Since 2012, the website Closer to Van Eyck has made it possible for millions around the globe to zoom in on the intricate, breathtaking details of the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most recognized and most-studied works of art in the world.
Now visitors to the site have even more ways to explore this monumental work of art from afar, with the launch today of a new version of the site that includes images of recently restored sections of the paintings as well as new videos and education materials.
Located at St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is a stunningly beautiful and highly complex polyptych that features biblical themes and figures. After centuries of accumulating dirt, yellowed varnishes, and extensive overpainting (as well as enduring a brief stint in storage in a salt mine during World War II), the artwork was in dire need of a full restoration.
Since 2010, several Getty Foundation grants awarded through its Panel Paintings Initiative have supported preliminary research for the restoration of the altarpiece and the development of the Closer to Van Eyck website. Two-thirds of the painted panels have already been treated by a team of conservators from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels, Belgium). The second phase of conservation was recently completed, and included the restoration of the eponymous Adoration of the Lamb, the results of which are now available to view on the updated site. The conservation treatment has been captured in full through ultra-high resolution photographic and scientific documentation, and all these images can now be studied on Closer to Van Eyck. Here are some of the highlights to enjoy.
New after-treatment images on Closer to Van Eyck present many of the scenes in the altarpiece as they were originally meant to be seen. This includes the much-publicized Lamb of God at the very center of the painting (seen above), which had been “toned down” by a 16th-century overpainting. Interdisciplinary state-of-the art research allowed for the removal of this layer of overpaint, finally revealing the van Eycks’ intense representation of the Lamb’s human-like features (and also created a cottage industry of related memes). High-resolution images before, during, and after restoration now allow visitors to compare the results for themselves.
Zooming into the details provides fascinating insights into the amount of attention paid to even the smallest elements of the painting. Light plays on metals, plants, hair, skin, and textures that are reproduced with unparalleled attention. Seventy-five individual species of plants in the paintings can now be identified by botanists, and the shadows of leaves, trees, and bushes offer a wondrous sense of depth and three-dimensionality. Even the ground displays extraordinary nuances, from waterlogged mud to soft sand and hard rocks scattered with gemstones, crystals, and coral. The cleaning also revealed minutely detailed buildings that were hidden for centuries under layers of overpaint.
New infrared reflectography images (IRRs) take viewers on a journey beyond the paint surface to the underdrawings: the first stages of the design of the compositions that make the artist’s creative process visible. Full IRRs of all treated panels are now available, in beautiful, seamless assemblies. In addition to the underdrawings, IRRs can also reveal underpaintings executed in a dark paint, such as in the foliage of the trees behind Saint Christopher in The Pilgrims.
Closer to Van Eyck is the result of the close collaboration of numerous institutions and individuals, listed here. More information and ongoing updates about the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative are available here.