Iconography refers to the meaning of symbols in art, and it’s one of the topics students in my art history classes find intriguing. To demonstrate how iconography works, we can take a look at three panels in the Ghent Altarpiece, a huge work of art (11’5” tall and 15’ long when open!) that was completed for Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium in 1432 by brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

Understanding Iconography in Art

I suggest looking at the zoomable macrophotography images of the Ghent Altarpiece at the website “Closer to Van Eyck” as you read. All images included here come from http://legacy.closertovaneyck.be.

When the altarpiece is open, we are confronted with a crowd of people and a lot of activity. The three central panels on the top show us a man in red with a fantastic hat, a crowned woman in blue on his right, and a man in a green cloak and rather hairy garment on his left. We can identify them as God the Father or Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist based on symbols that the van Eycks included.

The Image of God

Jan and Hubert van Eyck represent God (or Christ) as ruler of the universe: he holds a scepter of rock crystal, and a crown sits at his feet, identifying him as the King of Kings. God wears an incredible hat – this is the papal tiara, a crown that Popes wore in the past. This identifies him as head of the Church. The fabric behind God (and the Virgin and John the Baptist) is called cloth of honor, and is one more symbol that lets us know these are important figures. If you look closely at the cloth of honor behind God, you’ll see a pattern made up of grapes, a bird bending over chicks, and the phrase “IHESUS XPS” (“Jesus Christ”). All of these symbols would have been familiar to Renaissance viewers.

Christians adopted grapes as one of their symbols very early on, drawing on Christ’s teachings and life. Jesus describes himself and his disciples in terms of [grape] vines and branches in John 15. When Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples at the Last Supper, the event that becomes the model for the Eucharist, he uses wine to represent his blood and the formation of the new covenant.

The bird with chicks is a pelican, which also became a symbol for Christ. If we look carefully at the pelican, we see that its beak is aimed at its breast. What we’re seeing is the pelican piercing its chest with its beak in order to feed its blood to its chicks. This is probably not behavior that you’re going to observe in nature! There is a very old tradition of looking at animal behavior (again, not always observable!) and reading moral meaning into it. In the case of the pelican, people as far back as the second century CE believed that the bird would, in extreme circumstances, feed its chicks with its blood, sometimes dying in the process. For Christians, this self-sacrifice reminded them of Christ’s sacrificial death for humanity on the cross.

A Rose without Thorns

The Virgin Mary sits at God’s right hand. She’s wearing a blue dress and cloak. This blue clothing is one of the easiest ways to identify the Virgin in art. There are lots of explanations for this color choice; one of the most practical reasons is that blue was an expensive pigment to import, so artists used it on special figures. Looking closely at Mary’s crown, we can see that it’s made up of several types of flowers, along with gems and stars. Two of the largest flowers in the crown are white lilies and red roses. Both of these are traditionally associated with the Virgin. Lilies symbolize virginity and purity, qualities associated with Mary. Roses can represent many different themes, and became one of the major symbols connected with Mary. One title used to refer to the Virgin is “the rose without thorns” in a reference to the doctrine that she was born without original sin.

Preparing the Way

John the Baptist is the final figure in this group of three. He sits at God’s left hand, holding an open book and pointing back towards the central figure in red. John wears a green cloak over a brown, hairy robe. This hairy garment is one of the key pieces of iconography associated with John the Baptist. It comes from Matthew and Mark, who describe John as wearing clothing made from camel’s hair. In Renaissance art, this outfit often makes it look like John is wearing animal skin. Posture can also be a type of iconography. John’s role as forerunner of Christ is referenced through his pose: he points towards God in the central panel.

These three figures demonstrate a very small sampling of the iconography at work in the Ghent Altarpiece. Many of the figures in other panels of this altarpiece would have been identifiable to their Renaissance viewers through similar symbols.

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