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.
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 ClosertoVanEyck.Kikirpa.be, 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.”
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.