The restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, has been a lengthy process. From 2012 to 2016, the outer panels were restored, followed by the central panel in the second phase until 2019. During this phase, the original eyes of the lamb were uncovered, revealing a distinctly shaped nose and large frontal eyes, different from the overpaintings.
Now, the third phase of restoration has begun, focusing on the upper register of the inner shutters. Seven panels will be restored, including those depicting the Virgin Mary, God the Father, and John the Baptist, as well as Adam, Eve, and singing and music-playing angels.
The restorers face various challenges, including poor previous restorations, with large areas overpainted, and vulnerable areas such as those with pressed brocade or polychrome on silver leaf. The restoration process is, therefore, more diverse than previous phases.
Image : Hugo Maertens
"Pressed brocade is a technique that imitates expensive silk weaves using various materials, including paint, tin leaf, wax, and gold leaf. Due to its composition, restoring pressed brocade is a delicate process" says Hélène Dubois, of KIK/IRPA.
While the restoration takes place, high-quality color photographs will replace the seven panels, allowing visitors to see realistic images of the artworks at the Saint Bavo Cathedral. The restorers work in a studio at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, and visitors can observe their work through a window.
The restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece began on September 14, 2012. It quickly became clear that the condition of the painting was more complex than anticipated, as large portions of the painting had been overpainted over the centuries. On the advice of the international expert commission, it was decided to carry out a more thorough treatment in the first phase (restoration of the outer panels) where the original paint layers by Van Eyck were uncovered once again. Additional funding was made available for this purpose. On October 12, 2016, the restored outer panels returned to the cathedral under international attention, and the result was truly amazing, but the budget was more than depleted. The Cathedral Church Fabric and the international expert committee were unanimous in their opinion that a thorough restoration of the inner panels (phases 2 and 3) would be desirable.
A particularly significant moment was the revelation of the original lamb. After thorough research, the spectacular discovery of the original lamb on the central panel was presented on June 19, 2018, at the MSK. The old overpainting that covered it for five centuries was carefully removed. The well-known lamb, an unmoved and rather neutral figure, with a broad forehead and large ears, made way for Van Eyck's original work. This medieval lamb fascinates with its pronounced nose and large, frontal eyes, which intensely engage the viewer in the ultimate sacrifice scene. On Friday, January 24, 2020, the restored central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece returned to the Saint Bavo Cathedral under massive interest.
If everything goes according to plan, the Ghent Altarpiece will be on display again in its original state in 2026, as it was first unveiled in 1432.
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