Hearing about the ongoing restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, I suddenly remembered I had seen it once before as a child, decades ago. Having become more knowledgeable about the unique history of the painting, I decided to go back and take a closer look at it. A new vision arose from this second visit.
During the major restoration of the altarpiece in 1950–51, newly developed techniques, such as x-ray, were applied to the panels. Another programme of restoration at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent was launched in October 2012, and is projected to continue five years. Only the panels being worked on are in the museum at any one time, while the others remain on display in the cathedral. At the museum the public can see the work in progress from behind a glass screen. If you visit the Museum on weekdays, you can actually see the restorers at work. During weekends there is no activity, but we were happy to notice the difference in brightness and depth between the parts from which many layers of varnish had already been removed, and the rest of the four outer panels present in the Museum. “And all of this after just a month’s work”, according to the news anchorman on Flemish public television. I was a little bit surprised though, when the clerk at the Museum’s entrance enquired whether one of us was over fifty-five. “I am”, I replied in truth, “my wife is not”, expecting to pay more than her. But for the very first time in my life, I actually paid less because I’m older, and I’ve got mixed feelings about that.
Strolling through the Museum, we also enjoyed looking at works from the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Baroque in the Netherlands, Realism, Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism, James Ensor, the first group of St-Martens-Latem, Expressionism, Abstract Art and Surrealism and Contemporary Art. Then we walked from the Citadel Park to the Saint Bavo Cathedral, where we were shown the way to the chapel containing the Altarpiece encased in a massive glass shrine.
As a child, I spent many school holidays with my grandparents. They lived close to Bruges, to the Belgian coastal resort of Knokke, and close to the Dutch border, across which they used to smuggle butter in the nineteen fifties. My maternal grandfather had become a school principal in a village called Maldegem, after having taught languages, literature and history to teenagers. I learned many things from him. While we were still kids, he took my sister and me to many exhibitions and taught us to appreciate painting. I remember one of the many visits to Ghent, and how grandpa took us to see the world-famous Ghent Altarpiece in the Saint Bavo Cathedral. I must have been twelve or so. The painting looked massive and menacing as seen from a height of merely a meter through childish eyes.
Not so now. We received an audio-guide and were led for forty minutes through one panel after another, with plenty of information about the history of the painting, the subjects, the figures, the style of painting and its' mysteries, technical qualities and so on. We took ample time to walk around the structure and to look at it from different angles and at different distances. Even before restoration, the panels look majestic. A Japanese couple was as impressed as we were, the man bowed in front of the huge painting before sitting down next to us.