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Apocalyptic in Art: The Reredos of the Mystical Lamb, Ghent - Van Eyck's Eschatological Vision and Jewish-Christian Relations
The following text is a summary of a lecture given by Prof. Luc Dequeker of Louvain during a conference of the Institutum Judaicum of Brussels, Dec. 6, 1983, on the theme: The Church and the Synagogue in Christian Iconography. Prof. Dequeker treated first the theme of Church and Synagogue as represented by the statues on the south door of Strasbourg Cathedral. The same theme is repeated at Ghent by works going back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries which were part of the environment of Van Eyck. Church and Synagogue are portrayed as opposing figures, the latter being depicted as blind and humiliated, cast away with the tablets of the law falling from her hands.
The reredos of the Mystical Lamb challenges the traditional manner of depicting the Synagogue in a derogatory manner in Christian art. It does not so much develop the typology of Old Testament fulfilled by the New (prophets replaced by apostles, for example) but speaks rather of the relation between Christians and Jews. Jews, easily recognized by their pointed hats, are not placed on the left of the throne or of the altar (the side of the damned) but on the right, the traditional place of the Church of the Circumcision as against the Church of the Gentiles in Christian iconography.
The general theme seems to be the Apocalypse, the coming again of Christ in glory at the end of time. To this is added that of the Church facing the Synagogue, Jews opposite Gentiles. The reredos of the Mystical Lamb presents not only a unity of theological thought but also of artistic composition. It rejects an interpretation which would spring from a conglomeration of independent motifs of heterogeneous origin.
The reredos encloses, moreover, a hidden symbolism related to the theme. Thus there is a citrus fruit (etrog) in Eve's hand and, on the central panel, the branches which certain Jews associate with the eschatological feast of Tabernacles (Zech. 14:16). The relationship of the citrus fruit of Tabernacles with the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden is characteristic of kabbalistic Jews, for example.
The poet robed in white and crowned with a laurel wreath has often been identified with Virgil. lie is, in fact, Zachary, the father of John the Baptist. He is represented as a martyr, according to the proto-gospel of James which is linked with Matt 23:35 and with the usual accusations addressed to Jews with regard to Christ.
The crown at the foot of the throne (in Hebrew, Keter Torah) replaces the tablets of the law which are normally found in current representations of Church and Synagogue. On the reredos of the Mystical Lamb this crown is accorded a plane of honor as a sign of the covenant between two peoples: the Church of the Circumcision, Ecdesia ex Circumcision and the Church of the Gentiles, Ecclesia ex Gentibus.
The mysterious monogram: A.G.L.A. on the pavement in front of the panel with the angelic musicians refers to the second of the eighteen benedictions — Shemoneh Esreh — of Jewish daily prayer. According to the kabbalah, it alludes to the blessing bestowed on Judah in Gen 49:8-12: °The sceptre shall not depart from Judah..."
With regard to the angelic musicians and their choir, they would represent the canticle of the bride and the bridegroom which played a major role in controversies between Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages.