42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings + Wooden Artifacts Session – Window of Opportunity: The Restoration Project of the Ghent Altarpiece

In his presentation Bart Devolder, Painting Conservator at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Belgium, delved into two major topics: the condition of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (?-1432) -also known as The Ghent Altarpiece- prior to conservation in 2010 and issues with showing the ongoing treatment behind a display window. Painted by brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece is considered one of Belgium’s most important artworks, and as such it has experienced a troubled history. Due to its prominence, the altarpiece has been pillaged on multiple occasions since its creation. In the last century, it was an object of desire for the Nazi regime, who stole it in 1942. This significant event in the art world was recently featured by Hollywood in the film Monuments Men, indicating an enduring fascination with this artwork.
The Flemish polyptych has experienced several modifications. The Nazi regime was not the first German government to be fascinated by the artwork.  In 1894 the German government purchased the wing panels and severed them in half to exhibit both painted sides simultaneously. This intervention required the removal of the hinge mechanisms, therefore the altar could no longer be opened or closed to resemble its original configuration. In 1934, the panels depicting The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist were stolen from the Saint Bavo Cathedral. Saint John the Baptist was returned to the cathedral by its captors, but the whereabouts of The Just Judges remains a mystery. Fast forward to 1986, when the altarpiece was moved from the Vijd Chapel to the Villa Chapel, which are both within the Saint Bavo Cathedral. The move consequently changed the lighting in which the van Eyck brothers envisioned their masterpiece. After the artwork’s trouble past, it is not hard to conceive that the panels were in need of attention. In 2010, the altarpiece could be found encapsulated in a cobalt colored safety glass in the cathedral. Inside the box, the painting had accumulated a significant amount of dust. Devolder explained that the most alarming conditions were blind cleavage exacerbated by a thick ketone varnish layer, which was shrinking and pulling the paint. As he described the eventful history and the condition of the altarpiece, Devolder included detailed images, which illustrated the condition of the panels further reinstated the need for conservation.
The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (IRPA-KIK) along with an international advising committee of conservators and scientists from the University of Ghent are responsible for the treatment. Before work could begin, there were several logistical issues with the project. First, the Ghent altarpiece may never legally leave the city of Ghent. The IRPA-KIK conservation laboratories are established in Brussels, which made the treatment in this location impossible. It was resolved to build a new conservation laboratory with a large viewing window within a gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent. The treatment of the altarpiece was divided into three phases. In order to provide a holistic experience to visitors of the Saint Bavo Cathedral, the removed panels are temporarily replaced with facsimiles. Treatment of the artwork is conducted through the window with the exception of more delicate tasks, which are done in a space behind a self standing wall not visible to the public. Conservators need high levels of concentration, and in this project there is always the possibility that someone else is watching. Devolder expressed frustration that visitors could leave with erroneous perceptions about the work being done. To mitigate this issue, the Belgian institution uses several didactics and talks are provided with the window to educate the public in the attractive ways.
In Belgium, it is not common to experience conservation treatments in public, yet the conservators are employing public integration strategies that I have not seen used before. I was particularly amazed by the altarpiece reconstruction done by Flemish students from different high schools in Ghent, which hangs next to the viewing window. The reconstruction not only helps to visualize the assembled altarpiece, but it also forges a link between the community and the artwork itself. Programs established for people with vision impairment are also carried out in which swabs and non-toxic cleaning agents are passed around to communicate principles of conservation in a sensorial manner. In addition, a tour is been formulated to include three institutions closely related with the altarpiece: The Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, The Saint Bavo Cathedral, and the Caermersklooster Complex. Bart Devolder concluded his presentation by describing the constant national coverage of the project and his belief that more international press in necessary.