The Ghent Altarpiece online in extreme detail

Ghent Altarpiece, openThe Ghent Altarpiece, a dramatic and complex painting on multiple hinged oak panels started by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his brother Jan in 1432, is displayed within a bulletproof glass enclosure in Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Painted in the Ars Nova style that rejected the allegorical and idealized forms of the Middle Ages in favor of depicting nature as observed, the polyptych is a watershed in art history and a masterpiece of Early Netherlandish art.

Its historical and artistic significance is matched only by the complexity of keeping a work of such vastness and variety in reasonably good condition. Fully opened, the 18-panel polyptych is 11 feet by 14.5 feet. Over the centuries, the panels were separated from each other and held in all kinds of questionable environments receiving questionable treatments. An elaborate outer frame that encased the entire altarpiece is thought to have been destroyed during the Reformation, and the panels were taken down and hidden twice to keep them safe from marauding iconoclasts and Calvinists. The three middle upper panels depicting Mary, God and John the Baptist had their original frames removed and the top cropped off sometime in the 18th century.

In 1815 the Diocese of Ghent pawned six of the eight original wing panels for a few hundred bucks then failed to redeem them. The King of Prussia ended up buying them, and during their stay in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie gallery, the panels were split in two lengthwise and then cradled at the back. German troops helped themselves to more panels from the Ghent cathedral during World War I, but returned not just the looted panels but also the legitimately purchased ones to Belgium to defray some of the reparations debt stipulated in the Versailles Treaty.

Ghent Altarpiece, closedIn 1940, Belgium decided to ship the altarpiece to the Vatican for safekeeping. It was en route in France when Italy declared war as a German ally, so it stopped in its tracks. Military representatives from Germany, France and Belgium actually signed an agreement to leave the altarpiece alone in Pau for the duration of hostilities, but Hitler had other ideas. In 1942 he had the altarpiece seized and sent to Germany. It ended up being stored in a salt mine until the Americans recovered it after the war and returned it to Belgium.

Then there are the fires, vandalism, thefts (at least six separate thefts over six centuries, including the 1934 theft of the Just Judges panel which has never been solved; a copy made shortly after the theft is in its place now) and even its current rig complicating the altarpiece’s conservation needs. The glass enclosure and steel support structure was erected for security reasons. There are extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity within, great enemies of old paint and wood.

In 2007, heritage organizations in Belgium raised the alarm about the altarpiece’s condition issues. In 2008, the cathedral formed an advisory committee of government representatives and panel painting conservation specialists to study the situation and devise a conservation plan. They concluded that fluctuating climate conditions inside the glass enclosure needed to be immediately stabilized using short-term solutions like raising the heat in the cathedral, replacing the hot spotlights with cooler daylight lamps and deploying portable humidifiers.

Dismantling the central panelThe committee also concluded that the altarpiece should be completely dismantled so that all urgent conservation issues could be addressed. That would give experts a chance to do a thorough, in-depth study of the polyptych to provide individual conservation plans tailored to the specific needs of each panel. That in-depth study was performed in the actual cathedral. They just raised a glass barrier around the altarpiece space so experts could work on site moving the delicate paintings as little as possible while providing a fascinating show for visitors.

The advisory committee submitted a grant proposal to the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative to fund the assessment of the structural condition of panel supports and its supporting technical documentation. One of the Panel Painting Initiative’s main objectives is aiding in the transfer of knowledge from senior panel conservators to juniors, and since one doesn’t often get a chance to learn from master conservators working on one of the greatest wood panel paintings of all time, the Getty accepted with alacrity.

Cleaning test in the Adoration of the Magi panelThey added a codicil requiring that the results of the study, including X-rays, extreme high resolution photographs in both visible spectrum and infrared light, and detailed documentation be uploaded to the web. And so they have been: Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. The pictures are so huge you can view details from every panel with microscopic magnification. You can split the screen to compare panels, or compare the photo version to the infrared versions. There are extreme closeups of important details, and pictures of the cleaning tests on each panel which show little clean patches after conservators experimented with dry cleaning using microfiber cloths. The website also offers freely downloadable pdf versions of all the conservation and dendrochronology reports.

It’s amazing, really. I’ve been lost in it all day.

12 thoughts on “The Ghent Altarpiece online in extreme detail

  1. Wow! I am showing my age, but I remember the old days when you would show up at Saint Bavo’s in Ghent, hunt up the sacristan and he would then open and close the wings on the altarpiece by hand. It does seem that it needs to go into more of a museum setting after the restoration–like the Duccio’s Maestà in Siena (although that could certainly benefit from an upgrade.)If memory serves me, the altarpiece is no longer in the original chapel so the danger of “decontextualization” is somewhat mitigated.

  2. There is a 1:1 copy in the original chapel that you can open and close as you wish. This has been created for the guided tours so that the huge groups wouldn’t congest the small room where the original is exhibited (and where people stand quietly with the audio guides attached to their ears). The current room is quite small and the crowds are pretty big, so a new location would be good. However, I do think that original surroundings are something worth respecting because they add another dimension to any piece of religious art (especially considering the magnificent earlier frescoes in the level below the current floors – one of the highlights of my recent visit to Belgium).

    P.S. The church also has the Adam and Eve panels where the figures are clothed that were commissioned in the middle of the 19th century to make the paintings more bearable for the puritan eyes of that enlightened era.

    1. I think that’s downright brilliant that visitors have a full-scale copy to view and even interact with, and I love that they kept the clothed Adam and Eve copies instead of tossing them once mores changed back to respect for artistic nudes. Saint Bavo’s gets four gold stars from me. Now I have to make my way there to enjoy the altarpiece and the frescoes in the basement in person.

  3. I have been to Ghent (very nice trip !), but I do not remember what I actually saw, i.e. the ‘real thing’ or the ‘1:1 copy’.

    Why is on the right side of the ‘closed-altarpiece.jpg’ the ‘ecce ancilla diu’ (“diu”=domini ?) written upside down ? Is this some early form of a comicstrip-like speech balloon ?


    P.S.: My homeboy A. Durer, April 6-11, 1521: “On Wednesday early they took me to the tower of St. John’s, whence I looked all over the great and wonderful town, where I had just been treated as a great person. Afterwards I saw the Jan [Van Eyck’s] picture, which is a very splendid, deeply studied painting, and especially the ’Eve’, the ’Mary’, and ’God the Father’ were extremely good.”

  4. The copy in the original chapel seems a judicious acknowledgement of “context”. Way back when, the “crowds” were conspicuous by their absence! The usual explanation of the upside-down text is that God was the intended audience for the “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” message and he is…you know…up there in heaven looking down.

  5. I took a 2nd look and you are absolutely right, Edward. It’s all on the painting: Above Gabriel, there is Zacharias predicting. Gabriel talking to Mary (‘Ave [maria] gratia plena …) and herself talking to the one looking at her from above.


    1. I think it’s because he was a nobleman and a soldier before he left it all behind for the monastic life. The sword and the falcon are references to his previous life as a knight.

  6. This online version is a generous addition to the Ghent altarpiece experience, because it is difficult to see the details on the original now that it is exhibited in a glass case.

  7. The history of what these panels went through is ridiculously interesting. Would make for a great movie.

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