We are back with the Ghent altarpiece this time because the Getty Museum has completed a photographic study of the work which will redefine the preservation and study of this great work of art.

The Ghent is a stunning and highly complex painting composed of 20 separate oak panels by Hubert and Jan van Eyck completed in 1432.

The six century old altarpiece recently underwent much needed emergency conservation within St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent Belgium. As part of this work, the altarpiece was removed from its glass enclosure and temporarily dismantled which made it possible to undertake comprehensive examination and documentation. Each centimeter of the magnificent altarpiece was scrutinized and professionally photographed at extremely high resolution in both regular and infrared light. The photographs were then digitally “stitched” together to create highly detailed images which allow for study of the painting at unprecedented microscopic levels.

The actual website, produced and funded by the Getty Foundation, contains the astounding number of 100 billion pixels. Then through another grant funded by the Getty these high definition digital images are now available on an interactive digital website.

Anyone can pull up and see the wonders of the altarpiece as depicted by scientific photography. For the first time in the altarpiece’s six centuries of history, viewers may peek under the paint surfaces of the work by means of infrared reflectography and x-radiography to study the van Eycks’ genius in unparalleled magnification. This astounding project is an invaluable archive for scholars, conservators, and art lovers worldwide.

The Ghent altarpiece has not had an easy life. It was taken apart and hidden twice in the 16th century to protect it from iconoclasts and Calvinists. Two centuries later it was hauled to Paris as a war trophy. In 1934 thieves stole two of the panels. During World War II the work was seized by the Nazis and kept hidden in a salt mine. The total number of thirteen major crimes over its 600 year existence includes seven separate thefts.

Only one panel, the Righteous Judges, is still missing and has been replaced by a copy to help define the work as a whole. It is the first major painting of the Renaissance and is considered to be the most influential painting ever made. It is fascinating to realize that with all its fame no single text has ever been found to explain the entire program of the work.

However the altarpiece stands on its own as a visual account of the redemptive mysteries of the Catholic faith beginning with the incarnation of Christ at the moment of the Annunciation on the exterior and depicting the miracle of Christ enthroned on the interior. People were already paying to see the work in the 15th century. It is the proverbial mother of all hinged paintings. Now even the work’s underpainting can be seen. This invaluable archive is now available to all.

The Getty Museum has been the source of much discussion and hoopla since it completed its huge building in Los Angeles. However to be painfully honest, its acquisitions have been difficult to obtain and not of the outstanding quality one would expect to view given the huge funding available to it. In this day and age it is simply extremely difficult to purchase any great works of art. That is not impossible but the work of the foundation has made a truly outstanding contribution to preservation and conservation.

The Getty takes the world of art, research, conservation and philanthropy to the highest level. The Getty Foundation has funded this project because it is vital to preserve and provide the means for the dissemination of the knowledge of the past of the work. The interactive website gives access to the altarpiece itself.

It is now possible to zoom in to the intricate and breathtaking details of this altarpiece, one of the most important works of art in the world. Try it–you will like it!


  • Thank you Beth, your versatile choice of topic for your blog is amazing as are these oil on wood panels. The color and the subject matter are everything you mentioned. Yes, breathtaking!

  • Theresa Hupp says:

    I was fortunate enough to be at the Getty Museum last Wednesday. A well-done museum in a beautiful setting — I had a fabulous day.

    I agree with Pinky’s assessment of the Getty — the works are not the best pieces of the artists represented, though they are good. It’s just hard to acquire outstanding works of art from the periods represented in the museum, no matter how much money the museum has. But the Getty was well worth the five hours I spent there in galleries and gardens, and I hope to visit again sometime in the future.

    • Beth says:

      How great that you got to go to the Getty Museum and spend five hours. I hope to do that someday and see the Ghent Altarpiece but in the meantime, I must rely on you and Pinky to keep me up to date.

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