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Eyck, Jan van: altarpiece in Ghent

Eyck, Jan van: altarpiece in Ghent
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Eyck, Jan van: altarpiece in Ghent

It was not a sculptor who carried out the final conquest of reality in the North. For the artist whose revolutionary discoveries were felt from the beginning to represent something entirely new was the painter Jan van Eyck (1390?-1441). Like Sluter, he was connected with the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, but he mostly worked in the part of the Netherlands that is now Belgium. His most famous work is a huge altarpiece with many scenes in the city of Ghent. It is said to have been begun by Jan's elder brother Hubert, of whom little is known, and was completed by Jan in 1432. Thus it was painted during the very years that saw the completion of the great works of Masaccio and Donatello already described.

For all their obvious differences there are a number of similarities between Masaccio's fresco in Florence and this altarpiece painted for a church in distant Flanders. Both show the pious donor and his wife in prayer at the sides, and both center on a large symbolic image - that of the Holy Trinity in the fresco, and on the altar the mystic vision of the Adoration of the Lamb, the lamb, of course symbolizing Christ. The composition is mainly based on a passage in the Revelations of St John (vii. 9), 'And I beheld... a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and kindred and people and tongues which stood before the throne and before the lamb...', a text that is related by the Church to the Feast of All Saints, to which there are further allusions in the painting. Above, we see God the Father, as majestic as Masaccio's but enthroned in splendor like a Pope, between the Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist, who first called Jesus the Lamb of God.

The altar, with its many images, could be shown open, which happened on feast-days, when its glowing colors would be revealed, or shut (on week-days) when it presented a more sober appearance. Here the artist represented St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist as statues, much as Giotto had represented the figures of Virtues and Vices in the Arena Chapel. Above, we are shown the familiar scene of the Annunciation, and we need only look back again at the wonderful panel by Simone Martini, painted a hundred years earlier, to gain a first impression of van Eyck's wholly novel 'down to earth' approach to the sacred story.

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