Jan van Eyck (ca. 1395–1441) was, for his time, an internationally renowned and well-traveled master, celebrated as being unequaled in “art and science,” as his patron Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy put it. Generally interpreted as a reference to the master’s technical skill, such praise also speaks to the intellectual complexion of his work.

Analysis of van Eyck’s paintings reveals his awareness of several exegetical texts. Generally attributed to the Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony (1300–1378), the typological Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation) circulated among proponents of the Devotio Moderna and the manuscript was replicated in several editions owned by the bibliophile Philip the Good. Additional literary sources have been suggested by Eyckian specialists, including De Civitate Dei (The City of God), a treatise begun in 413 by St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo; De victoria Verbi Dei (The Victory of the Word of God), a commentary by the twelfth-century Benedictine Rupert of Deutz; and the Rationale divinorum officiorum (Rational of Divine Service), a liturgical treatise by Guilielmus Durandus (ca. 1286).

Not only did van Eyck have access to exegetical literature in royal and ecclesiastical libraries, he also would have consulted with notable scholars, such as Johannes van Impe, erudite priest at Ghent’s Sint-Jans parish church (later Sint-Baafs) and founder of the House of St. Jerome Scriptorium (ca. 1420–1440). Unique to his age, van Eyck provided a signature maxim in 10 of 23 works confidently ascribed to his brush. Beginning in 1433 he adopted the distinctive motto “ALS IK KAN” (As I can) in pseudo-Greek letters, perhaps to affirm his courtly position as the Burgundian Apelles to a patron who admired Alexander the Great.

While Latin legends in his works are predictably precise, his use of correct Hebrew is unexpected and indicates the breadth of his knowledgeable associations. Additionally, van Eyck is singularly adroit at using his frames to extend the meaning of his devotional subjects. Inscriptions in his frames simulate carved or applied lettering on metal, and the luminous words function like a marginal glossa ordinaria in late Gothic editions of the Biblia Pauperum, which contains a patristic or allegorical explanation of complex passages of text.

Early Biblical Subjects at The Hague and Bruges.

Jan van Eyck’s initial contract with Duke Philip the Good (19 May 1425) documents his prior employment in 1422 at The Hague, where as “Mester Jan den malre” (Master Jan the painter) he was a valet de chambre with two assistants for Jan of Bavaria, the Count of Holland, Hainault, and Zeeland and former bishop of the principality of Liège. Likely engaged in redecorating galleries of the Binnenhof Palace, van Eyck also served as a manuscript illuminator. Miniatures of the Turin-Milan Hours identified as Hand G have been universally acknowledged to be his invention, among them The Birth of St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:56–57). The scene (folio 93v) shows Elizabeth resting in a Renaissance bed while a midwife presents her with the newborn John. Two additional female attendants are portrayed in the foreground, one of whom sits with her back to the viewer beside an open chest and near a small child and family pets. The third female in the domestic interior wears a blue mantle, and her pregnant form, as well as the glass vessel she holds, identifies her as the Virgin Mary.  She stands next to a spinning distaff and spindle, textrix emblems that traditionally signify female lineage and the thread of life. In an antechamber Zacharias sits beside a window reading sacred scriptures.

Eyck, Jan van

The Birth of St. John the Baptist by Hand G (Jan van Eyck), ca. 1422–1425. This manuscript illumination in Les Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame de Jean de Berry (Turin-Milan Hours) shows Elizabeth resting in a Renaissance bed while a midwife presents her with the newborn John (Luke 1:56–57).

Museo Civico, Turin, Italy/Bridgeman Images

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The narrative household subject is complemented by the lower third of the page, which contains a historiated initial D with the seated figure of God and a bas-de-page Flemish landscape of the Baptism of Christ (Matt 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22). The blessing hand of the Creator diagonally aligns with the dove of the Holy Spirit and with Christ standing in the Jordan River. John kneels and pours water from a gourd. Destroyed by fire in 1904, another biblical miniature by Hand G (folio 24r) illustrated a nocturnal Arrest of Christ (Matt 26:47–56; Mark 14:43–50; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:1–11) in the Gethsemane garden.

