A “scandalous” restoration is shaking the artworld

Apr 23, 2024 | Art Word, Art-Test News, Authentications & attributions, Discoveries, Exhibitions, Highlights, Restoration

One of the most renowned Flemish masterpieces is being damaged by aggressive conservation treatments, according to esteemed scholars who present scientific evidence, utilizing before-and-after images from: “closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (more commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece) was painted by the Van Eyck brothers.

Little is known about the lives of Hubert and Jan van Eyck. We do not know when and where they were born, where they were educated or when they became established in Ghent. They had siblings, including a sister, Margaretha and a third brother, Lambrecth, who were also painters. But their lives remain largely shrouded in mystery.

Notably, not a single painting can be attributed to Hubert despite numerous attempts to associate his name with unidentified works from his time. In the few archival documents that have survived, his first name, which apparently was uncommon in Ghent at the time, is always spelled differently. However, his art was very highly esteemed also during his lifetime.

Even more so for Jan, his much younger brother, who was a painter and apparently also a diplomat.

In 1426 Hubert passed away and was buried in front of their masterpiece, in the St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, leaving several unfinished paintings.

An inscription, a quatrain, on the polyptych credits Hubert for initiating this work and Jan for completing it. What is certain is that “from Master Hubert to Master Jan”, the painting took many years to be completed.

It is in Latin, the translation of the quatrain reads:

The painter Hubert, a greater man than whom cannot be found, began this work. Jan, his brother, the second greatest artist, completed and weighty task at the request of Joos Vijd. He invites you with this verse, on the sixth of May to look at what has been done”. A chronogram hidden in the inscription also dates it to 1432.

The Ghent polyptych consists of eighteen panels, and is widely recognized as one of the most influential paintings worldwide, exploring both earthly and divine beauty. At its centre lies the iconic panel, ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb‘, portraying a lamb in a landscape rich with religious symbolism.

A detail of the central panel, before and after phase 2 of the conservation treatment

Throughout the centuries, the Altarpiece underwent several restoration treatments. Already the sixteenth-century Ghent historian Marcus van Vaernewyck, was complaining that the praedella was damaged during a poorly executed cleaning. Around 1550, the two painters Lanceloot Blondeel and Jan van Scorel restored the altarpiece. Since then, about every other generation has intervened on it, giving rise to layers of varnishes and overpainting.

Actually each of its panels has a distinct conservation history. Some of them have been stolen repeatedly over time, including by the Nazis, who looted the entire work and stored it in a salt mine for most of World War II. In fact, one panel, “The Just Judges,” in the outer left corner on the inside, has been missing since 1934.

In 2010 the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles provided the funds for a research campaign, and by this it became clear that a thorough conservation treatment was necessary.

In 2012 a huge restoration effort started. The Flemish government allocated a budget of 1.26 million euros. Three distinct phases were planned.

During the first phase, mostly cracked and yellowed varnish layers were removed from the exterior panels. And this intervention was praised by everyone.

The second phase of the restoration involving its central panel titled ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb‘ was completed at the end of December 2023 and “it has been a disaster, according to several scholars.

Despite assertions that advanced investigation technology justified the restoration approach, some scholars argue against the removal of historical layers, raising doubts about the accuracy of the dating of such paint layers.

Dirk Huyghe, former arts editor of the journal De Standaard, had alerted some people in 2021 to the disappearance of a castle, the so called ‘Cortewalle’ castle in Beveren (Land Van Waas). The castle was considered by some the property of Joos Vijd and Isabelle Borluut who had commissioned the altarpiece to Hubert Van Eyck. @The damage (closertohubertvaneyck.be)

See for example what is mentioned by Prof. Em. Helene Verougstraete of the Faculty of Arts and Literature, UCLouvain & KULeuven, in the website closertohubertvaneyck.be. The website has a very clear headline: The Ghent Altarpiece: The catastrophic Restoration of phase 2, Request to Move from ‘Invasive Scalpel Restoration’ towards ‘Respectful Conservation’.

In the website it is argued that the restorers mistakenly believed that the uppermost layer of the painting was a 16th-century addition, whereas it may well be that this layer was actually created by Jan van Eyck and after the intervention it has been irreversibly damaged.

This is clear, they said, in different areas of the painting, such as the holy women waving palm branches – about 20 of which were removed during the restoration. Some buildings in the background have also been scraped down to Hubert’s unfinished version, resulting in the tracery on the church windows being lost.”, as reported in Experts demand immediate halt to ‘disastrous’ restoration of Ghent Altarpiece (brusselstimes.com)

The alteration of the Lamb’s depiction was indeed shocking, and Art-Test addressed it in a couple of blogposts. Even without going as far as suggesting that it was painted by Jan van Eyck, we found it unacceptable that such a historically significant version could be scraped away, especially considering that what was laying underneath could be revealed using modern imaging techniques, thus could be seen by everyone, even maintaining the outer layer version.

the detail of the lamb, before and after conservation treatment

It appears that instead it was exactly these analyses that persuaded the KIK-IRPA restorers to remove the outer layer.

Restorers, whose work behind glass panelscan be viewed by museum visitors, initially did not have permission to remove all the varnish and overpainting that had been done to the sizable work” we read in A Master Work, the Ghent Altarpiece, Reawakens Stroke by Stroke – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

But they were given the green light to carry out this perilous task after new scanning technology confirmed their hunches that what lay below was far more stunning and was “with more certainty than ever” painted by the Van Eycks and finished in 1432”.

What’s most revolutionary here is that the scans influenced the actual restoration works and convinced restorers to scrape off paint from one of the world’s most valuable paintings,” said Geert Van der Snickt, a cultural heritage scientist at the University of Antwerp who helped develop the technique.

Hélène Dubois, the project leader, said that the scans helped steer restorers from their early mission of simply restoring the overpainting to pursuing the original work”.

However, other scholars are questioning whether it is possible to discern the distinct styles of the two brothers in the painting and whether it is feasible to accurately identify a slightly later addition.

no scientific method allows us to date a paint layer as narrowly as has been done here. In the 15th- and 16th -centuries, the painters used the same palettes, restricted to more or less twenty pigments. The elements in a paint layer of the time can be identified, but not dated. Therefore, the so-called ‘16th-century overpainting’, could just as well have been a 15th-century layer. We cannot exclude that it was Jan’s’ work, overpainting his unfinished brother’s project.” according to prof. Verougstraete

Restorers are tasked complete the work by April 2026 but there are concerns among many about whether a change in the plan should occur or if, at the very least, a thorough investigation should be conducted. This might involve engaging other experts who have not been involved in the current decision-making committees.

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti