Sunday, April 10, 2016

Worthy Is the Lamb

Benozzo Gozzoli, Lamb of the Apocalypse
Italian, c. 1459-1460
Florence, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Chapel

“I, John, looked and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne
and the living creatures and the elders.
They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,
honor and glory and blessing.”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea,
everything in the universe, cry out:
“To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might,
forever and ever.”

The four living creatures answered, “Amen,”
and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

Revelation 5:11-14 (Second Reading for the Third Sunday of Easter, Cycle C)

Revelation, the final book of the Bible, is one of the most mysterious of all the biblical writings.  It is the record of a vision, purportedly by the Apostle John in his old age, as he lived on the island of Patmos.  It appears to describe the end times in powerful poetic images that have awed and puzzled Christians since the day it was written at the end of the first century.1
Vision of St. John on Patmos
From Bible historiale of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), 1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 4, fol. 256

Anonymous, Vision of St. John Evangelist
German, c.1450
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum
At times its highly symbolic language has been misunderstood as actual descriptions of things and people, at other times it has been seen as a slightly crazy attempt at explaining the current situations in which the first century Christians found themselves vis-a-vis the Roman Empire.

Style of Loyset Liedet, Vision of St. John
From a Commentary on the Apocalypse
Belgian (Bruges), 1465-1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 68, fol. 179v
Hans Memling, St. John on Patmos
Right Wing of the St. John Altarpiece
Belgian, 1474-1479
Bruges, Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal

Whatever its meaning, and however it has been understood, it has had a powerful, though somewhat marginal, position in the life of the church.  This was particularly true during the Middle Ages and into the period of religious persecution that followed the Reformation, during which both sides of the Christian divide tortured and slaughtered the other in the name of their interpretation of the book and of the Bible as a whole. 

No image from the Book of Revelation speaks more strongly and more directly of the overwhelming power of God to save as does the description of the adoration of the Lamb which is highlighted by being the second reading for the Third Sunday of Easter in reading Cycle C, which was read in Catholic churches this Sunday.  The Lamb has always been an image that is associated with Jesus, beginning with the declaration of John the Baptist “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”, as Jesus presented Himself at the Jordan for baptism (John 1: 29, 36).  Christians immediately know that the “Lamb that was slain” is Jesus and that the Lamb before whom the angels and elders worship is the same Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, whose First Person sits on the throne. 

Throughout the Middle Ages artists struggled with the problem of how to translate this vivid mind-image into a pictorial image.  From the early Carolingian period onward many versions appeared.
Adoration of the Lamb
from Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram
French, 879
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 14000

Some were in illustrated copies of Revelation itself, found in Bibles and in such biblically derived popular works as the Bible historiale, others appeared in various commentaries on Revelation.

Colins Chadewe, Adoration of lamb
from Bible
Belgian, 1313
Paris, Biblioitheque nationale de France
MS Francais 13096, fol. 14
The most popular commentary of the Middle Ages was that by Beatus of Liebana, an eighth century Spanish monk, who prepared a compilation of previous commentaries by the early Church Fathers.2  Not surprisingly, the work of Beatus was done during a period of persecution for Christians in Spain as they contended with life under the domination of the Moorish Muslims.  The repressions they experienced were not unlike those experienced by the early Christians under the Roman Empire.
Maius, Adoration of the Lamb
from The Morgan Beatus
Spanish (Leon), 935-950
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 644, fol. 117v-118r
However, this work was also popular outside of Spain during the remainder of the Middle Ages.  Many copies of the Beatus (as the work is generally known) were made and many of these contained illustrations.

Artists made an effort to show the multitudes of angels, elders and the four living creatures (usually interpreted as the four living creatures found in the description of the throne of God in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:4-10) and understood by Christians as symbolic references to the four Evangelists).
Adoration of the Lamb
From Commentarius in apocalypsin
(Called the Beatus d'Arroyo)
Spanish (Castille), 1200-1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de Paris
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 2290, fol. 79v

These artistic efforts often presented something much more stiff and pedestrian than the text of Revelation suggests. 

Adoration of the Lamb
from Bible historiale of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), ca.1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 155, fol. 196

Adoration of the Lamb
from the Cloisters Apocalypse
French (Normandy), 1330
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters
Accession No. 68.174, fol. 25v
Adoration of the Lamb
From Apocalypse of St. Victor
French (Normandy), c.1330
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 14410, fol. 6
Jacobello Alberegno, Adoration of the Lamb
Central Panel of the Apocalypse Polyptych
Italian, c. 1360-1390
Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia

However, it is toward the end of the Middle Ages, at the very dawn of the northern Renaissance, that what is probably the most famous and the most definitive illustration of the scene from Revelation was made.