Among the biblical subjects associated with Jan van Eyck’s early work in Bruges is a purportedly lost Adoration of the Magi (Matt 2:1–2), the composition of which is suggested by a drawing in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, and a Road to Calvary (Matt 27:31–33; Mark 15:20–22; Luke 23:26–32; John 19:16–18), datable to about 1425–1429 and known through Eyckian variations (Budapest, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum). Christ’s ascent to Mount Golgotha was a popular theme in Bruges, where the annual Holy Blood Processions and Passion mystery plays celebrated a sacred relic housed in the twelfth-century chapel of the Heilig-Bloed Basilica—a glass vial that is believed to have contained the coagulated blood of Christ. Van Eyck’s The Holy Women at the Sepulchre (Luke 24:4–5; Matt 28:1–7), perhaps originally commissioned for the Sint-Donatius Cathedral, delivers a view of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock. Van Eyck’s paired paintings of ca. 1429 in the Metropolitan Museum of The Crucifixion (John 19:31–37) and The Last Judgment (Rev 20:11–15; Matt 24:29–31; 25:31–46; Luke 21:25–28; Mark 13:24–27) are vertical multifigured compositions encased in their original gilt frames. The Latin inscription on The Crucifixion frame cites Isaiah 53:6–9, 12. The Last Judgment frame is carved with passages taken from Revelation (20:13; 21:3–4) and Deuteronomy (32:23–24). Painted in gold below the uplifted hands of the “Son of Man” in the Last Judgment are words taken from Matthew 25:34. Beneath St. Michael’s wings is an inscription (Matt 25:41). The bat-winged creature of the underworld is identified in Latin as the “great chaos” and “shadow of death.”

The Ghent Altarpiece and the Bible.

The 12-paneled altarpiece in the Ghent Cathedral of St. Bavo was first displayed at the 5 May 1432 baptism of Philip the Good and Isabel of Portugal’s son Josse. A secular commission of Mayor Jodocus Vijd and his wife, Elisabeth Borluut, initially given to Jan van Eyck’s brother Hubert (d. 1426), the Ghent Altarpiece is one of art history’s most renowned masterpieces. Within the four closed lower register panels, which simulate stone niches, the donors kneel before statues identified as John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The upper register, which provides an expansive chamber with a bipartite window that opens unto the town, is devoted to the dialogue of the Incarnation (Luke 1:26–38). The winged Archangel Gabriel issues a greeting in Latin gilded letters (Luke 1:28). Similarly attired in white robes, the Virgin Mary responds (Luke 1:38) with words written upside down and visible to the Holy Spirit. The uppermost panels depict Messianic prognosticators with scrolls: the prophets Zechariah (Zech 9:9) and Micah (Mic 5:2) and the Erythraean and Cumaean sibyls (Virgil, Aeneid 6:50–51 and Sibylline Oracles 18:23).

The polyptych when opened has the lower centerpiece subject of the Adoration of the Lamb, which takes place in a meadow of paradise perpetually lighted by rays of the Holy Spirit (John 1:32). The sacrificial Agnus Dei stands upon an altar, the red velvet antependium of which is adorned with a biblical passage cited during the Eucharistic Consecration in the Mass (John 1:29). The penduli, side draperies, contain the words IHESUS VIA and VERITAS VIA (John 14:6). In front of the altar is an octagonal fountain of life, the edge of which is inscribed (Rev 7:17; 22:1, 6; 22:1, 17). The field with diverse flowering bushes, fruit trees, and evergreens is populated by the heavenly Elect (Rev 7:9), including the tribes of Israel (Rev 7:4). The Apostles are portrayed in Franciscan robes because monks of the mendicant order were guides at Jerusalem’s sacred sites. Sint-Baafs in Ghent was the preferred church of pilgrims to Jerusalem. In the distant landscape are structures that denote the New Jerusalem (Rev 3:12; 21:2). The grassy meadow extends in the backgrounds of the pairs of panels flanking the Adoration of the Lamb, which illustrate the Just Judges, Holy Knights, Holy Pilgrims, and Holy Hermits converging toward the Fons Vitae.

