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Conserving a masterpiece -- the Ghent Altarpiece

July 10, 2010 | 12:30 pm

When Anne van Grevenstein-Kruse was a child, her family made a pilgrimage from Antwerp to Ghent to see “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” the celebrated 15th-century altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. “It was still in its original chapel,” she recalls, “and I remember very well the old man who was paid to close the altarpiece and open it again.”

Made up of 18 painted panels, the work, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is widely considered a treasure of early Northern Renaissance art and an object of veneration in Art History 101. It also boasts a legacy so checkered that it could be lifted from a Dan Brown novel. It has been, at various times, sold off in parts and carried off as war booty.

After half a millennium, the altarpiece is miraculously intact, with only one smaller panel, depicting the “just judges” and stolen in 1934, replaced by a replica in 1945. It is also, remarkably, still in the church for which it was made: Saint Bavo Cathedral, formerly Saint John.

Van Grevenstein-Kruse, an art conservator who teaches at the University of Amsterdam, along with Ronald Spronk, an art historian from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, head a team of art experts and trainees conducting a detailed technical analysis of the work, a project funded by a $230,000 grant from the Panel Paintings Initiative of the Getty Foundation.

In a side chapel of the church, most of the panels sit inside a protective glass enclosure. Several have been taken down for study, and another, the one of the just judges depicting 10 resplendently cloaked men on horseback, has been sent to Brussels to fix its flaking paint.

Van Grevenstein-Kruse admits it’s ironic that this newest component of the work is falling apart the fastest.

Click here to read more about the Ghent Altarpiece conservation project.

-- Scarlet Cheng

Photo: Overview of the open altarpiece. Credit: J. Paul Getty Trust