Spiders’ webs on the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

In Ghent the eight restored exterior panels of the Altarpiece the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St Bavo’s Cathedral have been displayed to the press and public.

For four years a patient team of restorers have removed dirt, layers of varnish and paintings over the top, working at a painstaking rate of 1cm2 a day.

Where necessary they retouched the work with water colour on a layer of varnish, in accordance with the 2016 restoration maxim of reversibility: any intervention must be reversible.

Here are the exterior panels before the restauration:

© www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw, foto Hugo Maertens

And here they are after the restoration:

© www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw, foto Dominique Provost


As you can see, the result is impressive. The polyptych is more dazzling than ever, the perspective sharper, the three-dimensional effect more noticeable, the interplay of light and shadow more prominent.

You see the crumples in the starched headdress worn by Elisabeth Borluut, who commissioned the work; spiders’ webs are visible above the head of Joos Vijd, her husband.

The colours are deeper and more vivid. On the grisailles the statues of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist now look like real marble.

For the first time since the transfer of the Altarpiece in 1986 from the cathedral’s Vijd Chapel, for which the Van Eyck brothers painted it, to the Villa Chapel, where it stood open in a glass case, you can see the artwork as the painters intended: closed, to be opened only after prayer and meditation to reveal the salvation of man through the sacrifice of the Lamb.

The commissioners, pictured on the exterior panels, are flanked by the two Johns. Above them the Annunciation gleams with a view of the city (Ghent?) between the Angel and Mary and the still life with towel and washbasin.


It will be another four-year wait before the interior panels, including the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, reveal their glory. Like the exterior panels they will be restored at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, where visitors can follow the restoration process behind glass.

In 2020 the Altarpiece is set to be back in the cathedral, in a different position in the Sacrament Chapel, where it will open and close once a day.

The Flemish Government is planning a grand Van Eyck exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2020, hoping to bring 400,000 people to the city.

Tensions are mounting, as the cathedral wardens, the owners of the masterpiece, are only willing to lend the exterior panels to the museum in 2020 if the interior panels are back in the cathedral by then. Will they manage the deadline? This first completed phase of restoration has taken four years instead of two, already exceeding the budget.

The just judges

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is a shrine of Christian spirituality, craftsmanship and artistic genius, involving work by the hands of two brothers, Hubert and Jan, along with studio employees, and over the centuries anonymous painter-restorers who painted over, repainted and competed with the Van Eyck brothers, perhaps jealous of their mastery.

Over the centuries the work has been taken apart and reassembled, stolen and returned to the church in Ghent. One panel, The Just Judges, was stolen in 1934 and still has not been found. This pinnacle of Christendom and art dating back to 1432 continues to overwhelm all who see it.


More information about the restauration:

An article from The Low Countries Yearbook can be found here.

Exhibtion: Restoration / Revelation. The exterior wings of the Ghent Altarpiece
Caermersklooster, Ghent, www.caermersklooster.be

Very detailed website about the restauration: closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be

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