Eyck, Jan van

The Ghent Altarpiece (1432), St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

© Lukas-Art in Flanders VZW/Photo: Hugo Maertens/Bridgeman Images

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By contrast with the lower zone, the upper section of the open altarpiece reveals a Deësis. Enthroned before a canopy patterned with pelicans and Eucharistic grapes (John 15:5), the central figure is identified by an inscription carved in the golden molding as “God, the Almighty,” and his stole is threaded with the word SABAOTH (Lord of Hosts). The bejeweled and embroidered hem of his scarlet wool garment reveals the repeated titles “King of Kings” (Rev 19:16). While this hieratic “Son of Man” holds a crystal scepter and wears a papal tiara adorned with gemstones, a golden crown symbolizing earthly sovereignty rests at his feet (John 18:36). Sitting at his right, the Virgin Mary has a resplendent coronet of fresh roses, lilies, columbines, and lilies of the valley, and 12 stars hover above her head (Rev 12:1). Golden molding evocative of a halo around her head cites Proverbs 7:29 and 7:26. Seated on the opposite side, the barefoot John the Baptist wears a camel hair robe and green mantle. Like the Virgin Mary, he is pictured with a book of scriptures. His text is open to Isaiah 40:1, and he points to identify the Messiah (Luke 3:16).

The upper register contains a choir of celestial music–playing angels, although they are shown without wings. The panels of the far left and right depict Adam and Eve, with inscriptions attesting to the infliction of “death” upon eating fruit from the tree of knowledge (Gen 2:17). The legacy of the first parents unfolds in two reliefs of the Sacrifice of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:2–7) and the Murder of Abel (Gen 4:8–10).

The Ghent Altarpiece originally had a predella of Hell, which likely resembled the lower section of his tall panel of the Last Judgment. Painted contemporaneously as the New York diptych, and known through two replicas in the Prado Museum (Madrid) and the Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, Ohio), van Eyck’s lost Fons Vitae also illustrated a Deësis with a Eucharistic font of living waters, sacrificial lamb, and angelic choir. In the architectural framework of terraced gardens, van Eyck elected to positively compare the Church and the Synagogue by means of biblical scrolls. The passages in correct Hebrew are taken from the Davidic Psalms (111:4–5; 4:8–9) and include verse that stresses God’s unremitting love for Israel (Pss 106:1; 107:1, 29; 136:1).

Blending the Sacred and the Secular: The Bible in the Details.

Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) of ca. 1434 no longer retains its original framework. It is difficult to assess whether the work discovered in the Burgundian administrative center of Dijon was conceived as a triptych for a ducal chapel. It may have been designed as a lateral panel of a reliquary. A gold monstrance containing the famed “Bleeding Host” relic was displayed in the Sainte-Chapelle that once adjoined the Burgundian palace at Dijon. Philip the Good and his knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece (founded in 1430) attended Mass in the sanctuary of Sainte-Chapelle, and therefore, an assertion that Van Eyck’s Annunciation was inspired by liturgical practice is apposite. The Missa Aurea (Golden Mass), a mid-December annual reenactment of Christ’s Incarnation by youths with melodic voices and a deacon narrator, typically offered a performance with Archangel Gabriel holding a scepter and attired in a brocaded vestment. The actor representing the Virgin Mary assumed an orans posture in imitation of a priest consecrating the Eucharistic host. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation occurs within the interior of a Gothic church. This construction, which insinuates the emergence of a new Ecclesia, is enhanced by the nielloed floor pavement.

Three tiles illustrate typological themes from the Bible, which compare Samson (whose name in Hebrew translates as “man of the sun”) to the prophesized “sun of justice” (sol justitiae: Mal 4:2; Rev 19): Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (under Gabriel’s robe: Judg 15:15–16); Samson and Delilah (Judg 16:19–21); and Samson pulling down the two middle pillars of the temple of Dagon (Judg 16:28–30). Mary’s familial descent from the House of David correlates with three additional narrative tiles in the Annunciation: David slaying Goliath (1 Sam 17:51); the Death of Absalom (under the footstool; 2 Sam 18); and the Death of Abimelech (Judg 9:8–20, 54).

