The restorations of $2.44 million also provided “a shock for everybody,” says the expert who headed the project.
A recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece completed by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Belgium, in a discovery that may change art history books, has revealed original details in the masterpiece of the Van Eyck brothers, long concealed since the 16th century.
Jan and Hubert Van Eyck completed the altarpiece itself in 1432 and is a canonical piece of art history whose iconography has challenged researchers for a long time.
The three-year conservation initiative adds more wrinkles to the ongoing conversation of the work, including a surprisingly human-like face on Christ’s sacrificial lamb, and buildings that represent medieval Ghent’s architecture.

Image Courtesy Sint-Baafskathedraal Gent
The project, which cost € 2.2 million ($2.44 million) to complete, allowed experts to use microscopes and a surgical scalpel to chip away, centimeter by centimeter, at an overpainting job in the 16th century.
Eventually, this painstaking process demonstrated that for centuries about 70% of the original outer panels of the altarpiece had been hidden under brown varnish.
The fact came as “a shock for everybody – for us, for the church, for all the scholars, for the international committee that followed this project,” told The Art Newspaper Hélène Dubois, head of the restoration.
The adoration of the Mystic Lamb on one of the five lower interior panels featured a particularly notable revelation with the face of the sacrificial lamb being much more human-like and engaging than previously recognized.
Describing the lamb as “cartoonish,” Dubois stated that art historians will now need to determine why the pair of artist brothers chose to portray the animal in such a way.
In fact, the restoration work on depictions of buildings in the altarpiece reveals that the Cathedral Tower in Utrecht, which can be seen on the horizon, is part of the original composition of Van Eycks, dispelling what the Institute calls a “stubborn myth” that it was an addition to the 16th century.
The restored panels will now be on display to the public at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent through mid-January 2020, after which they will be shown in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in the city.
In a statement, said First Deputy Kurt Moens of the East Flanders Province. “Thanks to this restoration, you can once again enjoy the full color richness that was established 500 years ago by Jan Van Eyck.”
Standing face to face with the Mystic Lamb is a particularly intense encounter, something that every Fleming should experience at least once in his life,” he added.


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