Hubert van Eyck was born, according to the common acceptation, in 1366. John van Eyck was his junior by some unknown number of years. Chroniclers of the Sixteenth Century vaguely suggest that the two brothers settled at Ghent in 1410. There is every reason to believe that all these dates are incorrect; that Hubert was born after 1366, and that the date of his migration to Ghent must be placed later in the century. It is credible that both the brothers were court painters to Philip of Charolois, heir apparent to the throne of Burgundy, who lived with his wife Michelle de France at Ghent between 1418 and 1421. In the service of the prince, painters were free from the constraint of their guild, but on the withdrawal of the court the privilege would cease; and this explains how the names of the Van Eycks were not recorded in the register of the corporation of St. Luke till 1421, when, on the death of the Countess Michelle, and as a tribute to her memory, they were registered as masters without a fee. John van Eyck soon found employment in the court atmosphere, which seemed congenial to him, whilst Hubert remained at Ghent, received commissions from the municipality (1424), and became acquainted with Jodocus Vydts, for whom he composed the vast altar-piece known as the Adoration of the Lamb. It was not fated that he should finish the great work which he was then induced to begin. He probably sketched the subjects that were to adorn the panels, and completed some of the more important of them. At his death in 1426 he was buried in the chapel, the decoration of which had been the last occupation of his life. We may sum up the qualities which distinguished him, and the services which he rendered to the art of his country, in the following sentences:—

The Adoration of the Lamb. Van Eyck.

The Adoration of the Lamb.
Van Eyck.

He carried the realistic tendency, already existing in the Flemish masters, to an extraordinary pitch of excellence, whilst in many essential respects he adhered to the more ideal feeling of the previous period, imparting to this, by the means of his far richer powers of representation, greater distinctness, truth of nature, and variety of expression. Throughout his works he displayed an elevated and highly energetic conception of the stern import of his labours in the service of the Church. The prevailing arrangement of his subject is symmetrical, holding fast the early architectonic rules which had hitherto presided over ecclesiastic art. The later mode of arrangement, in which a freer and more dramatic and picturesque feeling was introduced, is only seen in Hubert van Eyck's works in subjection to these rules. Thus his heads exhibit the aim at beauty and dignity belonging to the earlier period, only combined with more truth of nature. His draperies unite its pure taste and softness of folds with greater breadth; the realistic principle being apparent in that greater attention to detail which a delicate indication of the material necessitates. Nude figures are studied from nature with the utmost fidelity; undraped portions are also given with much truth, especially the hands; only the feet remain feeble. That, however, which is almost the principal quality of his art, is the hitherto unprecedented power, depth, transparency, and harmony of his colouring. To attain this he availed himself of a mode of painting in oil which he and his brother had perfected. Oil painting, it is true, had long been in use, but only in a very undeveloped form, and for inferior purposes. According to the most recent and thorough investigations, the improvement introduced by the Van Eycks, and which they doubtless only very gradually worked out, were the following. First, they removed the chief impediment which had hitherto obstructed the application of oil-paint to pictures properly so called. For, in order to accelerate the slow drying of the oil colours, it had been necessary to add a varnish to them, which consisted of oil boiled with a resin. Owing to the dark colour of this varnish, in which amber, or more frequently sandarac, was used, this plan, from its darkening effect on most colours, had hitherto proved unsuccessful. The Van Eycks, however, succeeded in preparing so colourless a varnish that they could apply it without disadvantage, to all colours. In painting a picture they proceeded on the following system. The outline was drawn on a gesso ground, so strongly sized that no oil could penetrate the surface. The under painting was then executed in a generally warm brownish glazing colour, and so thinly that the light ground was clearly seen through it. They then laid on the local colours, thinner in the lights, and, from the quantity of vehicle used, more thickly in the shadows; in the latter availing themselves often of the under painting as a foil. In all other parts they so nicely preserved the balance between the solid and the glazing colours as to attain that union of body and transparency which is their great excellence. Finally, in the use of the brush they obtained that perfect freedom which the new vehicle permitted; either leaving the touch of the brush distinct, or fusing the touches tenderly together, as the object before them required. Of all the works which are now attributed to Hubert, but one is genuine and historically authenticated. This noble work is certified by an inscription. It is a large altar picture, consisting of two rows of separate panels, once in the Cathedral of St. Bavon at Ghent. It was painted, as before remarked, for Jodocus Vydts, Seigneur of Pamele, and Burgomaster of Ghent, and his wife Elizabeth, of the then distinguished family of Burlunt, for their mortuary chapel in that cathedral.11 When the wings were opened, which occurred only on festivals, the subject of the upper centre picture was seen, consisting of three panels, on which were the Triune God—the King of heaven and earth—and at his side the Holy Virgin and the Baptist; on the inside of the wings were angels, who with songs and sacred music celebrate the praises of the Most High: at the two extremities, each inside the half-shutters which covered the figure of God the Father, were Adam and Eve, the representatives of fallen man. The lower central picture shows the Lamb of the Revelation, whose blood flows into a cup; over it is the dove of the Holy Spirit; angels, who hold the instruments of the Passion, worship the Lamb, and four groups, each consisting of many persons, advance from the sides: they comprise the holy martyrs, male and female, with priests and lay-men; in the foreground is the fountain of life; in the distance the towers of the heavenly Jerusalem. On the wing pictures, other groups are coming up to adore the Lamb; on the left, those who have laboured for the kingdom of the Lord by worldly deeds—the soldiers of Christ, and the righteous judges; on the right, those who, through self-denial and renunciation of earthly good, have served Him in the spirit—holy hermits and pilgrims; a picture underneath, which represented hell, finished the whole.

