Oud Holland

Review of: 'The Ghent altarpiece' (2021)

June 2023


Review of: Griet Steyaert, Marie Postec, Jana Sanyova and Hélène Dubois (eds.), The Ghent altarpiece. Research and conservation of the interior: The lower register, Brussels [Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA)] 2021

Countless numbers of people have, since 1432, been stunned and emotionally struck by the beauty and visual complexity of the polyptych commonly referred to in the literature as ‘The mystic lamb’, or in Dutch ‘Het Lam Gods’, which resides in the Saint Bavo Cathedral, in Ghent. The quatrain on the frame of the central panel contains essential information about the polyptych: "Hubert van Eyck, the best painter ever to be found, began (this work) a brother Johannes, who as second in art completed the task at the behest of Joos Vijd, summons with a verse to admire his work here on the sixth of May.”1 The importance of the documented authenticity of the quatrain cannot be underestimated, and since its discovery beneath an overpainting, in 1823, the quatrain has prompted numerous hypotheses about its interpretation. Recently, Ridderbos eloquently summed up past disputes between scholars on the acceptance (sixteenth-century forgery versus a corrupt addition on the exterior after Jan van Eyck’s death) in his discussion of the iconography and patronage of the altarpiece.2 As Hubert died six years before the alleged finalisation of the polyptych, and as no other paintings by him are known for comparison, his contribution has until now remained a mystery and hence prompted much discussion.

In 2009, a meeting was held at the church warden’s office to discuss and assess the need for new conservation, and eventual restoration, of the polyptych.3 The initial concept of the conservation and restoration project focused on stabilising the supports and paint layers and included the progressive reduction of the thick accumulation of varnishes. In 2012, the treatment began. It was carried out by a team of specialists from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (Koninklijk Instituut voor het Kunstpatrimonium/I royal du Patrimoine artistique), headed by Livia Depuydt Elbaum and took place in view of the public, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, something that appears to be a longstanding trend in conservation.4

Cover of: The Ghent altarpiece. Research and conservation of the interior: The lower register

Middle: Jan van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, oil on panels, 3.5 x 4.6 m, St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, inv. 426

Right: The lower register

However, in 2013, during the first phase of the examination and treatment comprising the exterior panels, on view when the altar is closed, revealed discoveries that led to a fundamental re-evaluation of the project. It appeared that extensive overpaint was hiding a considerable part of the original paint surface. The virtuosity of the technique and aesthetics of the Van Eycks brothers was barely visible. Despite many studies of the altar in the past, the presence of this layer had never been noticed before the start of the conservation treatment. Recent studies of the amazingly turbulent history of the Ghent Altarpiece, including wars, looting, fire and theft, have uncovered the complex material history.5 The results of the painstaking removal of layers of old hardened varnish layers and overpainting were presented in Contribution 14 of the study of the Flemish primitives.6 That volume described and illustrated in great detail, the tonal richness and the coherent representation of light and space that became visible again after the removal of the overpaint.

The volume under review is the second major publication on the extraordinary trajectory of the Ghent Altarpiece and proposes new hypotheses on the division of labour between the two Van Eyck brothers. The contribution of Hubert, who died in 1426, has finally become clearer and turns out to be far from insignificant. The publication presents four chapters with a special emphasis on the significance of the uncovered pictorial layers and the discoveries associated with the elemental and visual analysis of these. In addition to this new publication, the authors recommend consulting the excellent images on the website, ‘Closer to Van Eyck’.7

The first chapter (written by Hélène Dubois, Kathleen Froyen, Griet Steyaert, Marie Postec, Laure Mortiaux, Nathalie Laquière, Françoise Rosier, Bart Devolder and Cécile de Boulard) demonstrates how new analysis complements the results from the first phase. Approximately half the surface of the interior of the lower register had been overpainted. With the original paint revealed anew from below the painstakingly removed overpaint, the original, sharper and more colourful layers of both figures and architecture of the central panel can again be fully appreciated. The uncovered original paint layer, of course, suffered smaller paint losses, but there were no crucial damages beyond repair. As with the exterior, the authors describe how they chose to employ a fully illusionistic in-painting of missing areas, including an informed reconstruction of missing details of, for example, the spires of a small distant tower.8

In the second chapter, Marie Postec and Griet Steyaert (with contributions by different specialists), embark on describing the creative process and the different stages in the execution of the interior panels. We are reminded that dendrochronological examination has documented the conception of the entire polyptych as one entity, which becomes particularly relevant in combination with other, recent findings that documents that, nevertheless, the painting of the panels developed over three distinguishable stages.9 After a description of the preparatory layers, the scoring, and incisions of details that form a guidance for the successive paint application in the dresses are described. Later in the chapter the observation of the painting techniques of the dove, the halo and the rays fanning down from the upper edge of the central panel, are all lavishly illustrated and described in detail. One, with a held breath, follows the progression of this fascinating detective story, revealing how successive layers of paint and compositional modifications by the two brothers, on top of which were later overpaint, again, has unravelled. Macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) analysis meticulously documents the pigments and their distribution – and based on this the authors offer a mesmerising understanding of the rich availability of materials, and the craftsmanship needed to achieve the stunning result, now uncovered below the sixteenth-century overpaint.

