In a discovery that may change art history books, a recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece completed by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Belgium has uncovered original details in the Van Eyck brothers’ masterpiece long-concealed since the 16th century. 

The altarpiece itself was completed in 1432 by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, and is a canonical piece of art history whose iconography has long challenged researchers. The three-year conservation initiative adds further wrinkles to the ongoing conversation about the work, including a surprisingly human-like face on the sacrificial lamb representing Christ, and buildings that reflect the architecture of medieval Ghent.

Image Courtesy Sint-Baafskathedraal Gent © in Flanders vzw, foto KIK-IRPA.

The project, which cost €2.2 million ($2.44 million) to carry out, required experts to use microscopes and a surgical scalpel to chip away, centimeter by centimeter, at a 16-century overpainting job. This painstaking process ultimately showed that roughly 70% of the altarpiece’s original outer panels had been hidden under brown varnish for centuries. The fact came as “a shock for everybody—for us, for the church, for all the scholars, for the international committee following this project,” Hélène Dubois, head of the restoration, told The Art Newspaper.

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which appears on one of the five lower interior panels, contained a particularly notable revelation, with the face of the sacrificial lamb being much more human-like and engaging than previously recognized. Describing the lamb as “cartoonish,” Dubois explained that art historians will now need to determine why the pair of artist brothers chose to portray the animal in such a way.

Image courtesy Sint-Baafskathedraal Gent © in Flanders vzw, foto KIK-IRPA.

Moreover, restoration work on depictions of buildings in the altarpiece proves that the tower of the Cathedral in Utrecht, which can be seen on the horizon, is part of the Van Eycks’ original composition—dispelling what the Institute calls a “stubborn myth” that it was a 16th-century addition.

The restored panels are now on view to the public through mid-January 2020 at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent, after which they will be displayed in the city’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral.

Thanks to this restoration, you can once again enjoy the full color richness that was established 500 years ago by Jan Van Eyck,” said first deputy Kurt Moens of the province of East Flanders in a statement. “Standing face to face with the Mystic Lamb is a particularly intense encounter, something that every Fleming should experience at least once in his life,” he added.

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