The altarpiece is divided horizontally into heavenly and earthly spheres. The upper section shows Christ offering a crown to his mother, who is placed above her empty sarcophagus. Confronting her disappearance and replacement by miraculous flowers, the startled apostles are grouped around the massive stone coffin in the panel's lower area.
The small, intimate picture is the portrait of Margaret van Eyck, the painter's wife. The portrait is transparently shadowed and its white hood subtly modelled. Until the French Revolution, the painters' corporation kept this work in its chambers, treating it almost like a holy relic. How it came to be there remains unknown, especially since its creator, a court painter, had never been a guildsman. Completed in 1439, just two years before his death, Van Eyck may have intended the work for his home. Perhaps he gave it to his wife as a birthday present, as the panel incorporates the mock-chiselled 'speaking' inscription - my husband Johannes finished painting me in the year 1439 on 15 June / my age was thirty-three. This is followed by the artist's own motto in Greek characters, als ikh kan (to the best of my ability), probably an anagram of his name based on the traditional closing formula used by manuscript copyists. Van Eyck was, after all, a copier of reality.
The attribution of the painting is doubtful. Another version of this subject is in the Museum of Western and Eastern Art, Odessa.
The main figures are pushed to the left, so that the right-hand half of the picture is left to the soldiers, whose suits of armor absorb what little light there is, and whose faces are the most part hidden. At the right of the picture, an unhelmeted head emerges from the surrounding darkness. This is often regarded as the artist's self-portrait. Caravaggio has also concerned himself here with the act of seeing as one of a painter's task. The three men on the right are there mainly to intensify the visual core of the painting, underscored by the lantern. On the left, the tactile aspect is not forgotten. Judas vigorously embraces his master, whilst a heavily mailed arm reaches above him towards Christ's throat. Christ, however, crosses his hands, which he holds out well in front of him, whilst St John flees shrieking into the deep night. His red cloak is torn from his shoulder. As it flaps open it binds the faces of Christ and Judas together - a deliberate touch on the artist's part.
Even when his sitters, as in this case, are unknown, Tintoretto can still move modern viewers with the best of his portraits by his own hand. Paradoxically, this is not least because the subject of the portrait often appears intangible and incorporeal. Here, only the head and hand emerge in an eerily life-like fashion from the darkness of eternal night. It is the interplay between appearance and disappearance that makes such portraits magical.