Regular readers, and especially those with an interest in early Netherlandish painting, might recall that since 2012 the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck has been under restoration. The work has been carried out by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), which is based in Brussels.
The project, which has a wonderful associated website, began with the intention of removing the old varnish from the altarpiece, which over the years has browned (as varnish does) and, in the process, subdued the original brilliance of the van Eycks’ colours and the frankly stunning effects that their careful, virtuoso, manipulation of oil paint created. The picture at the top of the post shows some of the restores at work.
Initial examination and cleaning tests showed promise, yielding impressive results, which are plain to see even through the eyes of the amateur. (Often with restoration campaigns, the initial results, and some of the images these generate, can seem hard to understand unless you happen to possess the technical knowledge that a restorer does, but in this case the results are obvious.) The images below are just a few available on the project website showing the initial cleaning tests, done to establish just how discoloured the varnish on the altarpiece actually was. Answer? Very (!):
CLEARER, BRIGHTER DETAIL
Spurred on by the initial tests, and their realisation that much of the altarpiece was mired by various overpaints made during several, separate restoration campaigns (some quite old, in fairness, from the sixteenth century in some cases, but overpaints nonetheless … ), the restores got on with the cleaning job proper, now with a view to removing the overpainting as well as the varnishes:
And now, after years and years of painstaking and loving expert work, we finally have images of the restored work on the whole; it is no overstatement, I think, to say that the results are absolutely spectacular:
I mean … can we just take a moment to appreciate those. Everything just sings so much louder and more beautifully now.
Including these (the donor portraits showing Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut):
It truly is amazing work and so wonderful to see the altarpiece in its full resplendent, radiant and frankly gorgeous brightness. I remember when I saw the Ghent Altarpiece for the first time in St. Bavo’s; I thought it was good, very bloody good. I can’t wait to go and see it again now, now that it has been restored to its full brilliance.
The restoration has also made a number of other discoveries. Perhaps the most significant of these concerns the famous inscription contained on the altarpiece. The inscription was discovered during an 1823 restoration campaign. It gives the names of the donors, Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut (seen above), date of completion (in the form of a chronogram, deciphered as 1432), and, sensationally at the time of its discovery, revealed that the altarpiece was started by Hubert van Eyck (‘maior quo nemo repertus,‘ that is, “greater than anyone”) and was finished by his brother Jan (who is described as ‘arte secundus,‘ or “second in art”). At the time, in 1823, nobody knew anything about this Hubert van Eyck and only knew of Jan; it follows that it was quickly suggested that the inscription wasn’t genuine, some kind of fake. Some postulated that jealously and parochial patriotism was the motivating factor behind someone’s decision to append a fake inscription to the work: Jan lived and worked in Bruges, not Ghent, so the inscription, it has been thought, was added as a way to proudly return the altarpiece’s origins to Ghent, done supposedly at the whim of an especially ardent admirer and citizen of that city.
The restorations just completed, however, have put the matter to bed. The restorations have shown definitively that the inscription is genuine, made by the hand of Jan van Eyck. This, of course, does nothing to help answer “which brother painted which bits?” (a subject of fierce, and frankly, it seems, unanswerable, debate since the discovery of the inscription); but it does confirm that the Ghent Altarpiece was produced as a collaboration. Given that Hubert is still just as much of an enigma as he was in 1823, it is gratifying to know that as a result of this work, posterity will at least know that Hubert was, for certain, at least partly responsible for the execution of what is undoubtedly one of the best works of art ever produced. In the meantime, we get to enjoy revelling in this ravishing work and bask in the marvels of modern restoration.