De Aanbidding van het Lam Gods is een van de beroemdste schilderijen van de westerse kunstgeschiedenis. Hubert en Jan van Eyck maakten het monumentale drieluik tussen 1424 en 1432.

The Mystic Lamb by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, 1432 | The Mystic Lamb, Jan and Hubert van Eyck, St Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent,, photo Hugo Maertens and Dominique Provost, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Arts & Sciences
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The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck Brothers

Medieval Iconography

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is one of the most famous paintings in the history of Western art. Hubert and Jan van Eyck made the monumental triptych between 1424 and 1432. The painting is an iconic example of the works of the so-called Flemish Primitives, a group of painters to which the Van Eyck brothers are assigned.

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The painting contains hundreds of figures in paradisial surroundings with a wealth of plants and flowers. Everything is depicted realistically. The title comes from the scene at the bottom of the picture in which the Mystic Lamb is depicted on an altar. In Christianity the lamb stands for Jesus Christ, who gave his life to redeem mankind from its sins.

Hubert van Eyck began the painting. After his death in 1426 his younger brother Jan completed it. The commission came from a rich nobleman from the Waasland, the Ghent alderman and church warden Joos Vijd and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. It was to serve as an altarpiece for their private chapel in the Saint-John’s Church in Ghent, the present-day Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral, where it can still be seen.

Het Lam Gods van Jan en Hubert van Eyck, rond 1430.

The Mystic Lamb, Jan and Hubert van Eyck, St Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent,, photo Hugo Maertens and Dominique Provost, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Het Lam Gods van Jan en Hubert van Eyck, rond 1430.

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Medieval Iconography

The Mystic Lamb depicts an important theme of Christianity. For medieval Christians the meaning of such religious paintings was usually clear. Many of today’s viewers no longer understand the iconography.

The art work shows what virtues man must have to enter heaven and there to see the Mystic Lamb, which is a symbol of the Saviour Jesus Christ. The judges point to justice and the hermits to moderation. In the three central upper panels Mary and John the Baptist plead with the Supreme Judge, who is both Christ and God the Father, on man’s behalf.

At the same time it is characteristic of medieval iconography that we must not only look at the message of the whole. Every detail adds a subtle symbolic meaning. Hence there is so much more than can be seen at first sight. A white towel, for example, in the panel showing Mary refers to purity. The rose on the lawn stands for love, while the lily-of-the-valley symbolises innocence.

Focal points

Nova Reperta.

Joannes Stradanus, Nova Reperta, Musea Brugge, verzameling Steinmetz,, photo Hugo Maertens

Van Eyck in his studio, and behind him apprentices mixing oil paint, in a 16th-century engraving.


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Van Eyck: an Optical Revolution

Jan van Eyck’s work has had a great influence on Western painters down to the present. What made him such an extraordinary artist? Van Eyck was exceptionally well trained technically: he combined sharp observational powers with excellent hand-eye coordination. Van Eyck perfected the composition of oil paint, among other things by adding drying agents. That made oil paint, previously an impractical material for painters, easier to use. This enabled Van Eyck to paint very precisely and represent materials almost tangibly. It also helped him expand the colour spectrum.

Just as important was his knowledge of the physical sciences of the time. Through his study of Arabic and Western works on optics, Van Eyck was able to apply perspective much better than his predecessors. He also gained an insight into the effect of light, which is central to his paintings. The interplay of light and shadow gave the figures and objects an almost three-dimensional form. This was a tour de force in medieval artists’ ateliers without constant lighting, only explicable through Van Eyck’s talent for observing his surroundings very precisely. Through his technical skill, the perfecting of oil paint and better knowledge of light, Van Eyck achieved an ‘optical revolution’ in painting.

Petrus Christus.

Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Google Arts

Petrus Christus (around 1410-1476), Portrait of a Young Woman. The painter was active in Brussels and his work is strongly influenced by Jan van Eyck.

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The ‘Flemish Primitives’

Jan van Eyck was only able to develop into the artist he was, thanks to the political and socio-economic context. He lived and worked in the Burgundian Netherlands, with their urban network and with a great deal of immigration and cultural exchange. Merchants and tradesmen brought new ideas with them. The luxury products they delivered were equally popular with the Burgundian court. Van Eyck also found himself caught up in the peripatetic court of the art-loving Burgundian duke Philip the Good.

In those surroundings Van Eyck became a trend-setter of the ‘Flemish Primitives’. These were a group of painters, to which Rogier van der Weyden (Roger de la Pasture), Dirk Bouts and Hans Memling also belonged. They were active in towns like Bruges, Ghent, Tournai, Leuven and Brussels. So that these were not just painters from the county of Flanders, but from the whole of the Low Countries and even beyond. They painted in oils and with an eye for realistic details. Biblical scenes and symbolism were situated in their own time, so that their paintings matched the existential world of their contemporaries.

