An Active Imagination

by Mark Calderwood

Just as ‘private’ devotions like books of hours had a public dimension, displaying their rich fittings and decorations, so too the great ‘public’ religious art of the Middle Ages contained a private aspect that activated spiritual awareness on a very personal level.

Even in mercantile, bourgeois late medieval cities, religion and salvation were prime concerns for people at all levels of society, and the majestic religious works over the altar would have been seen on an almost daily basis, becoming deeply engrained in the ordinary person’s consciousness. Yet discerning the messages held in those works did not take place as part of public worship: indeed, attendance at mass was neither regular universal or fervent, and individuals displayed varying attitudes toward piety, just as they do today.  Rather, it occurred during completion of the altarpiece and panel paintings, works which were in turn geared to elicit that shape that contemplative engagement.

In the bustling urban setting of Flemish religious art, with its tensions and exchanges of wealth and status, public benefaction and artistic patronage became a civic and social ritual along the affluent middle class, merchants and bankers who eagerly mimicked the aristocracy’s culture of lavish display and largesse. Gifting to the church was especially savvy patronage, combining concerns for charity and salvation with the display of the donors’ portraits or coats of arms.

One of the most magnificent examples of this is the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432. Stretching more than 5 metres wide and soaring 3.6 high, the multi-panel work is a tour de force of closely observed realism and densely complex symbolic iconography. Yet its ambitious scale and overwhelming opulence tends to obscure the subtlety with which it directs the religious sensibilities of the viewer.

The closed exterior panels of the triptych depict the patron Jodocus Vijt and his wife Lysbette Borluut, kneeling prayerfully before trompe l’oiel statues of Saints John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The portraits of the donor couple are fascinating for the purpose the artist makes them serve, actually standing in place of and standing as examples for the viewer, indicating the bodily attitude of devotion which draws the worshipper to contemplation of the religious mystery.

Subtly but significantly, there is no eye contact between the donors and the statues. They do not see the sculpted saints, they see the representations of representations. More so, they are not kneeling before the statues in supplication, but metaphorocially beside them. The Vijts’ abstracted gaze indicates they are not literally addressing the saintly archetypes, but engaged in a more active imagining of the mystery.

There is also tension in their placement: at the same moment as their relentless realism places them ‘within’ the viewer’s space, their architectural framing removes them from that space, a signal to the viewer that the intellectual contemplation of the divine is enacted within a ‘different’ reality, a space created by their devotional actions. Once the body sets the stage for contemplation, the spirit is free to imagine the mysteries.


Above the donor’s heads is a contiguous scene of the annunciation set in an ordinary Flemish home; at the top, Biblical sybils and prophets peer down at the domestic scene. The medieval audience was very familiar with the popular visual trope of miraculous happenings taking place in a homely setting, bringing the divine into the everyday and investing the most domestic objects with spiritual symbolism. But looking at the annunciation scene above the donors, van Eyck’s realism seems jarred. Although the chamber is spacious, with a view over the city, the ceiling is too low, and for the intimacy of what passes between angel and Virgin, the space is too wide. The figures literally do not fit the domestic space. The unreality of the scene is strengthened by the wings of the angel, a startling arpeggio of green and orange that visually overwhelms the pale figure of the Virgin, drained of colour. It is clear van Eyck does not offer a simulation of the Annunciation in the same sense as the lifelike simulation of the donors: the scene is deliberately made unreal, and littered with fictional signals such as the sculpture-like dove above Mary’s head, as clues that it is not intended to depict reality, but an imagining of the event.

In the upper register of the scene, Prophets and Sibyls contribute the theological imagination of the Annunciation, of the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of the Old Testament covenant; again, a concept central to public religious art since late Antiquity.

What van Eyck presents in the Ghent Altarpiece is not a conventional image of an ‘actual’ miraculous Annunciation (whether literal or symbolic), but a sophiscated depiction of the mystery being imagined, visualised and intellectualised through the worshippers’ prolonged contemplation of the work. Van Eyck’s visual cues reward time spent alone with private thoughts before the altarpiece; once they are discerned, the work comes alive with dynamic interactions that extend far beyond the picture plane, engaging internalised religious knowledge and sensibilities of the individual in a way not well understood today. The viewer receives not only the rewarding experience of ‘decoding’ a symbolically erudite work of art, but achieves a level of heightened level of imaginative consciousness and spiritual clarity in doing so, harnessing the body and galvanising the imagination through the complex, enactive symbolism.