The research shows that the sky is composed of ultramarine and together with the dove (the Holy Spirit) were not part of the original concept. As is stated in the ‘note to the reader’, the authors use the term ‘Eyckian’ to refer to everything that they believe is executed by Hubert and/or Jan. A ‘non-Eyckian’ paint layer is in this context, therefore, everything not executed by the two brothers and thus suggests the intervention of a contemporary or even a later painter. The top layer of the sky and possibly the dove are attributed to an unknown, contemporary master, and date to the second half of the fifteenth century. It, predates the sixteenth-century overpaint.10 The authors describe that the current townscape, including the Utrecht tower, was also painted over an initial landscape. Further, a lavishly dressed knight on one of the wings in the third stage had his brocade covered by an anonymous, contemporary painter with a more monochrome garment, as revealed by a MA-XRF (fig. 2.66a-b). Although it was already noticed in the 1950s that the lamb had been overpainted, the animal remained largely untouched until the recent conservation treatment. As a result, for decennia, it had two sets of ears.11 For almost 70 years, this perplexed many, though the largest revelation was still to be discovered: the original frontally pointed eyes staring right at the beholder.

Chapter three describes the challenges of a complex stratigraphy viewed from a chemical point of view. The analysis of paint has exponentially progressed over the past 20 to 30 years, and the authors Jana Sanyova, Geert Van der Snickt, and Francisco Mederos-Henry, with contributions by Cécile Glaude, Frederik Vanmeert, Steven De Meyer, Stijn Legrand and Koen Janssens were able to identify a wealth of chemical compounds in the layers of the three stages of execution. On page 205, the reader finds a list of the sophisticated instrumentation available to the interdisciplinary team. An insightful comparison with older results highlights what modern international collaboration between laboratories and museum makes possible in terms of research and results.

Chapter four, which is the shortest, by Griet Steyaert and Marie Postec, presents some of the most intriguing art historical revelations of recent times. They propose for which parts of the painting the two brothers, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, were respectively responsible. Comparative visual studies were carried out between the polyptych and the nine signed and dated paintings currently known by Jan. The authors compellingly display detailed observations of the painting of light, reflections and architectural elements that seem to fit with the previously mentioned stage two, described in the second chapter. This second stage is where Jan is most present, but in stage one, Hubert’s initial painterly interventions are to be found. For the reader, however, the detailed explanation of the painterly details becomes somewhat difficult to follow as text and illustrations are often several pages apart; something that hampers the otherwise captivating Morellian exercise.

This technique, developed by the nineteenth-century Italian physician and art collector Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891), proves still relevant in times of highly technical or scientific studies.12 All analytical and visual results will have to be integrated and interpreted, and the Morellian technique of scholarship relies on finding the characteristic ‘hands’ of painters through scrutiny of minor details that reveal an artist’s scarcely conscious shorthand and conventions for painting, for example, ears or eyes. The brush handling and the creation of certain forms would appear to remain consistent throughout an artist’s career, even as his style evolves. By comparing the painted heads in the polyptych, the authors demonstrate how physiognomy differs between the two different hands at work. In a concluding diagram (fig. 4.7), the authors illustrate which 14 heads are thought to have been painted by Hubert and the many more by Jan. Hubert, obviously, initiated painting figures closest to the central spring – now covered by the elaborate fountain – and projected outwards.13 At some point, the authors explain, he halted, Jan took over and completed the crowds of apostles and philosophers.

Fully grasping the work by Hubert and Jan, is further complicated by the presence of the unknown master who added the non-Eyckian elements. This unknown artist’s interventions are also observed on the wings, such as in the addition of leaves to the many trees, the nozzle of the horse and the overpaint of the brocade on the grey-bearded figure in the Knights of Christ, mentioned above. Although the identification of the difference in the handling of the two brothers, as observed in the underdrawing – something that distinguishes Hubert from Jan – the authors justly conclude that more comparative research with other works associated with their creative hands will be needed to fully understand and appreciate the differences in the final paint layers.

