article 53: Adoration

On a recent farewell visit to Bruges and Ghent, Naoko and I mainly wanted to pay homage to Jan van Eyck, the incomprehensibly great master of early Flemish painting. The main event was, of course, the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” in Sint Baafs cathedral. The pilgrimage over the Leie and across the market was spoiled by the sight of a massive, hyper-modern open structure, whence dance noise was emanating at well over 100 decibels. The desecration of a monumental architectural space could hardly be carried further.

Another ghastly manifestation of modern times was the concrete bunker attached to the choir of Sint Baafs as part of the new visitors’ center. In the crypt, where we sought Justus van Gent’s crucifixion, humanity was milling around wearing “virtual reality” headsets, even right in front of the triptych in its chapel. I don’t want to know what they were seeing there.

But time has been kind to van Eyck’s supreme opus, which he completed after the early death of his brother Hubert. The better side of modern technology has enabled both a splendid partial restoration and deep exploration of the work’s stages of development.

Decades behind in my musicological reading as usual, I didn’t know that the famous organ and its angelic player had been greatly altered, almost certainly by Jan himself. Spectacular X-rays had been thoroughly discussed by Edwin Ripin back in 1974 (Festschrift to Ernst Emsheimer, Musikhistoriska Museets Skrifter 5, Stockholm)*. The keyboard originally had a range beginning at G, with the lowest octave diatonic. Three upper keys (fis, gis, b-flat) between the angel’s hands resembled those found in the medieval organ from Norrlanda, Sweden – scallop-shaped and at a higher level than the naturals. The later version now visible has a modernized keyboard exactly like that shown in Henri Arnault de Zwolle’s treatise of around 1440; the uppers are small blocks at the same level as the naturals, and the range begins with B-natural, c, c-sharp, and continues upwards chromatically.

John Koster pointed out to me that Henri Arnault was a colleague of van Eyck’s. Both were salaried employees of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who had his main residence at Brussels. It seems to me more likely than not that the overpainting was a result of their contact; perhaps van Eyck laid eyes on drafts of the treatise (now in the Bibliothčque nationale de France) during a conversation carried on in both men’s native Netherlandish tongue.

I will speculate a little further regarding what the angel is actually playing. Infrared images available at clearly show differing hand positions (and overpainting of the left is even visible in normal light). In the original, the right hand (the “good” one) is ready to strike c1, the left is aiming at A. The later version has the right hand on e1, while the left grasps an interval of a fifth: thumb on g, fourth finger on c.

Nothing is left to chance in this masterpiece of all masterpieces. There must be some meaning behind the letters represented by the keys. I think the “c” in the older depiction must represent “Christ”, and the “A” – one key above gamma-ut – could refer to the words of the Lord, as quoted by an angel to John of Patmos, putative author of the Book of Revelations: “I am the alpha and the omega”. Perhaps the angel playing the celestial organ is meant to represent the very one who passed on the message of the Second Coming, with an injunction to inform the human race?

And perhaps Jan van Eyck took a step back from that portentous pronouncement while bringing his keyboard up to date, and decided to sign his greatest work with the note “e” – as in “Eyck” – being played by the angel’s right-hand third finger, giving a major third atop the C-major triad formed together with the left-hand interval.

Henri Arnault’s treatise already has a scheme for scaling the width of organ pipes in order to even out the tone quality in a rank. Van Eyck’s organ has a medieval-style front rank all of the same width. Presumably it would have been too much trouble to alter that aspect of the painting, which, along with the straight line formed by the tops of the pipes, conforms to an aesthetic more appropriate to a celestial setting than one concerned with what mortal ears can hear.

May 25, 2022

*Mr. Ripin, who died in 1975 at the age of 45, argues wisely against treating the image as a copy from reality. The number of pipes in the two visible rows is too high for a single register and too low for two registers, given his geometrically projected quantity of keys. But he falls into the same trap when he bases that projection on his insistence that the center of the keyboard must correspond to the center of the pipes in order to avoid a roller-board. It should be noted that the lowest key is some distance to the right of the lowest pipe. And there is simply nothing visible of the keyboard beyond f1. What Ripin furthermore cannot have known is that close inspection of the digitalized painting shows at least one more row of pipes in the shadows behind the second. This can only be a higher register, and the width of the case supports such a supposition. Thus, Ripin‘s statement that the extra key on the lower left (which can be held down with a hinged slat of wood) cannot be for registration purposes is not necessarily valid. He based himself on the function of a similar key on the (much larger) Norrlanda organ, which caused unused pressure in the wind chest to be released.

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