Fig, not Apple

Traditionally it was believed that the Ghent Altarpiece was begun by Hubert van Eyck, who died in 1426 whilst work was underway, and completed by his younger brother Jan van Eyck, but some modern researchers distinguished the hand of only one artist, namely Jan van Eyck, in this painting.

This altarpiece is one of the few large fifteenth-century polyptychs that can be seen today in its original location at Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium (The Visual Arts: A History, Revised Edition by Hugh Honour, John F. Fleming). It was a fundamentally innovative work in its depiction of naturalism. (Blurring the boundaries between art and life: Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece (1425-32) by Diane G. Scillia)

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve) by Jan van Eyck

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve) by Jan van Eyck

Karel van Mander (1548 – 1606) wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece could serve as proof of Jan van Eyck’s  scholarship, because of

the fig that Eve holds in her hand; for St Augustine prefers to believe that it was a fig that Adam ate rather than an apple; the reason is that literally the text speaks of a fruit, and does not distinguish which fruit; but they clothed themselves with fig-leaves <…> and not with the leaves of apple. (The Lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters by Karel van Mander)

It was, of course, a great discovery by Augustine of Hippo and a sigh of real scholarship. So I thought I should make a note of it, to remember in the future. Concerning the altarpiece, one may say that its naturalism didn’t stand it in good stead. In the 19th century, the naked representations of Adam and Eve were considered unacceptable in a church and the panels were replaced by dressed reproductions.

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve dressed)

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve dressed)

Only in the 20th century Jan’s Adam and Eve returned to their original positions. (see Adam and Eve: Shameless First Couple of the Ghent Altarpiece by Linda Seidel).

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