The Mysteries of the Mystic Lamb, An Introduction
Those who know me well are aware that I am very nearly obsessed with the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck; specifically the lower central panel of the interior, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The mystical, geometric, and apocalyptic properties of this painting are exceedingly subtle, however once we are initiated into its mysteries, we discover a strange, miraculous painting-within-a-painting that is, like the Kingdom of Heaven it portrays, “hidden in plain sight where men do not see it.”
To be clear: the geometric properties to which I am referring are neither obvious nor visible with the naked eye, at least not immediately. Rather they emerge, to those for whom they emerge, like a three-dimensional stereogram from the picture plane (not unlike an infinitely more sophisticated version of those “Magic Eye” posters that alternately delighted and confounded suburban mall-goers in the 1990s).
In 2009, upon spending several tightly nested eternities absorbing the ecstatic splendor of this strange painting, I managed to codify some of my observations regarding its esoteric optic properties in the form of a blog post called Eyes All Around. Five years later, I consider this post among my favorite things I’ve written, so I recommend getting caught up if you haven’t yet read it, since it is foundational to the paragraphs that follow.
Last night I attended a lecture on the Ghent Altarpiece by art historian Rebecca Albiani at the Frye Art Museum. Ms. Albiani is an adept speaker, and her insight into the art historical significance of the altarpiece was well worth the price of admission. I was somewhat surprised to note, however, that while she spent several minutes talking about the figures of Van Eyck’s donors that adorn the exterior panels of the altarpiece, she spent almost no time at all on the “Mystic Lamb,” the glorious climax of the altarpiece and arguably the single finest achievement of Northern Renaissance painting, if not the history of European painting.
After the lecture, I asked her about this oversight. Was it because she was running out of time? Or was she simply less interested in the more esoteric aspects of the altarpiece’s interior?
“I’m kinda less interested in it,” was her honest reply. Her response did not come as much of a surprise, nor did I find it particularly disappointing.
Art history is—or at least aspires to be—a sober, secular subject. As James Elkins explains in his essential text, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, this is because the category of “art,” as defined by museums, institutions and the existence of an “art world,” is a fundamentally modern construct. Participation in this construct assumes a certain intellectual impartiality, even transcendence of the limited structures of traditional belief systems.
Art historians don’t often expound on the “mystical” properties of mystical paintings for the same reasons that most people don’t tend to walk around in their day-to-day lives preaching wisdom gleaned from ecstatic, prophetic states. Either (1) they aren’t gleaning wisdom from ecstatic states (2) they are, but they don’t want to seem insane.
(Indeed, perhaps it is prudent to leave the cultivation of true insanity up to the artists!)
The slippery nature of transcendent experience—like the one encoded in the mysteries of the Mystic Lamb—is such that it is notoriously difficult to capture in language. Images often fare better, and so we are blessed as a species with a deep and wonderful lexicon of visual roadmaps of transcendence that rival the even the greatest esoteric texts in their cosmic profundity.
In his midcentury study Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, religious historian Mircea Eliade drew the distinction between the “cool,” outer, physical and exoteric components of ritual and the “hot,” inner, subjective component of the ritual as lived experience. While the former may be readily communicated, the latter must be directly experienced and felt.
Eliade’s distinction between the “cool” outer shell and the “hot” inner experience reminds me of a passage in Fulcanelli’s Le Mystère des Cathédrales, in which the reader’s attention is drawn to a bas-relief of the Virgin on the Grand Portico of Notre-Dame in Paris. In her right hand, she holds two books. One is openly displayed for all to read, while the other is sealed, its contents an impenetrable mystery to the uninitiated.
The Ghent Altarpiece is structured as a physical illustration of this very idea. For most of the year, except for special religious holidays, the altarpiece would have remained closed, its pseudo-architectural trompe l’œil niches barely hinting at the vivid, red-hot visual ecstasy contained within.
As an artist, I am particularly fascinated by the mysterious, generative relationship between ecstatic spiritual practice and the codification of visual forms such as the ones implied by the “hidden” geometric properties of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
I am returning to this personal blog after a long hiatus in order to begin collecting thoughts for a series of public lectures that I will be giving next Spring at Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery in conjunction with an exhibition, which will run from February 18 – April 4, 2015. The heart of this exhibition will be a radical, multimedia expansion of my lecture “How to Draw God from Direct Observation,” which was first performed in May 2014 at Portland, Oregon’s Xhurch as part of PSU’s Portland Center for Public Humanities “Visions” Series.
For the Hedreen exhibition, I will be converting the gallery into a Divine Observatory that will come to life in the context of a series of public lectures and events. This project in particular is something that has been slowly developing as an idea for many years and I’m very excited to see it come to fruition.
The details of this exhibition are still very much up in the air, however I am fairly certain that the mysteries of the Mystic Lamb will be invoked, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.