This two-part painting by the incomparable Jan van Eyck is like black metal music emanating from a bouquet of flowers. A message of love and redemption underwritten by a thudding bass note of terror.
Of course, Christian imagery often hits such notes. But van Eyck’s “Crucifixion” and “Last Judgment” panels, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, take this diametrical effect to an astonishing level of visual intensity.
The “message of love,” on the left panel, takes the form of several men hung on crosses, which I concede is not quite the same as a bouquet of flowers. But van Eyck (1390-1441) expected us to know its significance (“God so loved the world,” etcetera). The event itself is ghastly, but the whole left panel is his tribute to earthliness: to the condition of being mortal, venal and vain, yes, but also communal (so many figures crowded together!), custodians of this precious Earth and, above all, redeemable.
The landscape alone, which includes the city of Jerusalem and a fastidious rendering of the Dome of the Rock, seems to stretch back forever. In its evocation of atmosphere, including snow-capped peaks, clouds and moon, it is a landmark in the history of painting.
Love appears in the right panel, too — up top, in the form of the resurrected Jesus sitting in judgment, flanked by orderly rows of gorgeous saints, hovering angels and the gratefully saved.
But below? Below is death. The archangel Michael, in his dashing garment with rainbow wings, stands astride the narrow earthly realm, where the desperate cry out to be saved.
He prepares to strike down a personification of death — a winged, grinning skeleton that roosts over hell, where devils sport with the damned, splitting them at the seams and swallowing them whole.
People say the Old Masters are boring. I laugh.
The two panels, sometimes known as the “New York Diptych,” are dated c. 1440-1441, near the end of van Eyck’s life. It’s likely his workshop was involved, especially on the right panel. The frame is original, and the painting is lavish in its use of gold and precious pigments such as lapis lazuli. There are quotations in multiple languages from the Bible on both the frame and the painting itself. Whoever commissioned it must have had great wealth and a sophisticated education.
The panels, which originally may have flanked a lost central panel, were transferred to canvas in the 19th century. Each one is only about 22 inches high and 8 inches wide. It’s incredible how much van Eyck packed in and how lifelike he made it, with his painstaking technique of layering tinted glazes over a colored ground.
Little is known about van Eyck’s early life. But over the past century, many scholars have speculated that he (or his older brother, Hubert) may have been the painter of a mostly destroyed illuminated manuscript called the “Turin-Milan Hours.” Certainly he had the technique and control to work on a very small scale.
In the left panel, van Eyck depicts separate moments in a narrative that leads our eyes in a snaking line from the foreground figures of Mary and John the Evangelist, past Mary Magdalene and a prophesying sibyl, then up to the soldiers and horsemen crowding around the cross. Because almost all of the figures are seen from behind, we want to see precisely what they have come to see: terrible suffering and, although few of them know it, a world-redeeming event.
But the crowd is distracted. As you peer closely, you can almost smell the horse hair and hear the casually flung insults. And as our eyes follow their various gazes, we’re reminded that van Eyck never lets the business of looking, of being a spectator, stay simple.
Behind the horsemen, about one-third of the way up, two men lean against each other, taking it all in. One has a shield slung over his shoulder. It’s a small detail, but the shield is shiny enough to act as a mirror. What it shows — smudged, inchoate, almost invisible — are the grieving mourners, who themselves can’t bear to look.
Such is life, which crowds out death, until the moment when it, too, is swallowed whole.