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.
Jan’s has depicted them in this way in a conflation of sequential events. Through explicit modulations of muscle and flesh tone, he celebrates Adam and Eve’s nakedness in the moments before God clothes them with garments. Passages of precisely rendered body
hair allude to the absent animal skins that provide them with cover just before their Expulsion from Eden, according to the text. Early viewers were so taken with the frank representation of the first couple that they employed their names when discussing the
whole polyptych, referring to it as the Adam and Eve Retable. Philip observed that this was in no way a misnomer since the figures are central to the message of the Altarpiece.
But something else was at stake as well: The Ghent painter Lucas de Heere, in an ode to the Altarpiece published in 1565, remarked on Adam’s disturbingly life-like pose, asking “who ever saw a body painted to resemble real flesh so closely?” Indeed, Adam’s anatomy is remarkably delineated. It displays dimples, bony bulges, hair follicles and skin depicted with variegated coloration. Angularly positioned arms crisscross a muscular torso, casting strong horizontal shadows along the lower chest and hip that dramatically emphasize the figure’s erect posture and draw attention to its robust physiognomy. The bold arm gesture further underscores a distinction between Adam’s pale, luminous torso and the harsh redness of his hands. This audacious representation of weathered, sunburned extremities indicates labor out of doors, the punishment God meted out to Adam for his disobedience immediately before the Expulsion. It has suggested to several scholars, Pächt and Panofsky foremost among them as noted above, the artist’s faithful transcription of reality in the use of a live model. Pächt and Panofsky each recognized that this coloration depicted heightened
pigmentation following exposure to the elements, and both marveled at such a demonstration of observational fidelity on the artist’s part. ( Linda Seidel )