing the whole art of painting.
The discovery in 1823 of a rhymed quatrain on the frame of the altarpiece confirmed that it was begun by Hubert van Eyck, and even described him as greater than his more famous brother Jan, who completed the work upon Hubert's death in 1426. No one has ever convincingly distinguished their respective shares in this painting. Dedicated on May 6, 1432 in the Church of Saint John, Ghent (now the Cathedral of Saint Bavo), the work was installed above an altar in a chantry chapel founded by the wealthy patrician Joos Vijd and his wife Elizabeth Borluut.
The complex theological program is based partly on the liturgy for All Saints' Day, which included readings from the Book of Revelation; however, no single text has been found to "explain" the entire program. Rather, the work stands on its own as a visual account of the redemptive mysteries of the Catholic faith, beginning with the incarnation of Christ at the moment of the Annunciation represented on the exterior. Didactic and identifying inscriptions, including legible texts in painted books, amplify and explain the imagery.
In addition to the main adult program with speakers, there are programs for young adults, high school students, middle school students, children up to 5th grade age, and persons with disabilities. This event occupies all the exhibition space in the Century II facility and spills over into the Hyatt Regency hotel next door. The themes of the presentations vary, but several are dedicated to Marriage and the Eucharist. As informative as the presentations are, the exhibitors' booths are also fascinating, with their variety of shops, colleges, religious orders, and other organizations. The conference also offers time and space for prayer (Adoration Chapel and Eucharistic Procession), worship (Mass on Saturday and Sunday) and Confession. It's also great to see friends and make new acquaintances.
It's too bad the organizers did not include a session on the image used in their brochures and its place in the altarpiece: the altarpiece's history (including the mystery of the theft of one panel and how the Nazis plundered it during WWII) and its iconography. UPDATE: Bo Bonner, MC for the High School Program, reports that he will discuss the painting during one of his presentations! See the comments for more information.
*Jones, Susan. "The Ghent Altarpiece". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ghnt/hd_ghnt.htm (October 2002)