Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Cathedral of Saint Bavo © Lukas - Art in Flanders

Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, ranks among the most significant works of art in Europe. Housed at Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, the large and complex altarpiece suffered a varied history over the centuries. Dismantled, stolen, and damaged many times over, it was reassembled, cleaned and restored after World War II.

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece
With the help of the Getty Foundation, the Ghent altarpiece has undergone a thorough investigation to assess its current condition and to research its material and techniques under expert supervision by senior specialists Anne van Grevenstein–Kruse and Ron Spronk. Their scientific investigation also enabled the training of several post–graduate and mid–career conservators. This work was made possible by a Getty Foundation grant to the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and began with an in–depth look at the support panels and paint layers, utilizing a wide range of advanced scientific methods. Where needed, emergency conservation treatment was implemented to secure lifting paint.

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece
A second Getty Foundation grant allowed an international advisory committee of experts in early Dutch and Flemish paintings to oversee the condition assessment. Close to 30 conservators, art historians, conservation scientists, and scientists met for two days in early 2011 to discuss research topics that would advance knowledge on the mechanical behavior of panels under stress. Outcomes of the meeting will be used by NWO and its American counterpart the National Science Foundation to jointly support comprehensive systematic research projects that will ultimately benefit conservators in their care for paintings on panel.

During the technical study, experts photographed every inch of each panel in extremely high resolution in both regular and infrared light. These photographs were then digitally "stitched" together to create amazingly detailed images that enable study of the altarpiece at unprecendented microscopic levels. This documentation is now widely available on a website supported largely by the Getty Foundation, Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. Hosted by Belgium's Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA), the website allows users to zoom in on individual sections of the altarpiece and take a virtual peek under the paint surface by means of infrared reflectography (IRR) and x-radiography, examining the altarpiece in ways never before possible.

Detail of the Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. From the website <i>Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece</i>.
Above: Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Angel Musicians (detail), from the Ghent Altarpiece. Assembly of digital macrophotographs (left) and assembly of digital infrared reflectograms (right). Image from the website Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. Top of page: Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Detail from The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (The Ghent Altarpiece). Cathedral of Saint Bavo © Lukas - Art in Flanders