The Ghent Altarpiece

Negotiating Gender in the Ghent Altarpiece

Presentation to be delivered at the triennial meeting of the Historians of Netherlandish Art, Amsterdam and The Hague, 2022.


The Ghent Altarpiece is undeniably gendered. Such protocols are immediately evident in the exterior view. There, Jan van Eyck aligned female donor Elisabeth Borluut with the conventionally less favored, sinister side of the composition (in relation to the enthroned figures on the interior), and male donor Joos Vijd with the honorific dexter side, an arrangement that elevated Vijd relationally. Yet to be recognized, however, are other, more subtle ways in which van Eyck’s approach to figuration supports gender differences between wife and husband, including subtle distinctions in positions, gestures, and tonalities. As with the dexter/sinister alignment, these choices advance a normative marital hierarchy that asserts primacy for Vijd while comparatively marginalizing Borluut through visual and conceptual binaries. They do so even as the imagery unifies the two individuals by suggesting privileged status and salvation for both through the altarpiece’s eucharistic iconography and its siting on an altar: these features imply the couple’s access to the host, the perceived source of redemption.

New observations made possible by the recent cleaning of the exterior panels further complicate van Eyck’s gendered choices in representation. In particular, the removal of oxidized varnish has revealed previously obscured approaches to color and contrast that connect Borluut far more directly than Vijd to the Annunciate Virgin, archangel Gabriel, and prophets and sibyls portrayed above. Among the implications of these choices, I argue, is that van Eyck defined Borluut as an adherent to normalized ideals for femininity encapsulated by the Virgin, including humility and marital chastity, that were advanced as exemplary for lay women in devotional and conduct literature. However, Borluut’s proximity to the holy figures claims for her a degree of spiritual access, understanding, and agency that associates her with another archetypal expectation for lay women: to preside over and advance domestic piety. By this time, female spiritual authority had become a point of contention in certain theological circles. I propose that van Eyck mediated these tensions for the altarpiece’s various audiences by embedding Borluut’s agency within the defined marital hierarchy described above, which ultimately brought it under her husband’s oversight. The image thereby transacted female spiritual authority via masculinization while asserting archetypal masculinity for Vijd as head-of-household. This elevated status would have appealed to Vijd’s aspiration for upward mobility, a concern that has been demonstrated. Ultimately, the basic gendered protocols of the work became normalized in large-scale commissions: they appear in images by the next generation of artists, if modified in response to specific circumstances. Such emulation suggests that these typologies were considered effective in sustaining the dominant socioreligious order in which gender-sensitive, visually-skilled patrons and viewers were deeply invested.

As the first dedicated investigation of gender in the canonical Ghent Altarpiece, this study restores the neglected Elisabeth Borluut and the Borluut-Vijd marriage to positions of consequence; analyzes gendered visuality within previously unrecognized negotiations of agency and authority in the imagery; and demonstrates Jan van Eyck as an innovatory and influential genderist.