Mystic Lamb provides initial revelations

The Archangel Gabriel’s robe is now a little whiter and the Virgin Mary of the Annunciation has lost some of her yellow blemishes; little by little the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is regaining some of the depth of its original colors. The polyptych panel painting, a wonder of the Flemish Primitive movement, has been undergoing a complete restoration process at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts since October 2012.

The Belgian Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage has now released a progress report on work done on the eight exterior panels during this first restoration stage. Intense cleaning enabled layers of yellow varnish, most of which were applied during the 1950s, to be removed.


“We were surprised by the spectacular changes,” explains Livia Depuydt-Elbaum, one of the restorers. “We didn’t know there had been so much retouching and revarnishing.” The oil painting does appear significantly damaged in places, like on the panel representing the wealthy donor Joos Vijd. “That’s not unusual; in this initial phase, the work doesn’t necessarily become more attractive. Quite the contrary,” she adds.


An outstanding example of 15th century art, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was started by the Flemish painter, Hubert Van Eyck, and was completed by his brother Jan in 1432. The retable portrays characters and scenes from the Bible – such as the Annunciation to Mary, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and Adam and Eve – spread across 24 different panels.


The restoration team also made another discovery: the frames that surround the eight oak panels have now come to light. They were not originally supposed to be part of the restoration, but in the end the experts found a decorative coloring that they deemed to be original – an imitation of painted stones, in good condition.


“In Flemish painting, the frame is an integral part of the work. A pictorial layer was applied to the frame at the same time as the panels. This discovery will change the entire polyptych, making it clearer, because the frame will give the impression of a stone border,” explains Depuydt-Elbaum.


An even more surprising revelation was the outline of a face that appeared under the painting, on the blue sky section of the central panels, which features a town and the Erythraean Sibyl. The origin and significance of this sketch are as yet unknown. It was revealed via infrared technology.


The renovation of the masterpiece promises to be long and laborious, because all of the panels are not in the same state. All of them, with the exception of the Adam and Eve panel, were sawn in two in Berlin in 1894. Later, in 1934, one of the panels, the Just Judges, was stolen, replaced and never recovered. Thefts, cuts and extra layers of paint have given the work an eventful history.


The first set of restored panels will regain their place in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent one year from now. However, it is likely that the polyptych panel painting still has more secrets to disclose. The project, overseen by an international committee of art historians and restorers, is due to continue until 2017. The overall budget stands at over €1.2 million, 80 % of which has been covered by the Flemish Community, with the remainder being provided by the Kerkfabriek church council, supported by the InBev-Baillet Latour Fund.

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