Art History for Anxiety | Grounding with the Ghent Altarpiece

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As a museum educator, the phrase I throw around most frequently during my day-to-day activities has to be “close looking.” Whether you’re leading a workshop for preschoolers or an art appreciation session for seniors, those two little words that can transform a passive museum-goer into someone who relishes getting lost in the worlds created by each artwork.

Recently, I’ve been trying out some “grounding” techniques, ways of calming your mind when you’re experiencing severe stress, anxiety, or a panic attack. These encourage you to pause and take in look the world around you, cataloguing the everyday things you see in an attempt to re-orient your racing mind. Paying attention to close details in a focused, multi-sensory way works very well for me: and also reminded me a lot of the kind of activities in which I lead museum visitors. Why not combine the two?

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Grounding techniques vary, but nearly all involve shifting your focus in some way, whether by calling a friend, counting objects you see, or reading a few pages of a nearby magazine or book. As someone with a life full of anxiety and art, I thought I’d experiment with new ways of self-calming through engaging with paintings. I was surprised by how well it worked for me!

(Mini-disclaimer: Unlike Leonard McCoy, of course, I’m an art historian, not a doctor, and these suggestions are by no means those of a medical practitioner. I just love art, do not love anxiety, and want to share my thoughts about both with people in a similar situation!)

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Fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting represents, in my opinion, the Golden Age of radiantly delicate detail. Though you can’t go wrong with a Robert Campin or Rogier van der Weyden, the van Eyck brothers’ masterwork, the Ghent Altarpiece, is without parallel.

While it was, of course, originally created with a church audience in mind, you don’t need to belong to any particular religious affiliation to appreciate the van Eycks’ masterful painting skills. The use of light and color in this work left a legacy for a generation of painters working in religious subjects or otherwise.

Sadly, the Ghent Altarpiece is off in…well, Ghent, but if you have access to a computer, the Closer to Van Eyck project’s digital display of the altarpiece is your new best friend. Bookmark it or save some screenshots on your phone, and you’ll have a van Eyck at your fingertips whenever you need it–completely for free!

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To use the Altarpiece (or just one of its many panels) as a “grounding painting,” keep an image of it easily accessible and consider something like the following in a moment of anxiety:

  • Make like a dragon and hunt for gems. (Jan’s very into them.) Name four different types of gemstones you can see. Try to find a gem that’s square, one that’s spherical, one that’s rectangular, and one shaped like a diamond. You can count the pearls on the Holy Family’s hems if you need a more time-consuming activity.
  • Into tactility? Focus on the rich velvet robes that many of the divine figures wear. Imagine how that material would feel between your fingertips if you reached out to touch it.
  • If you’re looking at one of the internal panels, list how many different plants or animals you can see. (Jan van Eyck went on all kinds of “secret missions” for his patron, Philip the Good, during his career, and encountered many exotic flora and fauna along the way.)
  • Feeling particularly scared and shaken? Spend some time with those infamously silly choristers in the Singing Angels panel. Start by counting them, too, and then imagine what each of them might be thinking as they sing. Speak those imaginary thoughts out loud, so you can hear the sound of your voice. If you feel disconnected physically, stand in front of a mirror and mimic each of their ridiculous expressions. You can gently place your hands on your cheeks, if you like, to feel how your face shifts with each different look. (For whatever reason, I find this strangely comforting: maybe those angels are onto something?)

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To my fellow humans with anxiety: how do you “ground” yourself when you feel disconnected and panicked? To my fellow art history nerds: what’s your favorite painting to examine closely?

Either way, leave me a comment and me know. I’d love to hear from you!

All images are details from The Ghent Altarpiece (ca.1432), by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.


  1. Hi, thank you for following my blog!

    Found this post particularly interesting, it sounds like a good technique. I could do with something similar so I’ll download a few images of something onto my phone to try it. I’ll test it out tomorrow before an interview 🙂

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