The Ghent Altarpiece in 100 Billion Pixels

It is now possible for scholars, conservators, and art lovers worldwide to zoom into the intricate, breathtaking details of Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece on an interactive digital website supported largely by the Getty Foundation: Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece.

This stunning and highly complex painting, completed in 1432 and composed of eighteen separate oak panels, underwent emergency conservation treatment in 2010 within the Villa Chapel in Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The huge scale of the work, which measures 340 x 440 centimeters when opened, makes the polyptych one of the largest surviving fifteenth-century altarpieces in Northern Europe.

The altarpiece was removed from its glass enclosure and temporarily dismantled, making it possible to assess the current structural and aesthetical condition of the altarpiece and to undertake a campaign of technical documentation. Each centimeter of the altarpiece was scrutinized and professionally photographed at extremely high resolution in both regular and infrared light. The photographs were then digitally stitched together to create amazingly detailed images that allow for study of the painting at unprecedented microscopic levels. The website itself contains 100 billion pixels.

Hosted by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA), the website allows users to zoom in on individual sections of the altarpiece and take a virtual peek under the paint surface by means of infrared reflectography (IRR) and x-radiography, examining the altarpiece in ways never before possible. Through innovative use of web technology, the user can study the underdrawings of any two panels of the Ghent Altarpiece side by side.

The comprehensive website is a collaborative project of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA), Lukasweb, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and is funded through additional support from the Getty Foundation and with support from the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO).

Now underway is an ambitious five-year, million-euro conservation/restoration treatment of the Ghent Altarpiece, which began in October in an exhibition gallery of Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts. The space was redesigned as a conservation workshop with a glass wall that allows visitors to view the restoration in progress. The restoration also provides the ideal conditions to conduct a new scientific study of the polyptych and to fully document its materials and techniques. This study will tackle the question of the respective contributions of Jan and Hubert van Eyck, as well as other unknown hands.

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