Twenty years after seeing an image of ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by Van Eyck as a first year art history student, I finally went to see it on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. I must admit I held my breath when I distinguished the first contours of the immense tryptic in the St Baafs Church (an extremely mouldy and damp place, not exactly a solemn atmosphere). But I did much more than just looking in order to perceive it better.
Using the whole body
It is impossible to experience its impact by means of a projected or printed image, while passively sitting on a chair. Its colours are so much more vibrant, the details so much more vivid and visible. And the altar piece’s size forces you to move. It is so huge you need to tilt your head almost 180 degrees from left to right, and 90 degrees up and down, and since the back is also adorned with depictions you need to do a small procession all around it. This renders the piece a kind of agency and a physical attention as it demands a dynamic effort by the viewer.
The Olfactory Gaze
A few years after my first encounter I became interested in scent and olfactory history. I never consciously thought of the altar piece again. But when I saw it in all its majesty yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice the many fragrant references.
- In the lower middle panel, right in front of the bleeding Lamb, there are two angels with incense vessels or censers. In the audio tour it said this was meant to ‘honour Christ’. But I know now it’s bit more complicated than that. Sweet and fragrant substances were literally, in the nose of the medieval beholder, a means of communication to God. They did not symbolize prayer, they WERE a fragrant ascending prayer in themselves, and were considered a more direct and suitable language than spoken and written words (and not the other way around, as many authors often claim).
- Any offering to God in the Bible, is always a burnt offering, regardless of its nature, including animals, or fragrant resins. Only when smoke rises ‘per fumum’, it can reach the nostrils of the divine being (beings in ancient cultures). Smoke transcends the material into immaterial matter and ‘pleases God’. That is why Noah immediately burnt frankincense and myrrh when he found drylands and why Christ was offered fragrant resins by the wise men. Christ himself was the highest burnt (fragrant) offering imaginable. The lamb on the altar signifies this fragrant sacrifice.
- In the garden in the middle panel – a depiction of Paradise or the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were expelled – there are at least 70 kinds of plants, fruit trees and flowers. What is very striking is that many of the flowers are and were used by perfumers (priests were the first perfumers, composing perfumes for burnt offerings). In their aromatic and colourful dimension, flowers were thought to give of constant prayers (see point 1). Again, the scent itself was thought to carry meaning, not just to symbolize it. To the right in the lower middle panel, there are irises and lilies. Not just beautiful to look at, but exuding extremely strong perfumes.
- Hardly distinguishable, in the panel directly next to the garden, on the lower right, there is a procession of people dressed in faint colours. At the back, there is a woman carrying an ointment jar. This must be Mary of Betthany or Mary of Magdalen. The oil in her jar was called ‘spikenard’:
“Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”
This paragraph, taken from the gospel by John, meant that Mary acknowledged Jesus as a spiritual and worldly leader. Spikenard was only reserved for kings, high priests and pharaohs, being very expensive coming all the way from the Himalayas. She must have spent a year’s income on the jar, indicating her wealth. But it also signified something else. Feet were usually only anointed when the person they belonged to was already deceased. Her fragrant act signified that she predicted both his upcoming sanctity, as his untimely death. The jar in Mary’s hands is a visual reminder of an olfactory layer in a usually textually narrated story.
This olfactory way of looking at a famous visual piece of art, made it a much more rich, sensory experience; one that made a huge impression on me that I presume will stay with me even longer than 20 years from now.
by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian