It may once have been hoped that the restauration of the Ghent altarpiece would be complete by 2020, the Van Eyck Year, but this is not to be. Restorers first set to work on renovating the outer panels of this complex 15th century work. They had hoped to finish the job in a couple of years, but the task took five years. They discovered that a full seventy percent of the paintings have been covered with new paint over the centuries and set to work to remove it.
Restorers also found that even after six centuries only 3% of the entire work has suffered severe damage. Today restorers only put fresh paint on the spot that has been damaged, but in earlier centuries whole areas were recovered in paint and this is why so much of the paintings has been covered in later paint. Restorers remove the varnish and the later paint to restore the whole.
The outer panels have been returned to St Bavo's Cathedral, while the lower inside panels are now being restored at the MSK. In the Cathedral the lower inside panels have been replaced by a photograph, not something that every visitor notices. The lower inside panels will hopefully be ready in time for the Van Eyck Year, so that they can be returned to Ghent Cathedral in 2020. In 2021 restorers hope to be able to start on their final task: the restoration of the upper inside panels.
When you visit the MSK don't forget to take a closer look at the lamb's head in the central panel. An early restorer turned the lamb into a sheep and added two extra ears. Restorers are now in a conundrum and have to decide whether or not to remove the lamb's extra ears!
See more of the Ghent Altarpiece on the Closer to Van Eyck website!