Van Eyck’s Original Lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece Uncovered by Restorers

After intensive research the restoration team of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels) has removed the old overpaint that masked the main figure of the Ghent Altarpiece for nearly five centuries. As such, the well-known Lamb – an impassive and rather neutral figure, with a wide forehead and large earls – has given way to the Van Eycks’ original. With its intense gaze the Van Eycks’ medieval Lamb, characterized by a graphically defined snout and large, frontal eyes, draws the onlooker into the ultimate sacrifice scene.

Detail of the Lamb before treatment (left) and after overpaint removal (right).

Detail of the Lamb before treatment (left) and after overpaint removal (right).
Sint-Baafskathedraal Gent © Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw, foto KIK-IRPA

The Lamb was overpainted in the middle of the sixteenth century. This was part of a larger intervention carried out to cover up some small damages and early, clumsy restorations and to refurbish the master piece. During a restoration in 1951, the removal of green overpaint around the head exposed the original, smaller ears, and since then the Lamb appeared to have four ears.

The multidisciplinary research of the KIK-IRPA, carried out in collaboration with scientists of the universities of Ghent and of Antwerp, revealed that around 45% of the paint surface of the central panel with the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was overpainted in the sixteenth century. Apart from the Lamb, this mostly concerns the sky, buildings and hills in the background, the draperies and the altar cloth. Only 3% of the underlying, original paint layer by the Van Eycks has been lost, so all overpaint can be removed.

The restoration is carried out in a studio with a glass wall at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), allowing visitors to view the treatment in progress. The current phase of the campaign – the treatment of the panel The adoration of the Mystic Lamb and its side panels – will be completed for the Van Eyck year 2020.