Within a single generation early in the fifteenth century, three Flemish artists gave final, consummate expression to the Gothic spirit. …
There was a fascination with the world for its own sake , as a visual phenomenon, that was allied with the shift in the balance of power that determined the character of the Renaissance- an increasing faith in tangible values at the expense of mystical ones. So baldly stated, this implies a baldly mundane art , and there are spots in the art of Jan van Eyck which, out of context, could seem to be just that. But the exploratory vigor of the new mercantile society did more than bring artists down to earth: it made innovators of them.
Jan van Eyck’s “Adam and Eve” from the Ghent Altarpiece , only a bit under life size, were daring as the first large nudes in northern panel painting and are startling even today in their explicit description of two individuals whose acceptance of public undress is remarkable for its placidity. There is hardly any effort toward idealization beyond the selection of well-formed models. The argument has been proposed that this literalism is not unimaginative but is rather a form of piety ; since the figures refer to God’s having “created man in his own image,” the artist would have been presumptuous if he had beautified the normal appearance of the human form. It would have been like suggesting improvements to the Creator.
But normal appearances as the basis of expression fascinated Van Eyck more than idealistic modifications to a degree that makes the realism of the master of Flémalle seem almost rudimentary. Working first, it appears with his brother Hubert, and then independently after Hubert’s death , Van Eyck perfected the techniques of perspective- and, more important, of oil painting- that were begun by the Master of Flémalle. These were the techniques demanded by the new taste for a realistic art. Oil offered a wider and subtler range f color than earlier mediums did, as well as the opportunity to achieve the uninterrupted gradations required for realistically describing the direction and quality of light.
Jan van Eyck’s unusual portrayal of the sin of the first parents has invited its share of interpretations and presented some curious questions for art experts: Who is really guilty? What are their thoughts? Just why are these sinners admitted to the heavenly realm of Mary , God the father, and John the Baptist in the first place? It is obvious that they feel the guilt and gravity of their action; but nonetheless, one small but pertinent detail may be overlooked, that provides us with more insight into the ingenious workings of Van Eycks’s mind and his mastery of disguised symbolism in his art. What is the unusual fruit that Eve holds before her?
“Yet another question is how to understand the function of Adam and Eve on this altarpiece,” states Peter Voorn. “With Adam and Eva mankind became sinful and was banned from paradise. The early Church fathers interpreted Adam as the first Christ, whereas Eve was understood as the first Mary. On the altarpiece, both are standing a bit lost on the outermost edges of the wings, but when both side wings are closed, they come together in Christ, just above Paradise!”
References to contradictory moments of their familiar story further disengage them from the familiar sequence of events that is narrated in Scripture, making them seem more like independent actors than mere agents of an oft cited tale. The small fruit that Eve holds between the fingers of her elevated right hand indicates the imminence of the Temptation; at the same time, the fig leaves with which she and Adam conceal their genitalia declare that they have already eaten of it. This configuration of familiar elements challenges features that we know from the story of the first couple as told in Genesis. There Adam and Eve’s naked bodies (Gen. 2:25) receive discreet coverage only after they have eaten the forbidden fruit. Knowledge, in the form of self-awareness gained through misbehavior, causes them to cover their lower torsos with leafy aprons (Gen. 3:7); the leaves serve as signs of their shame.