This month, the famous Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, was unveiled after a restoration project funded by the Getty Foundation.
The restoration project began in 2010. The fruit of their work was a full plan of restoration led by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. Subsequently, a 1.3 million euro grant allowed the team to remove varnish and adjust the colors of older retouches.
Along with the restoration of the altarpiece, the project produced a web-based application, Even Closer to Van Eyck. The interactive website, which features a fully search-and-scrollable, 100 billion pixel image of the altarpiece allows viewers from around the world to zoom in and see every inch of the work in full detail.
The restoration project was part of the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative, which is dedicated to training the next generation of experts in the preservation of wooden panel paintings. Past grants from the Panel Paintings Initiative have allowed conservators to work on Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve, Pieter Breughel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, Peter Paul Rubens’s Triumph of the Eucharist series, and Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper, the last of which was severely damaged during a 1966 flood in Florence.
The Ghent Altarpiece, which is housed in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, dates back to 1432, when Jan Van Eyck completed the piece started by his deceased brother Hubert. The piece has an exciting story, having been stolen several times and having narrowly escaped destruction on a number of occasions throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, one of its twelve panels was stolen in 1934 and has yet to be recovered.
The restoration project yielded some important discoveries for art historians: First, it seems to confirm that the piece was indeed begun by Jan Van Eyck’s brother Hubert—an important find, since as of yet not a single painting thought to be attributable to Hubert could be 100% verified as his work. Second, dendrochronological testing seems to confirm that two of the panels were cut from the same tree, indicating that the painting was likely completed during a shorter period of time than some historians had thought.
The Getty Foundation’s contribution made possible two important accomplishments: the restoration of a timeless work of art, and the universal accessibility of that same work through an online platform. The fact that the foundation would be willing to devote millions of dollars through its Panel Paintings Initiative to such a cause (and others like it) indicates that we value using philanthropic resources for artistic and cultural endeavors, including preserving our cultural heritage.
It can be difficult to express the value of artistic preservation through utilitarian reasoning alone. But despite efforts from thinkers like Peter Singer and other effective altruists to move charitable giving in a more utilitarian direction, the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece shows that we have not lost our sense of the value of “impractical” goods, such as art, that enrich our lives in ways that elude calculation.