Conservation, Getty Foundation, Paintings, Philanthropy

The Ghent Altarpiece in 100 Billion Pixels

Ghent Altarpiece Open

The Ghent Altarpiece (overview of the open altarpiece), Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432. Saint Bavo Cathedral © Lukas-Art in Flanders vzw

It is now possible to zoom in to the intricate, breathtaking details of one of the most important works of art in the world, thanks to a newly completed website focused on the Ghent Altarpiece.

A stunning and highly complex painting composed of separate oak panels, The Mystic Lamb of 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, known as the Ghent Altarpiece, recently underwent much-needed emergency conservation within the Villa Chapel in St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. As part of this work, the altarpiece was removed from its glass enclosure and temporarily dismantled—a very rare event that made it possible to undertake comprehensive examination and documentation, a project funded by the Getty Foundation.

Each centimeter of the beautiful altarpiece was scrutinized and professionally photographed at extremely high resolution in both regular and infrared light. The photographs were then digitally stitched together to create highly detailed images that allow for study of the painting at unprecedented microscopic levels. The website itself contains 100 billion pixels.

Ghent Altarpiece - Brooch detail

Christ Enthroned (detail) from the Ghent Altarpiece. Assembly of digital macrophotographs. Image from the website Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. Saint Bavo Cathedral © Lukas-Art in Flanders vzw

Thanks to a second grant from the Getty Foundation, these high-definition digital images are now available on an interactive digital website, “Closer to Van Eyck; Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece” at, where, for the first time in the Ghent Altarpiece’s long history, viewers may peek under the paint surfaces of the work by means of infrared reflectography (IRR) and x-radiography to study the van Eycks’ genius in unparalleled magnification. Taken together, this body of documentation is an invaluable archive for scholars, conservators, and art lovers worldwide.

Development of the website, led by Ron Spronk, professor of art history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, is a collaborative project of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA), Lukasweb, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, funded largely by the Getty Foundation and with support from the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, or NWO).

“The images on the website will aid art historians studying the Ghent Altarpiece and Hubert and Jan van Eyck for many years to come,” Spronk told me recently via email. “The site gives scholars access to research materials of a unique and unprecedented quality, both on and below the paint surface of the polyptych. We deliberately chose an open-source approach to the images, with the hope that it will spur more projects using interactive, high-resolution imaging techniques for the technical study of works of art.”

Ghent Altarpiece - Angel Musicians comparison

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. Saint Bavo Cathedral © Lukas-Art in Flanders vzw

The website features overall photographs of the polyptych—panel painting divided into scenes—in its opened and closed positions. From there users can zoom in on the details of individual panels of the altarpiece, down to a microscopic level. Scrolling and zooming features are guided by a thumbnail image to indicate the location and size of the detail on the altarpiece. Users also are able to open two windows simultaneously to compare any two images from the site, enabling viewers to interactively study the Ghent Altarpiece and the artists’ techniques in ways that have never before been possible. More images will be added as the actual conservation of the work—a separate project—progresses.

Belgium’s internationally recognized federal scientific institution KIK/IRPA, which has expertise in technical documentation, conservation and restoration, scientific research, and archiving, will host the website on its high-capacity servers.

KIK/IRPA’s interim director, Christina Ceulemans, told me “the website is the next logical step in the dissemination of scientific information about the polyptych.” She added that the site also will be an ideal instrument for restorers during the comprehensive conservation/restoration campaign, which is due to begin in September 2012.

The new website marks the culmination of several Foundation grants supporting conservation planning, examination, and training related to the Ghent Altarpiece as part of the Getty’s Panel Paintings Initiative. Paintings on wood panel from the late 12th through the 17th centuries are among the most significant works in American, European, and Russian museum collections, yet there are only a handful of experts fully qualified to conserve these paintings. The Getty Foundation, Getty Conservation Institute, and J. Paul Getty Museum together designed the Panel Paintings Initiative to ensure that the next generation of conservators is trained before the current experts retire. The initiative started with a needs-assessment survey of significant collections of panel paintings and of professionals in the field, which the Foundation has used as a road map to develop training residencies.

Recent projects in partnership with organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Prado Museum, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, the University of Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium have created training opportunities through the treatment of highly significant panel paintings, including a upcoming three-year Getty-funded training program at the Prado.

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  1. Michael Carter
    Posted February 26, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I look forward to sharing this with my students, the research possibilities are beyond my comprehension.

  2. Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    The original altarpiece in Ghent is kept in a private chamber behind glass, so the visitor cannot experience the details as he can through this online project. It is a wonderful opportunity for appreciating the details the Van Eyck brothers invested in this masterpiece.

  3. Philip Garmey
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    This is a question….Where can I find a good photo of the OPEN Adoration as it looks “in situ”…I mean…with its immediate surroundings visible. It might be interesting to see the whole this way in order to appreciate how the van Eycks might have thought about “perspective” in the viewer.SWuggestions? Thoughts? Many Thanks for this incredible site. Philip Garmey

    • Henk Gal
      Posted October 12, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Mr. Garmey,
      I have seen this painting several times. At one time, I was told that this triptich was painted with the idea that it would be displayed in a particular chapel (the one it is in now, I understand) because of the light entering the space through the windows of this particular chapel. The light entering via these windows was supposed to interact with the painting for special effects.
      Displaying this painting somewhere else, wouldn’t create this special effect, because the light entered from the “wrong” direction.
      This doesn’t answer your question, but I thought that you might like to know this.

  4. Caleb Loring, III
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Beautiful and informative presentation.

  5. Ann Ritch
    Posted February 21, 2015 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Beyond thrilling. Takes your breath away. Thanks to all who made it possible to view this miracle of beauty and conception especially in such detail.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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