Lamb for Sinners Slain (Artful Devotion)

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent Altarpiece)
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1426–32. Oil on panel, 54 1/5 × 95 3/10 in. (137.7 × 242.3 cm). Lower central interior panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

. . . you were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

—1 Peter 1:18–22

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SONG: “I Will Praise Him” by Margaret J. Harris, 1898 | Arranged and performed by The Isaacs, on The Isaacs Naturally: An Almost A Cappella Collection, 2009

When I saw the cleansing fountain
Open wide for all my sin,
I obeyed the Spirit’s wooing,
When He said, “Wilt thou be clean?”

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.

Then God’s fire upon the altar
Of my heart was set aflame;
I shall never cease to praise Him:
Glory, glory to His Name!

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.
Glory, glory to His Name!

[Related posts: “Worthy Is the Lamb” (Artful Devotion)”; “No Other Fount (Artful Devotion)”]

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Ghent Altarpiece (open)
Ghent Altarpiece (open view) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432. Oil on twelve panels, 11 × 15 ft. (3.4 × 4.6 m). St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

The monumental Ghent Altarpiece by Northern Renaissance painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck [previously] is one of the world’s finest art treasures—every student who’s taken Art History 101 knows this piece, and it has been the subject of much scholarship.

Perhaps you know it from the detail photos of the recently restored Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel that went viral in January.

Ghent Altarpiece restoration
Before restoration (left) vs. after restoration (right)

Over the past three years, conservators under the leadership of Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage removed the overpaint that was added to the van Eyck brothers’ original in the mid-sixteenth century, revealing a strikingly humanoid face on the Agnus Dei that surprised everyone. (The rest of the painting is much more naturalistic.) Social media users made fun of the cartoonish appearance of the lamb, but Hélène Dubois, head of restoration, says this lamb has a more “intense interaction with the onlookers.”

The haloed lamb who stands on an altar and bleeds into a chalice is the focal point of the entire fifteen-foot polyptych. He is, of course, a symbol of the self-sacrificial Christ. Angels surround him holding instruments of the passion, and the Latin inscription on the antependium (altar hanging) translates to “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Mystic Lamb (detail)

You can zoom in on all the altarpiece panels and take a look at the restoration process (ongoing since 2010, with the upper interior panels to be tackled in 2021) at the Closer to Van Eyck website, which I’ve mentioned before—though the site appears not to have been updated in a while.

If you’d like to learn more, the Google Arts & Culture online exhibition Inside the Ghent Altarpiece is a great place to start, as is the altarpiece’s Wikipedia page. If you prefer to learn audiovisually, you might enjoy these two Smarthistory videos:


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, cycle A, click here.

The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine”

A staple of English literature curricula, George Herbert (1593–1633) is one of the best religious poets of any era. Born in Wales, he studied rhetoric at Cambridge University, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek and beginning an avocation of writing verse. After a short career in oration and then politics, he shifted courses to become a pastor. He was appointed to a small rural parish near Salisbury, where he served for only three years before contracting tuberculosis at age thirty-nine. On his deathbed he gave his friend Nicholas Ferrar a manuscript of all the poems he had written throughout his life, telling him to publish it if he thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if not, to “burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” Thankfully, Ferrar chose the former, and The Temple was published posthumously in 1633. It has been in print continuously ever since.

One of the poems from this volume is “The Agony,” a meditation on the suffering that Christ bore out of love for humanity. Below I will walk through it stanza by stanza, and then I will present a new partial musical setting of it that makes intertextual connections with scripture. I will conclude by sharing a once-popular artistic motif, the mystic winepress, that visualizes one of Herbert’s metaphors (a metaphor developed by early theologians, such as Augustine and Gregory the Great).

Christ in the winepress
Christ in the Winepress, Austria, ca. 1400–1410. ÖNB 3676, fol. 14r. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), Vienna.

“The Agony” by George Herbert

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

In the first stanza of “The Agony,” Herbert comments on man’s dogged pursuit of empirical knowledge. We develop tools for our trades, then use them to “measure,” “fathom,” and “trace”—to explore the heights and depths of our physical environments, the ins and outs of the world’s political systems. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but we ought not to neglect the “two vast, spacious things” that are most worthy of exploration: sin and love. These truths, unlike others, are apprehended not by amassing and analyzing data but by simply beholding. To know sin, Herbert says, look to Gethsemane: see Christ crushed. To know love, look to the cross: see Christ pierced. See, and taste. The Lord is good.   Continue reading “The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine””