Ghent masterpiece brought back to life, stroke by stroke

Painstaking restoration

Layers and layers of paint have been virtually and physically removed from the 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece, revealing for the first time in hundreds of years the individual brush strokes of the original paintings. The New York Times reports.

In this first phase of restoration on one of the earliest art works to use oil paints on a large scale, new scanning techniques uncovered the singular skills of the Flemish brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, beneath layers of overpainting and varnish.

The restoration of the renowned work of biblical figures on wood panels, which has been taking place for the past four years at the Museum of Fine Arts, has involved painstaking work that has led to a number of discoveries, including the dating of several wooden panels from the same oak trees.

As an early Renaissance piece, the altarpiece is widely recognised as one of history’s most influential art works, because of the intimate attention it gives to both earthly and divine beauty.

The polyptych altarpiece, consisting of 12 panels, has at its centre its most iconic panel, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

It depicts a liturgy attended by different groups of people in a landscape rich in religious symbolism. In the middle is a white lamb on an altar, with a breast wound gushing blood.

On the lower outer panels, people look on — some more interested than others. The upper register portrays three enthroned figures: In the middle might be God or Christ — experts are not sure — flanked by the Virgin Mary on the left and John the Baptist on the right.

On the upper outer panels, angels sing and play music. Adam and Eve, in one of the earliest renderings of them naked with fig leaves, stand on the outermost wings. The upper outside register represents scenes from the Annunciation of Mary and the lower register has sculptures of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist.

The altarpiece has a dark side as well. Pieces of it have been stolen repeatedly over time, including by the Nazis, who stored the entire work in a salt mine for most of World War II.

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The Ghent Altarpiece reawakens stroke by stroke

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