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New Era for Ghent Altarpiece


A new era in heritage experience will be unveilled on 25 March 2021 in Ghent’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral.

As part of one of the most ambitious restoration projects undertaken in Flanders, St.Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent is set to reveal a revolutionary new visitor experience on 25 March 2021. At the same time, the world-famous Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck will be moved to a new location.

The Cathedral crypt has also been extensively adapted for visitors to experience the artwork’s remarkable history, via new visual technology. The Ghent Altarpiece is widely recognised as one of history’s most influential works of art. Its breath-taking splendour is made up of twelve panels, painted recto verso, with its most iconic panel, ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, at its centerpiece.

At the time of its completion in 1432, the van Eyck creation, intended for public viewing, provided colour, brilliance and vividness that astounded the peers of its time.

Today, thanks to an extensive modern-day restoration project, the exquisiteness and magnificence created by the van Eyck brothers over 500 years ago, can continue to be admired by the public, in its original home, at a new setting in the Cathedral.

The Ghent Altarpiece moves to a new setting at St.Bavo’s Cathedral

Over the centuries, the Ghent Altarpiece has been moved from several locations both within and outside the Cathedral. The masterpiece has also been subject to numerous historic restorations, but the most recent work carried out by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) provided a much needed, sympathetic repair and restoration to the polyptych’s central image and lower register panels. These also formed part of the recently acclaimed “Van Eyck – An Optical Revolution” exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum Ghent (MSK) in 2020.

A bespoke glass case has been designed to house the polyptych and will re-create the optimum conditions for acclimatisation, necessary for the preservation of this masterpiece.

In the 1980s the masterpiece was moved for safety and conservation reasons from its original location, the Vijd Chapel in the ambulatory, to the Villa Chapel which was close to the Cathedral’s main entrance.

In 2005 audio guides were introduced. This often led to an overcrowded chapel, especially when groups entered, resulting in a visitor experience which was less enjoyable. To overcome this problem, the visitor experience needed to be re-thought. The main aim was to separate the interpretation of the Ghent Altarpiece from its presentation. The Cathedral crypt provided the perfect venue for the interpretation aspect, but it also required a contiguous path to then view the Ghent Altarpiece. As such, a return to the Villa Chapel wasn’t a viable option.

It turned out to be a difficult balancing act in harmonising the religious function of the Cathedral, as a place reserved for service, with the cultural-touristic function.

A new location had to be found. Consideration had to be made to ensure there was enough space to accommodate the new glass case with an unhindered view of its interior and exterior panels. With space constraints in the Vijd Chapel, the move to the Sacrament Chapel was chosen for its proximity to its original home in the ambulatory, but also because its tranquil setting is more conducive to an intimate encounter with the painting, with a bigger surface area.

For more background information on the climatological challenges of conserving the Ghent Altarpiece click HERE. Image credit VISITFLANDERS.

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Mark Bibby Jackson

Mark Bibby Jackson

Before setting up Travel Begins at 40, Mark was the publisher of AsiaLIFE Cambodia and a freelance travel writer. When he is not packing and unpacking his travelling bag, Mark writes novels, including To Cook A Spider and Peppered Justice. He loves walking, eating, tasting beer, isolation and arthouse movies, as well as talking to strangers on planes, buses and trains whenever possible. Most at home when not at home.

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