GHENT, Belgium (Reuters) – A 15th century Flemish masterpiece emerges from a decade of restoration this week in a new exhibition space in Belgium’s Ghent cathedral, with updated technology to plunge visitors into an intricate work with a troubled past.
Completed in 1432 by brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck, the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” is an altarpiece of 12 detailed panels that is widely considered one of the most important pieces of early Renaissance art.
Over the centuries, various parts of it were painted over, seized, hidden by the Nazis and later stolen again and it now has a reinforced fire-proof glass housing as part of a 30 million euro ($35.4 million) revamp for visitors.
The city of Ghent planned to host Van Eyck year in 2020, with all parts of the altarpiece returned to St Bavo’s Cathedral after restoration, but the pandemic pushed that into 2021.
Previously crammed into a small chapel near the cathedral entrance, visitors used to listen to an audio guide while viewing the work.
“It was decided we couldn’t go on with a visitor experience like that because it didn’t match the virtuosity of the Van Eyck brothers. There were often complaints about the display case, the lighting etc,” said visitor centre project leader Ben De Vriendt.
Now visitors will pass through the crypt, with virtual reality glasses and tablets revealing the panels’ colourful 600-year history, before reaching a single larger chapel to view the altarpiece inside an acclimatised glass case.
The panels were partially painted over in a 1550 restoration, survived the destruction of religious images which swept through the Low Countries in 1566 and most double-sided ones were split in the 19th century to separate the paintings.
They were taken by invading French and German forces in different wars, ending up in an Austrian salt mine at the end of World War Two.
Two panels were stolen in 1934 and only one recovered. The one entitled “Just Judges” is a 1945 copy.
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