26 DECEMBER 1947, Page 17

The Ghent Altarpiece

ON May 6th, 1432, there was set up in the church of St. John at Ghent the great painting which is known by common consent as the Ghent altarpiece. The Adoration of the Lamb (or the Holy Lamb as it is called throughout the present book) was thus painted during the very years which witnessed the completion of the first great monument of Italian naturalism, the frescoes in the Brancacci chapel, the elder of the two artists who worked on it predeceasing Masaccio by two years. The generalised realism of Masaccio and the particu- larised realism of the Van Eycks are the twin sources from which modern painting springs, and it is a matter for constant surprise that the visual revolution represented by these complementary styles should have occurred in Italy and Flanders in the same period of ten or fifteen years. The present book gives a more graphic impres- sion than any previous volume of the Van Eycks' masterpiece, with eighteen colour plates and more than seventy detail photographs of the Adoration of the Lamb, and an introduction by a well-known authority on Flemish painting recapitulating the known facts about it in a readable, though not always a well-ordered, form.

Not only were the Brancacci frescoes and the Ghent altarpiece produced concurrently, not only do they occupy parallel positions in the development of painting, but they present a closely similar problem to the historian of style, that of two artists working in such

close conjunction that it cannot be ascertained with confidence which executed which part of the painting. Just as an infinite variety of view is possible as to the exact relationship of Masolino and Masaccio in the Brancacci chapel, so widely divergent theories have been advanced on the relative responsibility of the Van Eycks for the Ghent altarpiece. There are people who believe that Hubert finished three- quarters of the painting ; people who believe that the front of the main interior panel is by Hubert and the back by Jan ; people who believe that Hubert painted the back and Jan the front; and people who believe, despite the evidence of an inscription to the contrary, that Hubert did not exist at all. Professor van Puyvelde, perhaps wisely in a popular volume, makes short shrift of this discussion (" these interesting speculations leave the balanced mind sceptical," he observes), and advances neither a thesis of his own nor a summary of the views of other critics, though he very properly draws attention to certain discrepancies, between, for example, the foreground and background of the Adoration proper, which are important for an understanding of the painting and are generally regarded as a point of juncture between the two hands.

Professor van Puyvelde also ignores what is for most observers the main enigma of the altarpiece, its form. Those who receive this splendid book for Christmas and open the first folding colour plate to look at the interior of the painting will see what generations of visitors to Ghent have seen, five lower panels with a landscape back- ground in which the innumerable figures are roughly uniform in scale, and seven unrelated upper panels in which the smallest figures are more than three times the size of those below and where three separate and mutually inconsistent scales are used. What, they will ask themselves, is the explanation of the strangely inorganic character of the interior of the altarpiece? Raking through the Professor's text, they will get no help upon this point, for it is tacitly assumed through- out that the altarpiece was planned and executed as a whole. And whatever his personal views, Professor van Puyvelde should surely have mentioned somewhere in his book that an influential body of informed opinion today regards the Adoration of the Lamb not as a single unit, but as a synthesis by Jan van Eyck of three separate works by Hubert, two altarpieces, the triptych above and the pentaptych below, and a pair of organ shutters. Had he done this, he could have dispensed with a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo on the supposed programme of the inside of the painting, and have substituted in its place a paragraph pointing out the anomalies of iconography which lend force to the claim that the altarpiece is