The van Eyck Painting
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
There really is such a painting as "The Just Judges." It’s a panel, part of a larger painting called "The Ghent Altarpiece" or "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." The entire work is composed of 26 individual panels, all depicting religious (Christian) figures. It was painted in 1432 and hung around in Ghent, Belgium until it was stolen in 1934. The Bishop from whom it was taken got creepy ransom notes, but the painting was never recovered. Meanwhile this guy Arsène Goedertier, some random stock-broker, was about to die at fifty-seven and was suddenly all, "I know where the painting is!" and then keeled over. When they searched his home, no dice (though they did find copies of the ransom notes sent to the bishop after its theft). Click here to see the Altarpiece in its entirety. The panel on the lower left is "The Just Judges" – that’s the piece that was stolen.
So what’s the connection to The Fall? Let’s start with religious allegory. Check out Jean-Baptiste’s "Character Analysis," where we talk about his connection to John the Baptist. Along with his name (Jean-Baptiste), the stolen painting is one of the biggest ties between our narrator and the famed Biblical character. First of all, John the Baptist was the patron saint of Ghent, where the painting was held and from where the judges panel was stolen. Secondly, on the day John the Baptist baptized Jesus, the holy spirit descended to him in the form of a dove. Doves are hardly trivial in this novel, as you’ll later on in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." Last but not least, John the Baptist appears in this van Eyck painting – twice.
In his more prominent appearance, John the Baptist appears in the right central panel with his finger raised pointed toward the divine (God, or the Holy Ghost, depending on how you like it). Does finger pointing sound familiar to you? Check it out:
"When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters – an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah, choked with fever and alcohol, my back up against this moldy door, my finger raised toward a threatening sky, showering imprecations on lawless men who cannot endure any judgment."
John the Baptist has his finger pointed at God; Jean-Baptiste has his finger pointed at an empty and threatening sky. Conclusion: God has left the building. Besides, as Jean-Baptiste tells us, "God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence," so in a world where innocence is impossible, (i.e. Jean-Baptiste’s universe) we don’t really need him anymore. It follows, then, that Jean-Baptiste is what happens to John the Baptist when God isn’t there.
Let’s talk about the rest of the painting as a whole. For starters, why is it called "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"? In Christianity, "The Lamb of God" is another name for Jesus Christ. It’s very much tied to the idea of Christ as the picture of holy innocence. In the big van Eyck painting, The Lamb and his various iconic worshippers are the focus of the largest center panel. To the left of this center panel is "The Just Judges," the portion of the painting, which was stolen and which, in this novel, Jean-Baptiste has locked up in his cupboard. It’s clear that these "judges," who appear as men on horseback, are on their way to worship The Lamb with everyone else.
Now that you’ve got the pieces, you can start to analyze what’s going on in The Fall. Jean-Baptiste has argued that there is no such thing in the world as innocence. Even Jesus Christ, he says, was guilty. If this is true, it doesn’t really make sense to be worshipping The Lamb of God, a.k.a. the symbol of holy innocence. Under this logic, the painting becomes anachronistic and useless.
Now consider the panel itself. "The Just Judges" brings up an important idea. Two, actually: justice and, well, judgment. Consider the following: before he locked it up in his cupboard, "The Just Judges" hung on the wall behind the bar in Mexico City. Were the judges judging, while they hung there? In a way, Jean-Baptiste is taking their place by removing them from the bar and sitting and judging there himself. As far as he’s concerned, the entire purpose of his existence is to avoid judgment. It may be a childish solution, but locking up judges in a cupboard is certainly one way to stop them from judging.
We’ll leave you one question to wrestle with yourself. First, go and read the only two paragraphs in The Fall which directly address the stolen painting (6.9 and 6.10). These passages both answer and raise a lot of questions. Jean-Baptiste gives six reasons for his harboring the stolen painting. Now at #6, which really caught our eye: "Finally, because this way everything is in harmony. Justice being definitively separated from innocence – the latter on the cross and the former in the cupboard – I have the way clear to work according to my convictions." The question, then, is this: Why does Jean-Baptiste need to separate justice from innocence in order for his judge-penitent solution to hold water?