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Summary: the Importance of Christianity and Humanism During the Early Renaissance Highlighted Through the Symbolism

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Jan Van Eyck was a painter during the 15th century, his work heavily influenced Early Northern Renaissance Art. During 1432, Van Eyck painted the Ghent Altarpiece, which I consider a masterpiece. His piece was one of the first oil on wood paintings perfected in the fifteenth century. This polyptych consists of twelve panels, only the eight outer panels can be seen; the four inner panels are only visible on Easter Sunday when the piece is opened. The panels are filled with symbolism which highlight the importance of Christianity and humanism during the early Renaissance.

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Van Eyck uses a broad color palette to portray the separation of panels. He used the grisaille method of using monotone grey paints to generate realistic statues in the lower middle panels. Even with this monotone palette, Van Eyck was able to mimic folds in the robes of the statues which creates a sense of movement. On the bottom far right and left, he uses various shades of reds, browns, yellows, oranges, and greens to depict the clothing of the donors. The folds in the donor’s clothing emphasizes the idea that they are kneeling which also shows the form of the body.This artwork is very detail-oriented, which adds to the tangible realism. Van Eyck used the light source from the windows inside of the Saint Bavo Cathedral to cast shadows into the piece. The shadows provide dimensionality and perspective which makes it seem as if the viewer is looking through a window and into the art work. He correspondingly included highlights to show the refractions of light. These highlights provide balance to the piece in contrast to the shadows.

Additionally, several aspects of the painting were intended to mimic depth and movement which also adds to the realism. The scrolls across the top were drawn in a very flowing manner to depict movement. The archangel Gabriel’s wings were positioned in such a way that it looks as if they curve in and around Gabriel’s body. The proportion of the wings along with their curvature shows how massive they are when compared to Gabriel’s body.The Ghent Altarpiece is heavily riddled with symbolism. There is a dove above the Virgin Mary’s head to represent her purity. Van Eyck used lines at varying angels to signify rays of sun coming from a low opacity circle. The low opacity of the circle comingled with the reds, yellows, and greens give the illusion of a halo. He also included the properly proportioned bodies of Adam and Eve. On their bodies, he added shadows from their arms to complement the light source and add perspective. The walls behind them have shadows as well which creates depth and makes it seem if they are popping into the foreground.

Majority of the symbolism is focused around Christianity which unifies all the panels and tells the full story of the birth of Christ. He also uses similar colors in the same scene to piece them together and then uses opposing colors to distinguish scenes from each other. Aside from Biblical symbolism, Van Eyck also incorporated humanistic aspects into this piece. The Virgin Mary and many others are shown reading books which exemplifies the importance of knowledge and education. Overall, Van Eyck’s work provides a harmonious balance whether the panels are opened or closed.     

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