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01 December 2019

Although the true history of the piece remains a mystery for the present, the success of the restoration highlights the importance of such works in continuing to learn about and protect precious cultural objects...

Greatness Restored: The Mad and Mystic Marvels of Flemish Painting

by Lauren Throup

The preservation, conservation, and restoration of great works of art remains an important, though contentious, topic. In 2012, the decision was made to begin critical conservation works on Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s iconic ‘Ghent Altarpiece’, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

The work was completed in the early fifteenth century, and has undergone several previous restorations through the years, including in the 1950’s, with an aim to repair damage the work sustained during the Second World War.


The most recent restoration process revealed the previously unrealised scope of ‘overpainting’ within the piece.

Following the initial removal of varnishes, which over time had dulled and yellowed with age, the restoration team discovered that approximately 70 per cent of the original work had been overpainted during restorations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The work of restorers at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent has involved using newly developed scientific techniques, including advanced forms of x-ray and infrared imaging, as well as binocular microscopes. Such techniques allow restorers to examine the paintings in minute detail, working to meticulously remove the layers of overpainting and reveal the van Eyck brothers’ original vision.

Their findings include finer details such as exquisite spiders’ webs in the background of two of the exterior panels, and they have also been able to reverse more radical alterations made to elements painted within the piece’s Annunciation scene, and to the clothing of various figures.


Restoration work for the altarpiece’s outer panels was completed in 2016, and these sections were then placed back on display in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Ongoing restoration work for the remaining panels, including the five sections of the polyptych’s interior lower register, has since continued at a purpose-built conservation studio within the museum. Within the studio, factors such as the humidity, light intensity, and temperature can be monitored. A large glass partition, 1.7 metres high and almost 11 metres long, means that museum visitors can look in on all activities carried out by the restorers as they continue their work.

In 2020, an ambitious new exhibition by the museum, entitled "Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution", will reunite several of van Eyck's works for the first time, including the restored outer panels of the altarpiece, returned on loan from St Bavo's. The exhibition, which will also feature works by van Eyck's contemporaries and peers from throughout Spain, Germany, France and Italy, aims to contextualise the world in which the artist lived and worked, as well as the impact his reolutionary works had.

A visit to the "Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution" exhibit at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts is included within the itinerary of ACE Cultural Tours’ 2020 Flemish Painting: From Van Eyck to Rubens, which runs from April 15-19.


This tour also includes a visit to the Mayer van den Burgh Museum in Antwerp, home to several works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, including his masterpiece Dulle Griet, also known as ‘Mad Meg’. This work was recently resoted by experts at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels. Much like the work on the van Eyck brothers’ altarpiece, this restoration process revealed not only vibrant colours and details hidden under years of discoloured varnish, but also details that call into question aspects of the painting’s history.

The work had previously been dated ‘1561’, however the process of removing layers of historical overpainting revealed that in fact the work dates from 1563, two years later than originally thought. This discovery has led to debate amongst the artistic community as it raises questions as to where the work was completed. Brussels or Antwerp? Or, perhaps, begun in Antwerp and transported, half finished, with Bruegel when he moved to Brussels in 1563?

Although the true history of the piece remains a mystery for the present, the success of the restoration highlights the importance of such works in continuing to learn about and protect precious cultural objects.




Art historian Rupert Dickens, MA, will lead the Flemish Painting: From Van Eyck to Rubens tour for ACE in 2020, running April 15-19. Places still available.


More Information on all of Rupert Dickens' tours with ACE in 2020 available here.


This blog was originally published on 13/12/2018. It was updated in Dec, 2019 to include new information about the ‘Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution’ exhibition at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts.