The real Van Eyck revealed

Highlights of the restored panels of The Ghent Altarpiece

Lukas - Art in Flanders

The Ghent Altarpiece (closed, after restauration) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-closed-29

The Ghent Altarpiece, painted in 1432 by the famous Van Eyck brothers, ranks among the most significant works of art in the World. The large and complex altarpiece is located at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, but has a complex and impressive history over the centuries.

Monuments Man Daniel J. Kern, art restorer Karl Sieber and engineer Max Eder looking at panels of the Altarpiece (1945)Original Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-adoration-of-the-mystic-lamb-discovery-after-ww-ii-15

It was dismantled, stolen, moved and damaged many times over.

After World War I, it was reassembled in the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, but in WWII the whole Altarpiece was taken by the Germans, who hid it in the Altaussee salt mine, Austria, among many other looted masterpieces.

At the end of the war, it was finally returned to Saint Bavo's Cathedral, after being rescued by the Monuments Men.

The closed Altarpiece middlesection before restoration (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

In the Fall of 2012, a restoration campaign of the Altarpiece started, supported by the Flemish government and the Fund Baillet-Latour.

In the Fall of 2016, the restoration of the 8 panels of the closed altarpiece was finished. The Ghent Altarpiece had been through a fantastic transformation!

See here the scene of the Annunciation before renovation. And next the same panels, after treatment.

The closed Altarpiece middlesection after renovation (1432)Lukas - Art in Flanders

It took four years for a team of restorers to remove varnish and overpaint of the 8 panels, revealing the hidden beauty of the unique painterly qualities of Van Eyck, which had been hidden for centuries.

This overpaint covered nearly 70% of the surface. The treatment led to unique iconographic and aesthetic revelations.

Closed Altarpiece after restoration in Villa ChapelLukas - Art in Flanders

Let’s admire the fantastic results of this renovation by exploring each panel in ultra high resolution, detail after detail.

The closed Altarpiece middlesection after renovation (1432)Lukas - Art in Flanders

The Annunciation

The most important scene on the closed wings is undoubtedly the one showing the Archangel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary - a key occurrence in Christian iconography. The painter has combined the four panels to form a single space. God's messenger appears in an attractive Flemish interior that looks out onto a street in medieval Ghent. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: Archangel Gabriel (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

The Archangel Gabriel

Gabriel brings Mary the message that the Holy Spirit of God shall descend upon her and that she will become the mother of the Messiah, the son of God.

Gabriel hails Mary with the words: "Greetings, most favoured one! The Lord is with you."

He holds a lily in his hand...

... symbolising Mary's virginity.

The prophet Zacharias

The prophet Zacharias in the lunette on the left was viewed, like Micah on the right, as one of the seers who most clearly foretold the advent of the Messiah in Betlehem. 

The latin name of the prophet is indicated on the frame. The polychromy of the original frames has been revealed after the removal of overpaint that covered the stone imitation painted on silver leaf.

The Ghent Altarpiece: View of a Ghent street (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

The Archangel Gabriel passes the Message to Maria: interior of the room.

In the next panel to the right, one can observe a Flemish interior, looking out onto a street in medieval Ghent. 

The street is buzzing with a myriad of characters and activities.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Interior View by Hubert and Jan Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

The next panel to the right, focusing on the inside of the room, allows us to catch a glimpse into the intimacy of a Flemish home.

In this toilette space, the observer will see a towel...

... as well as a pot.

And a basin.

The Ghent Altarpiece (closed, after restauration) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-closed-29

The Sibyls

Above those interior scenes, Van Eyck has painted two Sibyls, women oracles from Ancient Greece. Their presence illustrates the fact that, according to medieval Christian thinking, the coming of Christ was also foreseen in the heathen world by prophetesses.

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On the left-end side, the renowned Sibyl of Erythrea sits alongside Micah.

The Ghent Altarpiece: View of a Ghent street (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

The Ghent Altarpiece: Interior View by Hubert and Jan Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

Next to the Erythrean Sybil, Van Eyck has painted the Sybil of Cumae, dressed in an elegant green robe.

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The Ghent Altarpiece: The Virgin in prayer (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

Virgin Mary

At the end of the room, Mary raises her eyes from her prayerbook, as Gabriel brings her the message that the Holy Spirit of God shall descend upon her and that she will become the mother of the Messiah. 

The Holy Spirit in the guise of a dove hovers above her as she responds...

... 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord.'

While details of Mary's garnment illustrate Van Eyck's exceptional technique.

The Prophet Micheas

Above Mary, the prophet Micah represents the counterpart of Zacharias. 

He looks down over the edge of his lunette at the scene below, in which the archangel gabriel brings his message to the Virgin Mary.

Mary's reply is painted upside down and from right to left, so that her acceptance is clear to the Holy Spirit and even more to Micah!

The Ghent Altarpiece (closed, after restauration) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-closed-29

The Donors

The donors of this masterpiece were also given a well-deserved place in the lower register, to the extreme right and left of the closed Altarpiece. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: Judocus Vyd (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

Jan Van Eyck was an exceptionally talented portrait painter, remarkable for the way he never flattered his sitters but captured them with an unflinching, psychological gaze.

The figures of Judocus Vyd and Elisabeth Borluut are no exception to this singularity.
The restoration of the exterior side wings highlights the revelation of the original tonal values of the coat of Joos Vyd and Elisabeth Borluut.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Elisabeth Borluut (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

Kneeling in prayer, they are dressed in plain but expensive cloth. Six centuries later, they piously watch over this marvelous work, which the world owes to their generosity.

The Ghent Altarpiece (closed, after restauration) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-closed-29

The Saints 

Finally, in the middle of the lower register, Van Eyck painted two trompe-l'oeil sandstone sculptures. They represent the two saints who figured so prominently in both the commissioning and content of the work. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: John the Baptist (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

On this panel we see John the Baptist, who is clearly identifiable by the Lamb, which he traditionally holds on his arm and points to with his finger.

The restoration of the exterior side wings reveal the stone imitation of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. We used to call them “grisailles”, now they are made of marbled stone.

The marble texture visible in the robe is one of the beauties revealed by the restoration.

The Ghent Altarpiece: John the Evangelist (1432) by Van EyckLukas - Art in Flanders

The young man portrayed on this last panel is the Apostle John - writer of one of the four Gospels and traditionally identified as the author of the 'Revelation of John' or the Apocalypse.

John the Evangelist is shown holding a chalice containing poisonous adders.

The image refers to an early legend, in which John is said to have drunk from a poisoned cup and yet survived.

The Ghent Altarpiece (closed, after restauration) (1432) by Hubert and Jan Van EyckOriginal Source: http://www.lukasweb.be/en/photo/the-ghent-altarpiece-closed-29

Now back in the Cathedral of Saint Bavo, the exterior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece can be admired by all.

The whole renovation process, now focusing on the interior panels, is expected to end in 2019.

Credits: Story

Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent

Lukas - Art in Flanders, The Flemish Art Image bank

For more information on the Altarpiece's renovation, as well as Infrared and X-radiographic imagery, visit the dedicated website by KIK-IRPA.

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Exhibit curated by Lukas - Art in Flanders.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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