This work is now dispersed: the centre pictures and the panels of Adam and Eve only being in Ghent.12 The lower picture of hell was early injured and lost, and the others form some of the greatest ornaments of the gallery of the Berlin Museum.13

The three figures of the upper centre picture are designed with all the dignity of statue-like repose belonging to the early style; they are painted, too, on a ground of gold and tapestry, as was constantly the practice in earlier times: but united with the traditional type we already find a successful representation of life and nature in all their truth. They stand on the frontier of two different styles, and, from the excellence of both, form a wonderful and most impressive whole. In all the solemnity of antique dignity the Heavenly Father sits directly fronting the spectator—his right hand raised to give the benediction to the Lamb, and to all the figures below; in his left is a crystal sceptre; on his head the triple crown, the emblem of the Trinity. The features are such as are ascribed to Christ by the traditions of the Church, but noble and well-proportioned; the expression is forcible, though passionless. The tunic of this figure, ungirt, is of a deep red, as well as the mantle, which last is fastened over the breast by a rich clasp, and, falling down equally from both shoulders, is thrown in beautiful folds over the feet. Behind the figure, and as high as the head, is a hanging of green tapestry adorned with a golden pelican (a well-known symbol of the Redeemer); behind the head the ground is gold, and on it, in a semicircle, are three inscriptions, which again describe the Trinity, as all-mighty, all-good, and all-bountiful. The two other figures of this picture display equal majesty; both are reading holy books and are turned towards the centre figure. The countenance of John expresses ascetic seriousness, but in the Virgin's we find a serene grace, and a purity of form, which approach very nearly to the happier efforts of Italian art.

On the wing next to the Virgin stand eight angels singing before a music-desk. They are represented as choristers in splendid vestments and crowns. The brilliancy of the stuffs and precious stones is given with the hand of a master, the music-desk is richly ornamented with Gothic carved work and figures, and the countenances are full of expression and life; but in the effort to imitate nature with the utmost truth, so as even to enable us to distinguish with certainty the different voices of the double quartet, the spirit of a holier influence has already passed away. On the opposite wing, St. Cecilia sits at an organ, the keys of which she touches with an expression of deep meditation: other angels stand behind the organ with different stringed instruments. The expression of these heads shows far more feeling, and is more gentle; the execution of the stuffs and accessories is equally masterly. The two extreme wings of the upper series, the subjects of which are Adam and Eve, are now in the Museum at Brussels. The attempt to paint the nude figure of the size of life, with the most careful attention to minute detail, is eminently successful, with the exception of a certain degree of hardness in the drawing. Eve holds in her right hand the forbidden fruit. In the filling up, which the shape of the altar-piece made necessary over these panels, there are small subjects in chiaroscuro: over Adam, the sacrifice of Cain and Abel; over Eve, the death of Abel—death, therefore, as the immediate consequence of original sin.

The arrangement of the lower middle picture, the worship of the Lamb, is strictly symmetrical, as the mystic nature of the allegorical subject demanded, but there is such beauty in the landscape, in the pure atmosphere, in the bright green of the grass, in the masses of trees and flowers, even in the single figures which stand out from the four great groups, that we no longer perceive either hardness or severity in this symmetry. The wing picture on the right, representing the holy pilgrims, is, in the figures, less striking than the others. Here St. Christopher, who wandered through the world seeking the most mighty Lord, strides before all, a giant in stature, whilst a host of smaller pilgrims, of various ages, follow him. A fruitful valley, with many details, showing a surprising observation of nature, is seen through the slender trees. The cast of the folds in the ample red drapery of St. Christopher, as in the upper picture, reminds us still of the earlier style. The whimsical and singular expression in the countenances of the pilgrims is also very remarkable. The picture next to the last described is more pleasing; it represents the troop of holy anchorites passing out of a rocky defile. In front are St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony, the two who set the first example of retirement from the world; and the procession closes with the two holy women who also passed the greater part of their lives in the wilderness, Mary Magdalen and St. Mary of Egypt. The heads are full of character, with great variety of expression: on every countenance may be traced the history of its life. Grave old men stand before us, each one differing from the other; one is firm and strong, another more feeble; one cheerful and single-minded, another less open. Some inspired fanatics wildly raise their heads, whilst others with a simple and almost humorous expression walk by their side, and others again are still struggling with their earthly nature. It is a remarkable picture, and leads us deep into the secrets of the human heart—a picture which in all times must be ranked amongst the master-works of art, and which to be intelligible needs no previous inquiry into the relative period and circumstances of the artists who created it. The landscape background, the rocky defile, the wooded declivity, and the trees laden with fruit, are all eminently beautiful. The eye would almost lose itself in this rich sense of still life if it were not constantly led back to the interest of the foreground.

