Jan van Eyck is most commonly known for his masterpiece, The Arnolfini Portrait, where he hilariously painted himself alongside the agent of the powerful Medici banking family in Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini, and Arnolfini’s wife. I still remember the huge joke my world history teacher in high school made, when he zoomed into the convex mirror at the back wall of the Flemish interior setting, in class that day. He showed us the reflection of two more figures by an opened doorway, looking into the room. As if to further emphasize his presence, van Eyck adds above the mirror in ornate Latin signature a statement that translates to “Jan van Eyck was here”.
Of course, the Arnolfini Portrait’s significance isn’t solely about the surprise intrusion of the Flemish court painter. There are many things about it that continues to intrigue art critics and historians to this day. As a freshman in high school, I never truly understood that. As a freshman in college, the naturalism and symbolism that van Eyck employs to support the expressive nature of his art is one that no longer escapes me.
Given my family background and my own personal experiences, the Last Judgement is something that brings some mixed emotions to surface. As a kid, I used to fear such an event because it is quite literally the end of the world as Christians would believe it. It’s that moment when you realize all of your sins you’ve accumulated has come back to bite you in the ass and there’s nowhere else to run. Jan van Eyck captures that choking fear in his Last Judgement perfectly at the sight of the naked people on Earth’s surface, falling through the cracks that led down to hell, flailing their arms helplessly, trying to appeal to the holy and sacred above.
Perhaps, even more unnerving is the eagle-spread skeleton that directly stares at the viewer. At 4’ 11, I was exactly eye-level to that thing and it made me itch in a way that just wasn’t funny enough to even make a joke about now.
I do have to say that van Eyck was quite clever in stripping the devil of any explicit flesh monstrosity – it’s evil at the very bones. In the same way, he strips hell of the common eternal burning theme. Instead, he creates all these smaller disfigured creatures, ripping the fallen sinners in half, swallowing them whole, piercing through them. He makes the scene much more violent, bloody and active. The pain of the characters were more realistic. It definitely made me cringe in a way that I wouldn’t have at a scene of people burning alive.
Yet, the brilliance of van Eyck is the contrasting scene above the darkened, the dirtied, and the damned. The floating holy entourage of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the twelve apostles, and such features just the expected grandeur of the second coming. The light hue of the sky behind them offers the viewer exactly the relief needed after the terror of the imposing evil skeleton and eternal damnation. It brings the sense of hope. This is what we could have.