This renowned polyptych painted on both sides, creates a naturalistic divine world illustrating an epic swath of biblical narratives. The work's symbolic iconography is complex and mysterious. For instance, it is questioned whether the central figure in the upper panel who is raising two fingers in blessing is Christ as Divine King or God the Father. For Christ has already been alluded to as the lamb in the lower central panel, referencing the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, visible above him.
In the upper left panel, the Virgin Mary, her gaze upon the sacred book she holds, evokes both traditional depictions of the Annunciation and the era's Protestant emphasis that an individual can connect directly to God through the reading of sacred texts. This concept is again depicted in the upper panel where St. John the Evangelist looks toward Christ, raising his right hand, while holding an open book resting on his knee. At the far end of both wings, Adam and Eve are depicted nude, Adam's arms covering his body, while Eve partially shields herself while holding an apple in her right hand. They are almost sculptural, and their precisely rendered expressions and body language, inhabiting an empty and narrow black space, convey a sense of penitence. The two are separated from the central trio by panels that depict angels engaged in song on the left, and a group of angels gathered around one playing a harp on the right. The wing's lower left panels depict the Just Judges and the Knights of Christ. On the right, a group of pilgrims and hermits, led by St. Christopher, move toward the central image of the Christ lamb. In a wide green landscape, with mountains and city towers in the distance, the linear perspective draws all eyes toward the Lamb, as a multitude of people including notable religious figures, saints, angels, ancient philosophers, and scholars gather to worship. The image visually expresses "After this I beheld...a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindred, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb." The population and complexity of the painting is profound, and as art critic Noah Charney noted, "It's easy to argue that the artwork is the most influential painting ever made: it was the world's first major oil painting, and...It's almost an A to Z of Christianity - from the annunciation to the symbolic sacrifice of Christ, with the "mystic lamb" on an altar in a heavenly field, bleeding into the holy grail."
Both van Eyck brothers are credited with the work, as it's believed that Hubert initially designed the altarpiece, while Jan painted the panels and completed it. The mayor of Ghent Jodocus Vijd and Lysbette, his wife, commissioned the work for Saint Bavo Cathedral. The largest work in van Eyck's oeuvre, this is also the only work he created for a public audience.
Even though all of the religious imagery was widely drawn from tradition, it was profoundly innovative for its time due to van Eyck's masterly use of oil and realism, as seen in every detail right down to the pearls bedecking Mary's dress, each one a drop of grey with a single touch of white to create an iridescence. Van Eyck's precise observation is also evident in the singing angels, as musical scholars have been able to identify the note each angel is singing by the shape of the mouth. As Peter Schjeldahl, the contemporary art critic wrote, "His style is synthetic, a repertoire of finesses - some derived from manuscript illumination, which was then the most common mode of painting, and some from the advanced modeling of bodies and drapery found in the sculpture of the time...nothing beats the bristling inventiveness of the Ghent Altarpiece."
At the time the altarpiece was unveiled, it was hailed as not only a masterpiece, but also the singular work that epitomized the spirit and genius of Northern Europe. As a result of that status, the work has been stolen and recovered countless times. The panel on the lower left is a later copy, made to reproduce the stolen original, a theft still under investigation after decades.
Schjeldahl wrote, "Historically, it is a clutch of firsts: it represents the first really ambitious and consummate use of oil paint... and it marks the birth of realism as a guiding principle in European painting.... nothing that we know of anticipated the eloquence of van Eyck's glazes, which pool like liquid radiance across his pictures' smooth surfaces, trapping and releasing graded tones of light and shadow and effulgences of brilliant color."
Van Eyck's mastery of oil painting influenced Rogier van der Weyden and other Northern European artists of the era, as well as artists of the Italian Renaissance, and transformed subsequent Western art. The altarpiece has been referenced in movies and popular culture as seen in the book and movie The Monuments Men (2014).