The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb  - Jan Van Eyck - ©Lucasweb.be, http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-open-152

The Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers has spoken to the imagination ever since its creation in 1432. Every year, hordes of tourists descend upon Ghent's St. Bavo Cathedral to view the famous polyptych, which stretches almost four metres wide and towers more than five metres high. Thanks to current restoration work, it is becoming apparent that the painting hides many more secrets than previously imagined.

The Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers

Restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb © KIK IRPA Bruxelles

'For more than four hundred years, we haven't actually been viewing the real Ghent Altarpiece', Bart Devolder reveals. Since October 2012, Devolder has coordinated the restoration project at the KIK (Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage), a Belgian institution whose expertise is world renown. 'Some months ago, we discovered that large parts of the work were painted over during a 17th century restoration. That was the accepted way of restoring a work at the time. But the good news is that the original layer is still in good condition and so we can, in principle, remove the top layer', says Devolder.

Although in the world of restoration a conscious choice is sometimes made to keep the traces of time, the restorers are convinced that, in this case, it would be better to remove the top layer. 'We have already made small windows in the top layer in certain areas. And the colours, details, folds and depth that have been revealed are of remarkable quality and perfectly match the style of Van Eyck. This also explains why experts had previously grouped details of this piece among some of Van Eyck's lesser work. Now we know that this is because the work of the real Van Eyck is largely hidden under newer layers of paint', suggests Devolder.

Almost all the robes of the characters on the outer panels were painted over

Detail Restoration Ghent Altarpiece © KIK IRPA Bruxelles

Further details, such as a spider's web just above the heads of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut have also recently been revealed during the restoration. 'If we could restore the entire work, it would not only make it a lot more beautiful, it would also give art historians a lot of material for new iconographic and stylistic research', says Devolder. 'The only thing is that the restoration will then take a lot longer than planned. Once you realise that we restore an average of four square centimetres a day, you can imagine what a feat the whole restoration project represents.'

No mean feat

he Adoration of the Mystic Lamb - restoration atelier © KIK IRPA Bruxelles

A great many partners are already involved in the restoration of the painting itself. This way the team can draw on the expertise of Belgian universities in detecting the thickness of the paint and the size of the cracks and in researching the chemical elements present on the panels. We have the latter technique to thank for the discovery of the 17th century restoration layer, among other findings.

Three for the price of one

Caermersklooster - The Lamb Of God Undressed © http://www.caermersklooster.be

And so, the Ghent Altarpiece not only speaks to the imagination with its rich iconography and impressive brushstrokes, but also with its mysterious history. One such mystery that has recently received renewed attention is the disappearance of the 'Just Judges' panel. The work has been missing since 1934 and its whereabouts remain unknown to this day. 'If someone is in possession of the work, he or she can always feel free to drop it off at our restoration atelier. The main priority, as far as we are concerned, is that it is returned so that it can be optimally maintained for future generations’, says Devolder.

An exhibition on the work's rich history, spanning almost six centuries, can be viewed at Ghent's Caermersklooster for the duration of the restoration period, currently expected to go on until 2017. The exhibition is called 'Het Lam Gods ont(k)leed!' (The Ghent Altarpiece Revealed). The exhibition will be supplemented with temporary exhibits focusing on specific themes, such as the origin of the wooden panels and the iconography of the work.

A 12-euro combo ticket has been created for visitors wishing to combine their visit to the exhibition with a visit to the restoration atelier in the Museum of Fine Art (MSK) and to the space in the St. Bavo Cathedral where two of the three panels are on display. Visitors to all three stand to gain an excellent insight into this marvellous work. The restorers are also present at the MSK every last Wednesday of the month for a Q&A. Visitors may also be interested to go on the Van Eyck walking tour of 15th century Ghent, which connects the three locations.

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