This is the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, completed in 1432.3    It is the work of two brothers, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, who were pioneers of the new and almost magical technique of panel painting with oils.  Hubert began the work, but died in 1426, before it was finished.  The work of completing the altarpiece was then undertaken by his brother, Jan, who has been among the most famous of all painters from his own day to ours.

The altarpiece of which the panel forms one part has amazingly survived almost intact in the same place for which it was commissioned, a chapel in the cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent, which was originally the parish church of St. John.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb
Central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece
Belgian, 1432
Ghent, Cathedral of Saint Bavo

The Ghent altarpiece has survived both time and several other traumas.  In 1566 it was dismantled and hoisted up into the towers of the church to save it from an outbreak of iconoclasm and not permanently restored until 1588.  In 1794 parts were taken to Paris by the French Revolutionary army and not returned until 1815.  In 1816 it was broken up again and pieces were sold.  Parts of it were distributed as widely as England and Prussia.  The pieces still in Ghent survived a fire in 1822. It was not reunited until 1920 as a result of the reparations forced on Germany at the end of the First World War.  In 1934 two panels were stolen.  One was returned, but the other is still missing.4

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Exterior of the Ghent Altarpiece
In 1940 it was dismantled and moved to Pau in the French Pyrenees for safety.  However, it was located by the Germans and brought from Pau to Germany, where it went first to the castle of Neuschwanstein and then to the salt mines of Altausee, where it was found by the US Army's Monuments Men.  It was returned on October 30, 1945 at the end of the Second World War and has been in place in Saint Bavo since then.  It is currently the object of a highly detailed effort to conserve, record and support its continued existence which began in 2010 and will run until 2017.5

While not quite “the defining monument of the Catholic Church” as claimed during the opening minutes of the film “The Monuments Men” (2014), the Ghent Altarpiece is indeed one of the greatest works of western art and a significant work in its theological background for it tells the entire story of Redemption.

The story begins on the exterior where we see the the prophets and sibyls who predicted the birth of Christ, and the Annunciation, which forms the central image of the altarpiece when its wings are closed, as well as the donor Joos Vidj and his wife, Elizabeth, who kneel in prayer before Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, the patron saints of Ghent and of the church of Saint John, which was the original name for what is now the Cathedral of Saint Bavo.

On the interior we see the great vision of the Adoration of the Lamb, which takes place under the image of the Triune God, seated in the center of the upper tier, flanked by the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven and by Saint John the Baptist, the herald of the Messiah and patron of the town of Ghent.  The central figures are flanked by groups of angelic musicians and singers and the figures of the first humans, Adam and Eve, whose Fall triggered the Redemption.  Above the heads of Adam and Eve are what appear to be small sculptures which tell the story of their two sons, Cain and Abel.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Interior View, The Ghent Altarpiece

The Lamb of God stands at the center of a beautiful landscape on a red draped altar which is at the center of the central panel.  From His breast a stream of blood pours into a chalice which stands on the altar.  Across the front of the altar are the words of Saint John the Baptist that are proclaimed at every Mass “ECCE AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI” (Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world).
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Lamb of God
Detail, The Ghent Altarpiece

There is, therefore, no ambiguity in what is being depicted.  It is both the Adoration of the Lamb from Revelation and a reference to the Consecration of each of the daily Masses that took place on the real altar which stood below the altarpiece during which Christ became present in the consecrated bread and wine. 
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Fountain of Life from the
Ghent Altarpiece
Angels placed around the altar carry the Instruments of the Passion or swing censers just as altar servers swing censers at the Consecration of the Mass in recognition of the presence of God.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Angels with the Instruments of the Passion and the Lamb
Ghent Altarpiece
Directly in line with the altar is a fountain with an octagonal basin from which the water of life flows into a channel which leads out of the picture at the bottom.  The basin of the fountain is engraved with the words of Revelation 22:1 "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb."
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Fountain of Life showing inscription
Around the altar of the Lamb are groups of different people saved by the sacrifice of the Lamb.  On the immediate left are the Prophets, both Jewish and pagan.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Prophets
On the right the Apostles kneel in front of a crowd of members of the clergy, including several popes and bishops, the successors of the Apostles.  They are followed by a number of lower clergy and  laymen.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Apostles, Bishops, Clergy and Laymen
Another group of clergy, including bishops and cardinals are seen to be coming in from the upper left;
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Bishops, Cardinals and Clerics
while from the upper right comes a group of women.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Female Saints
Prominent among the women are the martyrs Saints Barbara, Agnes, Catherine and Dorothy, easily identifiable from the attributes which they carry.