One of the most important results of the present volume is that although many questions remain, it presents a well-argued hypothesis of the degree to which the altarpiece was unfinished upon the death of Hubert in 1426. The complexity of the newly revealed surface of the original paint layers below the sixteenth-century overpaint, has not only resulted in a total reassessment of the altarpiece itself, but has also advanced our understanding of the separate qualities of the two painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The results of the recent conservation treatment laid down in this stimulating volume, will certainly form a new starting point for a reassessment of their oeuvres.

The book is essential reading for all scholars of the Van Eycks, and everyone interested in interdisciplinary technical examination, documentation and conservation-restoration – which has been performed with exceptional success here. The quality, readability and even suspense, of what will happen next in this long treatment process, is continued from the first volume. The next and final phase of the treatment of the upper register of the polyptych, expected to commence early in 2023, is something to look out for; as is the scholarly volume that will eventually accompany it.

Jørgen Wadum
Director of WATS, Wadum Art Technological Studies, Copenhagen
Specialty Advisor at the Nivaagaard Collection, Nivå, Denmark
Professor Emeritus of Conservation and Restoration, University of Amsterdam


1 This translation and interpretation of the quatrain is by P. Claes, ‘A new reading of the quatrain on the Ghent Altarpiece’, in Oud Holland, no 1. (2022), pp. 1-7, and substitutes a proposal offered in B. Fransen & C. Stroo (eds.), The Ghent altarpiece. Research and conservation of the exterior (Contributions to the study of the Flemish primitives 14). Dedicated to the memory of J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer, Brussels, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), 2020, p. 273 ff.

2 B. Ridderbos, ‘The Ghent Altarpiece: Iconography and patronage’, Oud Holland, no. 1 (2022), pp. 8-39; V. Herzner, Jan van Eyck und der Genter Altar. Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1995; H. van der Velden, ‘A reply to Volker Herzner and a note on the putative author of the Ghent quatrain’, in Simiolus 35, no. 3/4 (2011), pp. 131-141.

3 The first advisory committee met on 24 June 2009, in the Bisschoppelijk Paleis, Ghent: Till Holger Borchert, E.H. Ludo Collin (for the Kerkfabriek), Philippe Depotter, Hélène Dubois, Elsje Janssen, Leon Smets, Ron Spronk, Anne van Grevenstein-Kruse, Jan Vermassen and Jørgen Wadum.

4 Recent examples are the Veit Stoss altar in St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków (https://www.ovpm.org/program/lallier-prize/2021-krakow/)and ‘Operation Nightwatch’, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/whats-on/exhibitions/operation-night-watch). Earlier examples are the restoration of the Nightwatch in 1975 (Rijksmuseum), Frans Hals’ Schutterstukken (Frans Hals Museum) in the early 1, the Vermeer restorations in 1994 (Mauritshuis) and the recent scientific examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl in 2018 (https://heritagesciencejournal.springeropen.com/girl-in-the-spotlight) (Mauritshuis).

5 H. Dubois, The turbulent material history of the Ghent altarpiece. An analysis integrating technical examination and historical sources (1432-1894). PhD thesis, University of Ghent, 2022.

6 Franssen and Stroo 2020 (note 1).

7 http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/

8 G. Steyaert, M. Postec, J. Sanyova and H. Dubois (eds.), The Ghent altarpiece. Research and conservation of the interior: The lower register (contributions to the study of the Flemish primitives, 16), Brussels 2021, p.29.

9 P. Fraiture, 'Results of three campaigns dendrochronological analysis on the Ghent altarpiece (1986-2013)', in C. Currie (et al.), Van Eyck studies. Papers presented at the eighteenth symposium for the study of underdrawing and technology in painting, Brussels, 19-21 September 2012 (Underdrawing and technology in painting symposium 18), Paris/Louvain 2017, pp. 77-95.

10 Fraiture 2017 (note 9), pp. 61-65 and 98-103.

11 A. Philippot and R. Sneyers, ‘Examen pictural avant traitement’, and ‘Etat matériel avant traitement’, in P. Coremans, L’Agneau mystique au laboratoire. Examen et traitement (Contributions à l´étude des primitifs Flamands, 2), Antwerp 1953, pp. 77-88.

12 J. Anderson, The life of Giovanni Morelli in Risorgimento Italy, Rome 2019.

13 G. Steyaert, M. Postec, J. Sanyova and H. Dubois 2021 (note 8), p. 157.

Jørgen Wadum,' Review of: The Ghent Altarpiece', Oud Holland Reviews, June 2023.