They also painted lots of portraits, with figures who often look proudly out at the spectator. That reflected the growing self-confidence of their rich patrons. But the painters too were increasingly aware of their own ability and artistic talent. Jan van Eyck even signed his paintings: very unusual at the time.

Margaretha Van Eyck.
Bruges, Musea Brugge, Groeningemuseum

In 1439 Jan van Eyck (around 1390-1441) painted his fashionably-dressed wife Margaretha van Eyck. She looks out at the viewer full of self-confidence.

Het Laatste Avondmaal van Dirk Bouts (rond 1410-1475) was bestemd voor de kapel van een religieuze broederschap in de Leuvense Sint-Pieterskerk. De opdrachtgevers worden als getuigen van het gebeuren afgebeeld en door de ramen is de Grote Markt te zien.
Leuven, Museum M,, Dominique Provost

The Last Supper by Dirk Bouts (around 1410-1475) was destined for the chapel of a religious brotherhood in the St Peter’s Church in Leuven. Those who commissioned the work are depicted as witnesses and through the windows one can see the market-place of Leuven.

Hans Memling (rond 1430-1494) was afkomstig uit de regio van Mainz in het huidige Duitsland, maar was actief in de zuidelijke Nederlanden. Hier vond hij veel rijke opdrachtgevers, zoals voor dit tweeluik Maarten van Nieuwenhove (1463-1500), een Brugs edelman verbonden aan het Bourgondische hof.
Bruges, Diptiek van Maarten van Nieuwenhove, Hans Memling, Musea Brugge,, photo Hugo Maertens, public domain

Hans Memling (around 1430-1494) came from the region of Mainz in present-day Germany, but was active in the southern part of the Low Countries. Here he found many rich customers, such as for this diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove (1463-1500), a Bruges nobleman attached to the Burgundian court.

Bruges, Musea Brugge, Museum St John’s Hospital, Paul Hermans

In 1489 Hans Memling depicted the legend of St Ursula on the Ursula shrine almost like a modern strip cartoon. This remarkable reliquary was made especially for the St John’s Hospital and contained relics of various saints.

Affiche Vlaamse Primitieven.
Wikimedia Commons, Amedée Lynen

The term ‘Flemish Primitives’ originated in the 19th century to refer to a group of painters who were attracted to trading centres like Bruges and Ghent. They came mostly from the Low Countries. The term gained wider currency through the exhibition ‘Les primitifs flamands’ of 1902. The word ‘primitive’ has the connotation ‘original’, but can also refer to a ‘realistic’ representation of the world. Nowadays, it is more current to speak of the ‘Northern Renaissance’.

Lam Gods voor en na.
The Mystic Lamb, Jan and Hubert van Eyck, St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent,, photo Hugo Maertens

The Mystic Lamb before and after the complete restoration of The Mystic Lamb, 2012-2022. Top restorers removed the layers of varnish very carefully, revealing the original gaze of the Lamb.

Discover more on this topic

Het Lam Gods

Bron: VRT archief – 24 jan 2020

Weg van het Meesterwerk – Van Eyck

Bron: VRT archief, Sylvester Productions – 4 sep 2019

Borchert Till-Holger
Vlaamse Primitieven in Brugge

Ludion, 2006. 

Borchert Till-Holger, Dumolyn Jan en Martens Maximiliaan
Van Eyck: een optische revolutie

Hannibal, 2020. 

Borchert Till-Holger, Beyer Andreas & Eichberger Dagmar
De eeuw van Van Eyck 1430-1530: de Vlaamse Primitieven en het Zuiden

Ludion, 2002. 

De Vos Dirk
De Vlaamse primitieven: de meesterwerken

Mercatorfonds, 2002.  

Praet Danny & Martens Maximiliaan
Het Lam Gods, Van Eyck: kunst, geschiedenis, wetenschap en religie

Hannibal, 2019. 

Schmidt Peter
Het Lam Gods

Davidsfonds, 2005. 


Huysman Sofie
Dag Jan: het kleine rijk van Jan Van Eyck

Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2020. (10+) 

Smeyers Katrien & Leroy Benjamin
Schilders & spionnen: het verhaal van de Vlaamse Primitieven

Davidsfonds/Infodok, 2008. (9+) 

Vereecken Kathleen

De Geus, 2022.  

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Bijkomend luister/kijk materiaal

Van Eyck: De verlokking van de werkelijkheid