This grand piece is the most stolen piece of art in all of history. In one sense, it’s not hard to figure out why, given its great beauty, the fine detail with which it is finished and its subject which points us to the culmination of time. But it is also hard to imagine it being carted off so many times by thieves because of its massive size. This triptych – an altarpiece of three pieces which can close in on itself and be unfolded to reveal the work inside to worshipers – stands twice as high as a man and more than twice as wide. It not something you could just make off with easily when no one was looking. It was a very ambitious project for van Eyck to have undertaken, but he was the man to do it as the most celebrated painter of his time, the 15th century Michelangelo.
The first artist to paint in such intricate detail, van Eyck’s bottom, center panel – the largest in the altarpiece – is rich in such elements. The Mystic Lamb – Christ in glory – is the central focus with different groups coming in waves from the four corners of the earth to worship. Around the altar we find a host of angels in adoration. Behind and to the left is the empty cross of Christ and on the right, the pillar upon which He was mercilessly flogged, reminding us of where the Bridegroom came and rose from. Out of the chest flows His precious and redeeming blood into a golden chalice, the blood that was shed for our salvation and given for us in the Eucharist. His Bride-price paid on our behalf.
The Holy Spirit, in His radiance, oversees and lights the scene with His radiance. The fountain in the foreground is the great spring of salvation that Christ promised would refresh and give us life eternally. These three, the Holy Spirit, the Lamb and fountain create a perfect linear vertical center bringing our eyes to the center, the center of all history: Christ, the redeemer of the world.
It is what God’s whole story is and has been moving toward.