Intermediary results restoration Ghent Altarpiece

On 20 June 2014, the conservation-restoration team, along with professors from the University of Ghent and Leuven, put forward the intermediary results for the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.

The restoration and conservation campaign for the Ghent Altarpiece (1432), the masterpiece of the Brothers van Eyck began in October 2012. The restoration studio is located in the MSK Ghent and is to be seen from behind a glass wall. The restoration and conservation campaign is in the hands of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK) in Brussels. The Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster is responsible for the interpretation and changing thematic exhibitions. Two-thirds of the multi-paneled work always remains to be seen in the Villa Chapel in the Saint Bavo Cathedral. In the meantime, the climate is controlled in the glass case in which the multi-paneled work is preserved.

Spectacular metamorphosis

Since the beginning of the campaign, the restoration team is working on the eight panels of the backside of wings. Heavy yellowed varnish is being removed and it has been revealed that coats of paint that have been exposed are in fact old overpaintings. This is also a curiosity for the experts. The garments of nearly all of the figures, and the grisailles of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist as well as the architectural settings have all been substantially painted over.

The findings were confirmed by the analysis of paint samples in the lab of the KIK. In order to verify if the overpaintings can be extracted without causing structural damage to the underlying pictorial layers, the help of the sophisticated research methods such as the 3-D Hirox microscope (University of Ghent) and an MA-XRF research (University of Antwerp) have been implemented.

An international expert committee has determined that because of the relatively good preserved condition of the underlying layers, the team can proceed with the exposing of the original layers of paint. Layers are removed inch by inch with a scalpel and stereomicroscope.

On an aesthetic level, there is talk of a real metamorphosis. The Ghent Altarpiece looks brighter and fresher than one could ever imagine. Folds that were clumsily painted over now once again bear witness to the technical skill of the van Eycks. The three-dimensionality of the interior of the Annunciation or of the grisailles is honourably restored. The rendering of the shadows and light-one of the most important achievements of the art of the van Eycks-is now to been seen again. Shadows cast are hidden behind darkened overpaintings. On an iconographical level as well, remarkable changes are seen. Cobwebs in the corners of walls, for example, were not seen for centuries. The frames are also being treated and again show piecemeal the original imitation of stone.

Exhibition From Tree trunk to Altarpiece, Caermersklooster, Ghent, beginning 10 September

(News item June 20 2014)