The Ghent Altarpiece consists of twenty-four pieces painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck for a side chapel of St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. It is a visual unfolding of the entire history of salvation, from Adam and Eve in Genesis, through the incarnation and passion of Christ in the gospels, to the promise of the New Jerusalem in Revelation.
The central panel of the altarpiece, shown here, represents a foreshadowing of the New Jerusalem, with all peoples and nations flocking towards the Lamb (Christ) at the centre of the panel. As in the Angers tapestry, the paradisial, horticultural aspect of the New Jerusalem is foregrounded. Although real buildings from the cities of Utrecht and Ghent can be seen in the background, they remain on the periphery. The River of Life from Revelation 22:1–2 was often visualised rather crudely in earlier images, such as the Silos Apocalypse, as a river flowing from the throne of God; here it is conceived in the foreground of the image as a delicate fountain, surrounded by the precious stones of which the New Jerusalem is said to be made (Revelation 21:19–20).
The emphasis in this vision of the New Jerusalem on humanity, who are at the heart of the scene, is overwhelming, evoking a vision of a second Eden. From all four corners of the panel come humanity: groups of martyrs—both male and female, saints, Old Testament patriarchs, pious pagans, apostles and popes. They all process towards the Lamb, who stands on the altar at the centre of the image. Unlike, for example, the Trinity Apocalypse, the New Jerusalem is here presented not foremost as a bejewelled and golden city, beyond the realms of human imagination, but as a spiritual place whose foundations are based in the faith and sacrifice of its inhabitants.
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