Van Eyck's original Lamb uncovered!

After intensive research, the restoration team of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels) has removed the old overpaint that masked the main figure of the Ghent Altarpiece for nearly five centuries. As such, the well-known Lamb – an impassive and rather neutral figure, with a wide forehead and large ears – has given way to Van Eyck’s original. With its intense gaze this medieval Lamb, characterized by a graphically defined snout and large frontal eyes, draws the viewer into the scene of His ultimate sacrifice.

Old overpaint

The Lamb was overpainted in the middle of the sixteenth century as part of a larger intervention carried out to cover up  small damages and early, clumsy restorations, and to give the masterpiece a fresh appearance. During a restoration in 1951, the removal of green overpaint surrounding the head exposed the original, smaller ears, creating the impression that the Lamb had four ears.

Multidisciplinary research, carried out by KIK-IRPA in collaboration with scientists from the universities of Ghent and Antwerp, revealed that around 45% of the paint surface of the central panel with the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was overpainted in the sixteenth century. Apart from the Lamb, the overpainted areas mostly concerned the sky, the buildings and hills in the background, the draperies, and the altar cloth. Only 3% of the Van Eycks’ original paint layers has been lost, and overpaint can be carefully removed.

The real Van Eyck

While removing the overpaint – a delicate operation carried out under the microscope with surgical scalpels – the restorers discovered a subtly shaded sky with streaks of clouds above graceful mountains. The original buildings, overpainted with greyish layers, were painted in a variety of colours, with a beautiful play of light. Even previously hidden buildings are emerging from beneath the much simpler overpaint at the horizon. Solid-coloured garments make place for luminous draperies with complex folds defined by delicate highlights and deep shadows.

Change of guard in KIK-IRPA’s restoration team

During his six years as on-site coordinator of the Ghent Altarpiece project, Bart Devolder impressed colleagues and visitors alike with his remarkable skills. But the US were watching and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse… We wish Bart the best of luck as the brand-new Conservator of Collections at the prestigious Princeton University Art Museum! In Ghent, he will be expertly replaced by restorer Kathleen Froyen. Hélène Dubois is the head of the restoration project and is currently also working on her PhD dissertation at the university of Ghent on the material history of the Ghent Altarpiece.

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The restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck is financed by the Flemish government (80%) and by the Baillet Latour Fund (20%). Research is supported by the KIK-IRPA, BELSPO, the Gieskes-Strijbis fund and the universities of Antwerp and Ghent.

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To see the panel of the Adoration, visit the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts during weekends. During weekdays the restorers are continuing overpaint removal. For this intervention, the panel must be laid flat and is not visible for the public.