Farther out on the inner right wing are a group of male and female hermit saints, led by St. Anthony of Egypt.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Hermit Saints
Beyond them, on the outer right wing, is a group of pilgrim saints, led by St. Christopher.

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Pilgrim Saints

On the inner left wing are the armed and mounted warriors of Christ, the soldier saints
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Soldiers of Christ

and on the outer left wing (a copy of the stolen and still missing panel) are the Just Judges, lay men who carried out their civil responsibilities with Christian care.

Jef van der Veken after Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Copy of missing panel
of the Just Judges

The beautiful landscape stretches out beyond the groups of saints into a luminous atmosphere.  Among the trees and other plants are those that come from different areas of the world and that bloom and fruit at different times for this is not the real world of everyday.

Detail of landscape from
Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece

It is the heavenly city of God, which is always at the point of perfection.  Beautiful towers appear in the distance.  Some of them are actual portraits of real buildings, but most are inventions.
Detail of  building from
Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece

Below the altarpiece there originally stood a predella, which appears to have been destroyed early on, and which apparently represented Limbo, the abode of the saints of the Old Testament, now liberated and included in the altarpiece itself.  The water of life apparently once descended from the fountain through Limbo toward the real altar on which the Mass was celebrated.  6

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Fountain of Life

This would have tied the entire piece, with its vision of the heavenly city, to the celebrating priest at the real altar and the congregation assembled around it.  It would have reminded them that, even as they adored the Body and Blood of Christ at the elevation of the Host within the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass, they were joined to the Adoration of that same Lamb Who Was Slain in the realm of Heaven.  The Altarpiece of the Lamb is, therefore, a window into the heavenly realm and a link between the everyday world within time and the eternal, one outside of time.

With its near miraculous detail and strong theological program, the Ghent Altarpiece has, it seems, said the definitive word on the Adoration of the Lamb.  Few works of art have followed it and none have surpassed it.7

The followers have included Albrecht Dűrer, who we know saw it in 1521 (after he had already produced his illustrations for Revelation), and the Flemish artist Jan Sadeler I, who composed several versions of the Adoration of the Lamb, which owe some aspects to the Ghent Altarpiece.

Albrecht Dűrer, Adoration of the Lamb
From Apocalypse
German, 1511
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jan Sadeler I, After Crispin van den Broeck
Adoration of the Lamb
Belgian, c.1585
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Johann Sadeler I, Adoration of the Lamb
Belgian, 1588
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

In the late 1670s Giovanni Battista Gaulli, known as Il Baccicio, painted a very Baroque vision of the Adoration of the Lamb for the apse of the mother church of the Jesuits, the Gesù, to compliment his great work, the Adoration of the Name of Jesus, on the vault of the nave.
Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Il Baccicio), Adoration of the Lamb
Italian, c. 1680
Rome, Church of the Gesù
The last image of the Adoration that I could find goes in a totally different, almost proto-Impressionistic visionary direction. 

Attributed to Otomar Elliger II, Adoration of the Lamb
German, c.1700
Private Collection

What is probably the next closest masterpiece to the Ghent Altarpiece in western culture, is not a work of art, but a work of music.  At the end of his great oratorio, Messiah, George Friedrich Handel closed with the words of Revelation for the Adoration of the Lamb “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and glory, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.  Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever and ever.  Amen.”  Below is a video of a performance at the Royal Albert Hall by the Royal Choral Society.  In its resounding majesty one hears the accompaniment to the vision of the Van Eyck brothers.

© M. Duffy, 2016
1.  See the Introduction to the Book of Revelation at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops website for details at
3.  A good short introduction to the Ghent Altarpiece, including the chronology of events, is still Dhanens, Elisabeth.  Van Eyck:  The Ghent Altarpiece, New York, The Viking Press, 1973. 
4.  It is still an open case for the Ghent police.  See “The Ghent Altarpiece: the truth about the most stolen artwork of all time”, The Guardian, December 20, 2013 at
5.   See the website of the project “Closer to Van Eyck:  Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece” which is loaded with information and detailed pictures of the panels and their underpainting, which is truly fascinating, at
6.  For further reflection on the meaning of the Ghent Altarpiece see the comments of Raffaela Fazio Smith at
7.  See also the Khan Academy website at which includes some photos from the recovery of the painting by the Monuments Men and some links to current restoration work.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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