The opposite wing pictures differ essentially in conception from those just described. Their subject did not in itself admit such varied interest, and it is rather the common expression of a tranquil harmony of mind, and of the consciousness of a resolute will, which attracts the spectator, combined at the same time with a skilful representation of earthly splendour and magnificence. Inside the wing to the right we see the soldiers of the Lord on fine chargers, simple and noble figures in bright armour, with surcoats of varied form and colour. The three foremost with the waving banners appear to be St. Sebastian, St. George, and St. Michael, the patron saints of the old Flemish guilds, which accompanied their earls to the Crusades. In the head of St. George, the painter has strikingly succeeded in rendering the spirit of the chivalry of the Middle Ages—that true heroic feeling and sense of power which humbles itself before the higher sense of the Divinity. Emperors and kings follow after him. The landscape is extremely beautiful and highly finished, with rich and finely-formed mountain ridges, and the fleecy clouds of spring floating lightly across. The second picture (the last to the left) represents the righteous judges; they also are on horseback, and are fine and dignified figures. In front, on a splendidly caparisoned grey horse, rides a mild benevolent old man, in blue velvet trimmed with fur. This is the likeness of Hubert, to whom his brother has thus dedicated a beautiful memorial. Rather deeper in the group is John himself, clothed in black, with his shrewd, sharp countenance turned to the spectator. We are indebted to tradition for the knowledge of these portraits.

Both these wing pictures have the special interest of showing us, by means of armour, rich costumes, and caparisons, a true and particular representation of the Court of Burgundy in the time of Philip the Good—when it was confessedly the most superb court in Europe.

The upper wings, when closed, represented the Annunciation, and this was so arranged that on the outer and wider ones (the backs of the two pictures of angels singing and playing) were the figures of the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel,—on the inner narrower ones (that is, on the back of the Adam and Eve), a continuation of the Virgin's chamber. Here, as was often the case in the outside pictures of large altar-pieces, the colouring was kept down to a more uniform tone, in order that the full splendour might be reserved to adorn with greater effect the principal subject within. The angel and the Holy Virgin are clothed in flowing white drapery, but the wings of the angel glitter with a play of soft and brilliant colour, imitating those of the green parrot. The heads are noble and well painted; the furniture of the room is executed with great truth, as well as the view through the arcade which forms the background of the Virgin's chamber, into the streets of a town, one of which we recognize as a street in Ghent.

In the semicircles which close these panels above, on the right and left, are the prophets Micah and Zechariah, whose heads have great dignity, but are somewhat stiff and unsatisfactory in their attitudes. In the centre (corresponding with the figures in chiaroscuro over Adam and Eve) are two kneeling female figures represented as sibyls.

The exterior portion of the lower wings contains the statues of the two St. Johns. These display a heavy style of drapery, and there is something peculiarly angular in the breaks of the folds, imitated perhaps from the sculpture of the day, which had also already abandoned the older Northern mould. This peculiarity by degrees impressed itself more and more on the style of painting of the Fifteenth Century, and the drapery of the figures in the Annunciation already betrays a tendency towards it. The heads exhibit a feeling for beauty of form which is rare in this school. John the Baptist, who is pointing with his right hand to the Lamb on his left, is appropriately represented, as the last of the Prophets, as a man of earnest mien and dignified features, with much hair and beard. John the Evangelist, on the other hand, appears as a tender youth with delicate features, looking very composedly at the monster with four snakes which, at his benediction, rises from the chalice in his hand.

