Restoration of Ghent Altarpiece enters final phase

The restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece entered its final phase on Tuesday. The remaining seven panels of the 15th-century painting, displayed in Ghent's Saint Bavo Cathedral, were transported under police escort to the city's Museum of Fine Arts.

The restoration of the influential altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, began in 2012. The outer panels of the 3.75m-high polyptych were restored in 2016, and the second phase of the restoration was completed in 2019. 

Particularly remarkable was the revelation of the original lamb in the painting's central panel, which had been partially overpainted in the 16th century. With its large frontal eyes, the lamb as painted by Jan Van Eyck appeared eerily humanoid.

In the third restoration phase, restorers will work on the upper register of the interior panels. These include three central panels depicting the Virgin Mary, God and John the Baptist, and four side panels depicting Adam and Eve and angels singing and playing music. The restoration is expected to take three years and cost 1.5 million euros.

The three central panels are particularly challenging to restore because they contain a large amount of press brocade, a sophisticated textile imitation technique used to depict expensive silk fabrics. The method uses paint, tin leaf, wax and gold leaf, a specific composition that makes its restoration very delicate. 

The painting has had a tumultuous journey. It has been forged, looted, censored, stolen and almost burned several times throughout history. One of its 12 panels was stolen in 1934 and never recovered.

If all goes according to plan, by 2026 the Ghent Altarpiece will be restored to its original state as it was unveiled in 1432. "Good things come in threes, and this is certainly true of the Mystic Lamb," said Bishop Lode Van Hecke of Ghent. 

The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage is carrying out the restoration. Restorer Hélène Dubois is looking forward to the task. "We will undoubtedly make new discoveries and establish the differences between Jan and Hubert van Eyck," she said.

From 8 May, visitors to the MSK can see the restorers at work on weekdays during opening hours. The rest of the painting will remain on display in the cathedral, with the seven panels replaced by black-and-white copies.



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