Written on 29/01/2024 by
Since 2021, the Ghent Altarpiece has been displayed at a new location in the cathedral. This is the third time the painting has been given a new spot. We were pretty nervous about this relocation, but after centuries, the work can once again be seen in its original splendour.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world...

Shall I begin with a confession? The first time I saw the Ghent Altarpiece in real life was in 2017, when I stepped into the renovation and restoration project. I’m not particularly proud of having to admit it, since I was born and bred in Ghent, I studied art history and, of course, I had read a great deal about the Ghent Altarpiece. But I had never actually seen it.

The Ghent Altarpiece in its new exhibition space: the Sacrament chapel

So the first time was in the restoration studio. There I was, seeing the panels with my own eyes, without any barrier between me and the painting. “Come a little closer,” the restorers told me. But I was afraid to come too close. At such a moment, you immediately feel your nose itching and think: don’t sneeze, don’t sneeze ... 

Flemish masterpiece in the bunker

In my defence: the Ghent Altarpiece used to be displayed in a space that was not very welcoming. Since 1986, it had been kept in the Villa chapel, on your left side when entering the cathedral. In the 1980s, Belgium was terrorised by the Brabant killers and the Communist Combatant Cells; everyone was afraid of bombings. That’s why they built a kind of bunker inside the chapel. But the space was much too small for all those visitors. You could hardly see the rear panels, and not at all if you were in a wheelchair. 

The daylight within the cathedral determined how Jan Van Eyck painted

In fact, Jan Van Eyck had originally painted the altarpiece for the Vijd chapel, at the front right of the cathedral, the private chapel of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut. Just take a look at the large figures on the rear panels: light falls on them from the right-hand top corner. This perfectly matches the space as it was back then. In the 15th century, the altarpiece was closed for most of the time. So people usually only saw the subdued colours of the outer panels. The altarpiece was only opened on feast days. Imagine the impact of all those colours, back in the day … 

Is the Ghent Altarpiece now displayed in the best possible conditions? Take a look for yourself, and take your time. I have certainly more than made up for the lost time.
Maaike Blancke (Bressers Architecten)

In the garden or underground?

So the question arose: where should to the painting be displayed? Moving it back to the Vijd chapel was not an option, as this space is too small. And it was impossible to place a glass case in the chapel to control the temperature and humidity, a necessity for the conservation of an artwork of nearly 600 years old.

We even had to do alterations level-headedly between the Romanesque frescoes in the crypt

Moving the work to a museum would have been the easiest option, but we did not want to take it out of context. It belongs in the cathedral. In other places, masterpieces have been removed from the site for which they were intended, and we really wanted to avoid that in Ghent. It’s the only option that has never been considered by us. Should the new structure be built in the garden of the episcopal palace? Or underground? We came up with all sorts of wild ideas. 

The new exhibition space

Eventually, we chose the Sacrament chapel, at the back of the cathedral in the chancel. It is the largest of all side chapels and the sunlight entering from the south is comparable to that in the Vijd chapel. Actually, it is mainly about the idea, because the painting may no longer be exposed to direct sunlight. To limit the number of ‘sunlight hours’, we even installed a light-blocking curtain around the glass case.

Thanks to the new structure, the Ghent Altarpiece did not have to leave its ‘home’

In any case, the location and context just felt right. The Flemish masterpieces council, the fire brigade, the Flanders Tourism agency, accessibility firm Inter: they all had their opinion. But in the end, it was up to the parochial church council to make the decision: the building’s religious function may not be forgotten. And putting it all the way at the front of the cathedral felt right.

Safe and sound

The glass of the display case is state-of-the-art. It is heated to avoid even the slightest temperature fluctuation and, of course, it is extremely strong. As far as we’re concerned, one stolen panel is quite enough. Now that I’ve touched upon the ‘Just Judges’ panel: you can really see the effect of the restoration on the painting. 

The central panel for partially sighted persons — in the past, it was hardly visible for anyone

When Jef Van der Veken painted a copy to replace the stolen panel in 1939, his use of colours was influenced by the condition the painting was in at the time. Nowadays, the yellowed varnish has been removed from the other panels, so that the sky is once again bright blue. As a result, the colours no longer match. That’s why we have shone a blue spotlight on the ‘Just Judges’ panel, so it matches the rest of the painting better. 

Is the Ghent Altarpiece now displayed in the best possible conditions? Take a look for yourself, and take your time. I have certainly more than made up for the lost time.