Messianic prophecy underlined by the lily stalk alludes not only to the tree of Jesse (Isa 11:1) but also to Aaron’s rod, which blossomed and produced almonds in the wilderness as a sign of divine approbation (Num 17:7–9). Medallions of Isaac and Jacob in the spandrels of the nave arcade and murals above these roundels further accent Christ’s genealogy. The upper murals show the pharaoh’s daughter adopting the infant Moses at the Nile (Exod 2:5–10), and this theme is contrasted with the adult Moses holding a scroll inscribed in Latin with the Second Commandment. St. Hugh of Victor in his Summa Sententiarum (51) comments: “He who believes that the Son of God is only a man is taking the name of the Lord in vain… . Adore his footstool because it is holy.” The murals flank a stained glass window containing a solitary figure who stands upon land labeled ASIA. He is the Apocalyptic “Son of Man” (Rev 1:11). The prominent footstool next to the Virgin Mary (Isa 66:1) is equally redolent of Messianic expectation because it alludes to the throne of a Maiestas Domini (Lord of Majesty).

Just as van Eyck included a domestic piece of furniture to enhance the meaning of a biblical theme, he inserts an object invested with sacred symbolism in his best-known secular painting of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini of Lucca and His Wife. Van Eyck’s signature JOHANNES VAN EYCK FUIT HIC (Jan van Eyck was here) and 1434 date are featured prominently in the center of the background wall of a domestic bedchamber of honor. Van Eyck’s use of flowing script rather than letters likely was inspired by his 1429 visit as a dignitary to the Nasrid Sultan of Granada, where stucco walls of the Alhambra palace contain verses in Kufic script. Above van Eyck’s signature is a convex mirror, the type of which is rare in northern Europe. The object resembles an Islamic ashara roundel, a marginal medallion that appears in illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an to mark the Hizb divisions, or 10 lines of verse.

Van Eyck’s mirror shows the Arnolfini couple greeting the artist and a male companion, perhaps his brother Lambert. The reflector is highly unusual in design because it consists of 10 roundels painted on glass of the Passion of Christ. Beginning with the bottom center and turning clockwise, the subjects are: the Agony in the Garden (Luke 22:41–42; Matt 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42); The Betrayal and Taking of Christ (Matt 26:47–50; Mark 13:43–45; Luke 22:47–48); Christ before Pilate (John 19:4–11; Luke 23:20–22); The Flagellation (John 19:1–5; Mark 15:16–20; Luke 22:63–65; Matt 27:28); The Road to Calvary, (Matt 27:31–33; Mark 15:20–22; Luke 23:26–32; John 19:16–18); The Crucifixion (Matt 27:35; Luke 23:44–48); The Descent from the Cross (Matt 27:57–58; John 19:38–40); The Entombment (Matt 27:59–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56); The Harrowing of Hell (1 Pet 3:19–20); and The Resurrection (Luke 24:1–9).

If van Eyck’s double portrait indeed contains a posthumous likeness of the silk merchant’s wife, Costanza, the looking glass conjures a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon (7:26), which extols the “spotless mirror as the working of God, and an image of his goodness.”

Intimate Conversations and Biblical Wisdom.

The Madonna of Chancellor Nicolas Rolin (1435) lacks its original frame, but it shares the same perception of the Virgin Mary, who, “compared with the light” is “found to be superior.” The work was commissioned for the chapel of St. Sebastian in Rolin’s parish church of Notre-Dame-du-Châtel, which adjoined his Burgundian family residence in Autun. The painting in the Louvre has the aspect of an “adoration” of a single “wise man” because Philip the Good’s prime minister is portrayed kneeling before and blessing the Christ Child who blesses him. Within the setting of an aristocratic oratory, a capital of a column above the Virgin and Child is carved with the Eucharistic theme of Abraham and Melchesidek (Gen 14:18–20). The arches defining the space on the side of Rolin have capitals with reliefs showing scenes from Genesis: the Expulsion of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:22–24); the Sacrifice of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:2–7); the Murder of Abel (Gen 4:8–10); Noah’s Ark (Gen 7:12–14); and the Drunkenness of Noah (Gen 9:20–22). The enclosed floral garden of the Virgin Mary is nurtured by sunlight (Song 4:12). More distant views from the garden’s high parapet show not only a river, arched bridge, and townscape but also outlying cultivated fields. The Genesis reliefs pertaining to agriculture and husbandry, therefore, had relevance for the primary administrative advisor to the Duchy of Burgundy, who owned extensive vineyards.

