Sunday 17 April 2022

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

 This is one of the great masterpieces of Renaissance art. It forms the centre panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyk and was completed after several years' work in 1432. The picture depicts Jesus as the Lamb of God standing on an altar in a meadow with angels in immediate attendance and various groups of worshippers surrounding the central figures. In the foreground is the Fountain of Life from which gush out the waters of life unceasingly, and above, wreathed in golden white light like a spiritual sun, is the Holy Spirit represented by a dove. Those adoring the Lamb in rapt contemplation are, at the top, male and female martyrs on left and right, some of whom can be identified, then, at bottom right, the 12 apostles who are kneeling with various saints behind them and, on the left, Old Testament prophets and pagan philosophers and writers including Virgil who is holding a laurel wreath. In the background are the towers and spires of the New Jerusalem and the golden rays coming down from the Holy Spirit bathe the whole scene in a kind of numinous quality. There is a great attention to detail in the painting of the trees, flowers, garments and so on which serves to create a heightened sense of reality. And an extra dimension of wonder is conveyed by the lamb's face which appears almost human without in any way being caricatural. Here it is after recent restoration.

The painting gives the impression of a real scene from the higher worlds, capturing a moment above earthly time in which the act of adoration is carried out as a constant paean of praise. The rich colours, the light emanating from the Holy Spirit, the stillness and intensity of the worshipping figures and the majesty and power of the Lamb all convey the sense of something profoundly real beyond this world. 

I have never found the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God particularly attractive. If he is going to be an animal I'd prefer him to be a lion like Aslan though I understand the reasons behind the lamb symbolism. But this Lamb has the majesty and power of a lion without it seeming in any way less lamblike. Somehow it seems to show the Risen Christ in all his glory.

Note: I apologise for the somewhat messy spillover of the pictures onto the righthand side of the blog but I thought it better to include the image in as large a size as possible. If you click on the pictures you should be able to see them properly.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - By not-coincidence, I was just this afternoon finishing the audiobook of Charles Williams's The Place of the Lion, where the Lamb appears in some climatic scenes.

The Platonic ideas appear in the forms of archetypal animals - which draw into themselves all people and energies that have affiliated with what they represent (whether for good or evil) and the archetypal Lion is first to appear.

At one point, a man who has given himself up to this archetype in a spirit of 'using' the Lion to accentuate his sinful desires, is hunting one of the other characters who has reacted wrongly to the crisis, by fear and attempted avoidance - but he is protected by the heroine, and a lamb - the lamb is completely unperturbed by the aggression and violence of the lion-man, and provides an absolute protection to those who cleave to his spirit and are under his protection.

Indeed, all through the escalating crisis of the book, when people and things are being swallowed up and consumed e.g. by fire, or earthquakes - only the herds of sheep continue calmly grazing in their fields - without any distress or change to their condition.

Clearly, Williams was drawing upon that iconographic tradition which is exemplified in the picture today.

William Wildblood said...

I've never read any Charles Williams. I'll have to remedy that someday. Perhaps it's the innocence of the lamb that makes it an apt spiritual symbol.

Bruce Charlton said...

I'm sorry, I'll read that again - some climaCtic scenes...

Lady Mermaid said...

Another not-coincidence as the image of the lamb was just discussed in this post.

Male lambs were used during Passover to commemorate the angel of death passing over the door posts covered w/ lamb's blood during the Jews' captivity in Egypt. All of humanity will face death due to our natural sins and corruptions. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world through His resurrection literally saving us from death. By dying and resurrecting, we are cleansed from our natural corruption into an eternal body.

Now, the lion is an appropriate symbol used throughout Scripture as well. Aslan is a great depiction of the majesty and glory of Christ. I believe that God uses different images to illustrate particular truths. Christ is both the Lamb and the Lion.

William Wildblood said...

He is indeed. In Christ the lion really does lie down with the lamb. That doesn't mean the lion loses his lion-ness and becomes a pet but that Christ combines the essential qualities of both.