The hidden secrets of the Ghent Altarpiece restoration

The Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers has spoken to the imagination ever since its creation in 1432. Every year, hordes of tourists descend upon Ghent's St. Bavo Cathedral to view the famous polyptych, which stretches almost four metres wide. Thanks to current restoration work, it is becoming apparent that the painting hides many more secrets than previously imagined.

For more than four hundred years, we haven't actually been viewing the real Ghent Altarpiece. Among Bart Devolder (coordinator of the restoration project at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage), they discovered that large parts of the work were painted over during a 17th century restoration. But the good news is that the original layer is still in good condition and so they can, in principle, remove the top layer. They have already made small windows in the top layer in certain areas. And the colours, details, folds and depth that have been revealed are of remarkable quality. This work need a lot of time. Experts restore an average of four square centimetres a day, you can imagine what a feat the whole restoration project represents.

And so, the Ghent Altarpiece not only speaks to the imagination with its rich iconography and impressive brushstrokes, but also with its mysterious history. One such mystery that has recently received renewed attention is the disappearance of the 'Just Judges' panel. The work has been missing since 1934 and its whereabouts remain unknown to this day. 

An exhibition on the work's rich history, spanning almost six centuries, can be viewed at Ghent's Caermersklooster for the duration of the restoration period. The exhibition is called 'Het Lam Gods ont(k)leed!' (The Ghent Altarpiece Revealed). The exhibition will be supplemented with temporary exhibits focusing on specific themes, such as the origin of the wooden panels and the iconography of the work.

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