Similar imagery taken from the book of Genesis may be observed in The Madonna of Canon Joris van der Paele commissioned for the ecclesiastic’s tomb in the Bruges Church of Sint-Donatius. The column capitals of the church on the left are carved with the relevant biblical subjects of Abraham and Melchizedek (Gen 14:18–20) and the Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:9–11). On the right the columnar reliefs display Abraham and the Armies of the Four Kings (Gen 14:1–15); the Liberation of Lot (Gen 14:16), and David Slaying Goliath (1 Sam 17:51). The Solomonic throne upon which the Virgin Mary sits with the infant Christ is decorated with carvings of Adam and Eve (Gen 2:18, 23). The upper border of the frame with Jan van Eyck’s signature quotes Proverbs (7:26), and accordingly, Mary’s robe is embroidered with another favored passage from Proverbs (7:29). Within the setting of a church apse, Christ’s mother symbolically functions as an ara coeli (altar of heaven). Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna of 1436 (Städelmuseum, Frankfurt) repeats this imagery, but the setting is a narrow chamber, evocative of a domestic oratory. The nurturing Virgin sits upon a canopied throne, which displays four carved lions to imply Christ’s lineage from the House of David (1 Kgs 10:18–20; 2 Chr 9:17–19).

The Dresden Altarpiece was designed as a small devotional triptych for travel. The work retains its original frames, which functioned as glosses to contemplate the pictorial images. The religious work brandishes his maxim ALS IXH XAN (As I can), and the recessed molding of the central panel also is inscribed with fragments from Proverbs (7:26, 29). The diminutive infant Christ who sits on his mother’s lap holds a phylactery in Latin, which contains words spoken by an adult Jesus during his ministry: “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in Heart” (Matt 11:29). The hall church is distinguished by statues of the 12 apostles, which stand upon the support columns of the nave. The Virgin Mary sits upon a throne embellished with paired biblical reliefs identified as Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22:9–11) and David and Goliath (1 Sam 17:51), as well as finials of a pelican and a phoenix, birds that symbolize self-sacrifice and regeneration, respectively, in medieval bestiary manuscripts.

When open, the wings extend the space of the center nave to the aisles of the church, and the frames of these panels carry inscriptions that address the saints portrayed. Michael the Archangel in the left wing donor panel is further identified in Latin as “leader of the angelic hosts,” and the “Armor of God” (Eph 6:10–17) is suggested by his august presence. The column capital behind the warrior saint exhibits a military subject that could pertain to the Old Covenant. The relief contains a quartet of equestrian figures and possibly denotes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev 6:1–8). When closed, the outer wing panels show statues of the Archangel Gabriel and the Annunciate Virgin Mary standing on octagonal bases (Luke 1:26–38). Painted in grisaille, these monochromatic exterior panels were visible during Advent and Lent, the liturgical seasons before Christmas and Easter. Van Eyck’s Annunciation diptych (ca. 1435–1440; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid) is even more commanding in the illusionistic representation of three-dimensional form because the simulated onyx background affords a reflection of the white marble figures.

Similar to the diptych, Jan van Eyck’s small Antwerp Madonna at the Fountain was created toward the end of his career, and the small painting’s frame recollects the light metaphors of Proverbs (7:29) in an especial manner. The infant Christ and his mother enjoy the sun-drenched radiance of a private “king’s garden” near the Fountain Gate of Jerusalem (Song 4:12; 2 Kgs 25:4) where the “living water” of the Gihon spring (John 7:37–39) keeps the rose bushes constantly blooming and the foliage perpetually verdant. The original wooden frame has molding inscribed with the artist’s distinctive signature—ALS IXH CAN, JOHES DE EYCK ME FECIT + [COM]PLEVIT—and the date 1439. If the idiom “God is in the details” implies whatever a person does should be done thoroughly, then indeed, few masters can surpass van Eyck in juxtaposing verisimilitude of image with the message of biblical verse.



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Barbara von Barghahn