The likenesses of the donors are given with inimitable life and fidelity. They show the careful hand of Jan van Eyck, but already approach that limit within which the imitation of the accidental and insignificant in the human countenance should be confined. The whole, however, is in admirable keeping, and the care of the artist can hardly be considered too anxiously minute, since feeling and character are as fully expressed as the mere bodily form. The aged Jodocus Vydts, to whose liberality posterity is indebted for this great work of art, is dressed in a simple red garment trimmed with fur; he kneels with his hands folded, and his eyes directed upwards. His countenance, however, is not attractive; the forehead is low and narrow, and the eye without power. The mouth alone shows a certain benevolence, and the whole expression of the features denotes a character capable of managing worldly affairs. The idea of originating so great a work as this picture is to be found in the noble, intellectual, and expressive features of his wife, who kneels opposite to him in the same attitude, and in still plainer attire.

At Hubert van Eyck's death, on the 16th of September, 1426, Jodocus Vydts engaged Jan van Eyck, the younger brother and scholar of Hubert, to finish the picture in the incomplete parts.14 A close comparison of all the panels of this altar-piece with the authentic works of Jan van Eyck shows that the following portions differ in drawing, colouring, cast of drapery, and treatment, from his style, and may therefore with certainty be attributed to the hand of Hubert:—of the inner side of the upper series, the Almighty, the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, St. Cecilia with the angels playing on musical instruments, and Adam and Eve; of the inner side of the lower series, the side of the centre picture with the apostles and saints, and the wings with the hermits and pilgrims, though with the exception of the landscapes. On the other hand, of the inner side of the upper series, the wing picture with the singing angels is by Jan van Eyck; of the inner side of the lower series, the side of the centre picture of the Adoration of the Lamb, containing the patriarchs and prophets, etc., and the entire landscape; the wing with the soldiers of Christ and the Righteous Judges, and the landscapes to the wing with the hermits and pilgrims; finally, the entire outer sides of the wings, comprising the portraits of the founders, and the Annunciation. The Prophet Zechariah and the two sibyls alone show a feebler hand.15

About one hundred years after the completion of this altar-piece an excellent copy of it was made by Michael Coxis for Philip II. of Spain. The panels of this work, like those of the original, are dispersed; some are in the Berlin Museum, some in the possession of the King of Bavaria, and others in the remains of the King of Holland's collection at the Hague. A second copy, which comprises the inside pictures of this great work, from the chapel of the Town-house at Ghent, is in the Antwerp Museum.

Handbook of Painting: the German, Flemish, and Dutch Schools, based on the handbook of Kugler remodelled by Dr. Waagen and revised by J.A. Crowe (London, 1874).


11 Carton, Les Trois Frères van Eyck, p. 36.

12 Marc van Vaernewijck in a MS. of 1566-8, describing the Ghent troubles, states that on the 19th of August, two days before the iconoclasts plundered St. Bavon, the picture of the Mystic Lamb was removed from the Vijdts chapel and concealed in one of the towers. See the MS., Van die Beroerlicke Tijden in die Nederlanden, recently printed at Ghent (1872), p. 146. On the same page in which Vaernewijck relates this story he says that he refers his readers, for the lives of the Van Eycks to his book, Mijn leecken Philosophie int xxe bouck. This book, which probably still exists on the shelves of some library, has not as yet been discovered.

13 "The pictures here exhibited as the works of Hemmelinck, Messis, Lucas of Holland, A. Dürer, and even Holbein, are inferior to those ascribed to Eyck in colour, execution, and taste. The draperies of the three on a gold ground, especially that of the middle figure, could not be improved in simplicity, or elegance, by the taste of Raphael himself. The three heads of God the Father, the Virgin, and St. John the Baptist, are not inferior in roundness, force, or sweetness to the heads of L. da Vinci, and possess a more positive principle of colour."—Life of Fuseli, i. p. 267. This is a very remarkable opinion for the period when it was written.


This appears from the following inscription of the time, on the frame of the outer wing:—

"Pictor Hubertus ab Eyck, major quo nemo repertus
Incepit; pondusque Johannes arte secundus
Frater perfecit, Judoci Vyd prece fretus
[VersV seXta MaI Vos CoLLoCat aCta tVerI]."

[The last verse gives the date of May 6, 1432.] The discovery of this inscription, under a coating of green paint, was made in Berlin in 1824, when the first word and a half of the third line, which were missing, were [imperfectly] supplied [with "frater perfectus"] by an old copy of this inscription, found by M. de Bast, the Belgian connoisseur.

15 [Dr. Waagen did not always hold decided opinions as to what portions of the altar-piece of Ghent are by Hubert and John van Eyck, respectively. There is no doubt that some of "the sublime earnestness" which Schlegel notes in the Eternal, the Virgin, and John the Baptist, and much of the stern realism which characterizes those figures, is to be found in the patriarchs and prophets, and in the hermits and pilgrims, and in the Adam and Eve; but it is too much to say that these wing pictures can "with certainty be assigned to Hubert," and it is not to be forgotten that John van Eyck worked in this picture on the lines laid down by his elder brother, and must have caught some of the spirit of his great master.]