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. Despite this harrowing past, today scholars and art lovers around the world are only a click away from freely exploring over 100 billion pixels of the altarpiece online, thanks to a series of grants provided by the Getty Foundation as part of the Panel Paintings Initiative.

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece
Getty support began in 2010 with a thorough condition assessment and emergency stabilization of the altarpiece that involved the training of postgraduate and mid-career conservators under the supervision of leading panel paintings experts. Additional funds allowed an international advisory committee led by art historians and conservation scientists specialized in early Dutch and Flemish paintings to oversee the condition assessment. The investigation resulted in a complete plan for full conservation treatment of the altarpiece, which was led by Belgium's Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA) and completed in 2017.

During the technical study, experts produced documentation of unprecedented detail and quality that resulted in the innovative web application Closer to Van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece Restored, which was supported largely by the Getty Foundation and is hosted by KIK/IRPA. The site allows users to zoom into 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.

The Getty Foundation provided a final grant in 2013 to support phase two of Closer to Van Eyck. When completed, the expanded site will include images of the altarpiece at various stages of conservation treatment, a larger range of technical images, and an enhanced image interface that allows users to see and compare multiple views of the work of art at the same time. New images are added as the multi-year conservation treatment progresses, the latest being post-treatment images of the exterior panels that are visible when the altarpiece is closed. The web application is setting new standards for digital projects related to art history and conservation by providing access to the decision-making process for the treatment of the altarpiece and by disseminating the open-source technology behind the website to the museum community. KIK-IRPA continues to maintain and enhance Closer to Van Eyck, including the addition of high quality, standardized technical images of other paintings by Jan van Eyck in 2019 as part of its VERONA project.

Detail of the Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck.
Above: Assembly of digital macrophotographs of the "Archangel Annunciate" exterior panel of the Ghent Altarpiece before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment. Image courtesy Top of page: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (The Ghent Altarpiece), Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Image courtesy Cathedral of Saint Bavo © Lukas - Art in Flanders

Watch a video of the conservation assessment and website for the Ghent Altarpiece

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