Ghent Altarpiece Restoration Sparks Controversy

Thursday, December 21, 2023
Ghent Altarpiece Restoration Sparks Controversy

Since the beginning of the third phase of the restoration of Van Eycks' Altarpiece in may of this year, the Flemish government has initiated an investigation into the results phase 2 of the restoration.

The reason for the investigation was a letter addressed to the Flemish government and the Cathedral Board of Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. In this letter, retired Professor Hélène Verougstraete (art historian, emeritus since 2008, UC Louvain, and KU Leuven) expressed her concerns about the outcome of the second phase of the restoration project in early May 2023.

H. Verougstraete was one of the members of the previous advisory board on the Ghent Altarpiece, established in 2012, which was reconstituted this year. This board includes representatives from all stakeholders in the project (various authorities, architects, academics, scientific experts, museologists, etc.). It convenes quarterly to monitor the progress of the restoration and advise the client on the decision-making process, taking into account the recommendations of the International Committee of experts.

H. Verougstraete was concerned that the removal of overpaintings had gone too far, resulting in damage to the Ghent Altarpiece. The Flemish administration (the Flemish government funds 80% of the project) asked her to explain her position in writing. She did so in an illustrated statement of approximately 30 pages, focusing on the treatment of the central panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

In this statement, H. Verougstraete claims that the paint layers of the sky, the horizon, and the distant grass fields in the Adoration, visible before the restoration, were by Jan van Eyck. According to her, during the restoration, no sixteenth-century overpaintings were removed, but original paint layers by Jan van Eyck. She suggests that the restoration team from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK), consisting of internationally renowned expert restorers/art historians, mistakenly uncovered the initial work done by Hubert van Eyck.

As the sole claimant, H. Verougstraete asserts that the restoration team was aware of this, deliberately proceeded, and misled both the international committee of experts and the advisory board by providing inadequate and less transparent information.

Minister of Heritage Matthias Diependaele and Minister of Culture Jan Jambon stated, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is an absolute masterpiece by the Van Eycks and the Flemish Primitives. Visitors from around the world have been coming to Ghent for centuries to admire this altarpiece. It deserves and rightly receives the best care. By involving both a national advisory committee, an international expert committee and the top pieces council in this restoration, we are confident that the restorers at KIK made the right restoration choices."

Mrs. Verougstraete assumed that elements such as the paint layers of the sky, the horizon, and the distant grass fields in "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" that were visible before the restoration were by Jan van Eyck. She claimed that, during the restoration, not 16th-century overpaintings were removed, but original paint layers by Jan van Eyck. She illustrated her story with comparisons of images 'before, during, and after the restoration,' taken from the website 'Closer to Van Eyck.'

KIK says The Department of Culture, Youth, and Media and the heritage agency carefully listened to Mrs. Verougstraete's arguments and sought a response from the KIK. The team of expert restorers from the KIK provided an extensive report demonstrating that they had followed all guidelines for the decision-making process during the restoration, executed the treatment correctly, documented all treatment processes accurately, and thoroughly informed all committees and stakeholders throughout the project through various advisory boards—of which Mrs. Verougstraete herself was a member.

Revealing original paint layers the expert restorers at the KIK removed a non-original 16th-century paint layer that covered not only older damages and lacunae but also the original paint layers by the Van Eyck brothers. The decision to remove this 16th-century layer and reveal the original was made based on extensive scientific research and the recommendation of the international committee for the preservation of the Ghent Altarpiece, composed of 23 experts from both within and outside the country, representing various disciplines.

The Heritage Agency and the Department of Culture, Youth, and Media presented all arguments and documents for advice to the International Committee. The committee members concluded that Mrs. Verougstraete's claims were distorted by incomplete and wrongly interpreted documentation. The KIK relied on in-depth scientific research and carried out the restoration in close and documented consultation with all involved experts, such as the national advisory committee, the top pieces council and the international expert committee. The international experts reported that the removal of the old overpaintings did not cause damage and revealed the original brushwork of the Van Eycks.

The Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent and Ministers Jan Jambon and Matthias Diependaele affirm their trust in the restorers at the KIK. They are already looking forward to the results of the third restoration phase.

Main Image :Twee mensen voor het Lam Gods in de St-Baafskathedraal - © Sint-Baafskathedraal - - Martin Corlazzoli

Stephanie Cime

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Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.

Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.


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