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Conservation treatment, research and touristic-education program surrounding the Ghent Altarpiece
The observations of the restorers were confirmed by analysis of tiny paint samples by the laboratories of the KIK-IRPA.

BRUSSELS.- The KIK-IRPA and its partners presented the spectacular discoveries made during the conservation treatment and study of the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.

Since the previous press conference in June 2013, the conservators of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels) have continued work on the paintings on the exterior side of the wing panels. After removing the yellowed varnish they gradually realised that a considerable part of the visible paint layer is in fact overpaint. Due to the extent of the repainting, its good condition and the fact that the age crack pattern follows that of the original paint layer in most places, this intervention had never been detected or even suspected. The overpaint affects the garments of most of the figures (the donors, the Archangel, the Virgin and the Sibyls), the architectural backgrounds (niches, walls, columns) and the sculptures of St John the Evangelist and St John Baptist. Overpaint also includes highlights on the faces and hands of the figures.

The observations of the restorers were confirmed by analysis of tiny paint samples by the laboratories of the KIK-IRPA, research with the 3D Hirox microscope of Ghent University and MA- XRF research by the University of Antwerp. These analyses were combined with cleaning tests on the paintings to determine whether the overpaint could be removed without causing damage and to evaluate the condition of the original paint layer beneath. Fortunately, the latter is in reasonable condition, with relatively little abrasion or paint loss, and the exceptional quality of the Van Eyck brothers work is revealed. In the light of these findings, the international expert committee recommended the continuation of the process of removal of the overpaint. This treatment is proceeding centimetre by centimetre and is carried out with a scalpel under a binocular microscope. Patience, precision and experience are the keys to success in this endeavour.

The discoveries have both aesthetic and iconographic implications. Most of the overpaint follows the original forms, but the early painter-restorers did not succeed in imitating the Van Eycks’ dextrous handling of the paint and unrivalled depiction of light and materials. Lost under the overpaint is the exceptional sense of three-dimensionality and the subtle play of light and shadow. For example, cast shadows and a corner with cobwebs were found hidden behind the plain black overpaint in the Elisabeth Borluut panel, leading to a new iconographical reading of the donor portraits.

Progress has also been made on the frames, which in accordance with 15th-century tradition were designed to form a coherent whole with the painting. Paintings from that period with their original frames are rare, and those with their original polychromy are rarer still. Following a detailed study, it was decided to remove the overpaint in order to reveal the original polychromy underneath. This was made possible with a grant of 149,113 Euro in early 2014 by the Belgian state agencies Kunsten en Erfgoed (40%) and Onroerend Erfgoed (40%) and by the InBev-Baillet Latour Fund (20%). This aspect of the treatment will thus contribute to the rediscovery of the unique painterly qualities of this icon of Western art. Since its creation in 1432, the altarpiece has inspired generations of art lovers, and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.

The recent discoveries on the exterior panels have highlighted the need for new diagnostic research on the inner panels. These are currently in St Bavo’s cathedral awaiting treatment in the next phase. The research, using the aforementioned techniques, will be carried out by KIK-IRPA and Ghent and Antwerp universities. It is made possible thanks to additional funding of 240,000 Euro from the Gieskes-Strijbis Fund. The InBev Baillet-Latour Fund has already announced that if additional work is required it will continue its structural support of the project by covering 20% of the costs (the contribution of the church administration).

St Bavo’s cathedral has just announced that the micro climate in the glass enclosure housing the altarpiece – a source of worry for years – has been improved with the financial support of the Flemish authorities. In April 2014 the firm Helicon replaced the old lighting with led lights and lined the sides with thermic isolation, minimizing variations in temperature and relative humidity. The micro climate is now sufficiently stable in the medium-long term to ensure the safekeeping of the altarpiece.

The Province of East Flanders has expanded its educational initiatives for tourists. For this it has collaborated closely with the tourist offices of Ghent and East Flanders. They have produced a promotional brochure and a walking route connecting the different historic locations associated with the Ghent Altarpiece. The ‘Follow Van Eyck’ walking map is free with the purchase of a combi ticket. The ticket gives access to St Bavo’s cathedral, the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts and the Caermersklooster, which is the provincial cultural centre. In addition, the East Flanders tourist office has developed two bicycle routes between Ghent and Wetteren that go past locations that played a role in the theft of the panel of the Just Judges. The educational program for schools and families with children will be extended in autumn 2014. From 10 September you can visit the temporary exhibition ‘From tree trunk to altarpiece’ at the Caermersklooster, which concentrates on the wooden support, as well as the current permanent exhibition ‘The Ghent Altarpiece revealed!’.

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