[Art credit: Kris Martin, Altar, 2014. Steel, 17′4″ × 17′3″ × 6′7″. Temporary installation in Ostend, Belgium. Photo: Benny Proot.]
From October 23, 2014, to April 19, 2015, beachgoers in Ostend, Belgium, were treated to an art installation by Kris Martin, titled Altar—a steel replica of the framework for the monumental fifteenth-century Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. One of the most important products of Christian art from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, altarpieces served as a backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist in Europe’s churches, or as aids for prayer and contemplation in private home chapels, often depicting episodes from Christ’s passion. The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned in the 1420s by the mayor of Ghent for the city’s Saint Bavo Cathedral, and remains there to this day.
Here, though, Martin has stripped the iconic masterwork of its images—Adam, Eve, God enthroned, and the famous Adoration of the Lamb from Revelation—leaving instead twelve paneless windows that look out onto the North Sea. While some may be quick to denounce this elimination as irreverent, Martin has in fact provided a means for profound religious experience. The large structure, in its instant association with sacred space, marks the desolate coastline as a place where one can meet with God—silent before his vastness, soaking in his graces. Staring through the empty panels, the viewers themselves become those trains of saints that fill the van Eyck prototype.
Altar offers a sacramental lens through which to view “the immense cathedral of the holy earth,” as the poet John Hall Wheelock puts it, whose “nave is the wide world and the whole length of it.” But this beautiful, holy world that God so loves was also the altar of his Son, who died to redeem it. If you listen carefully, Wheelock suggests, you can hear nature testify:
Hush—the whole world is kneeling! Murmurous is the air—
The Host is lifted up. Upon the altar lies
The sacramental Body. The wind breathes like a prayer—
Solemnly is renewed the eternal sacrifice.
Christ’s sacrifice is always available. Lent is a time for stepping into that sacrifice—into the death and risen life of the Lamb.
The Art Spotlights have been selected by Victoria Emily Jones, who blogs at ArtandTheology.org, seeking to connect Christians to the rich visual, literary, and musical artworks of the church’s past and present. She is currently working on a chapter for the forthcoming book Neo-Calvinism and the Visual Arts, and has just released a Stations of the Cross audio tour of works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Follow her on Twitter @artandtheology.