- Minute details of Ghent Altarpiece now available to view online in 100 billion pixels
- Project emerged from documentation process prior to conservation work
- Website shows under-drawings beneath surface of the painting
- Site -- a rich resource for scholars -- is open to all
With its remarkably realistic depictions and dramatic history, the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) is widely thought to be one of the most famous panel paintings in the world.
Stolen several times (most notoriously during World War II by the Nazis, who hid it in a salt mine), the altarpiece, currently housed in St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, depicts among other things a 'Mystic Lamb' bleeding into a chalice.
It has been admired and coveted for centuries. Now an ambitious digital documentation project is allowing scholars and art-lovers alike to pore over the minute details of Jan and Hubert van Eyck's multi-part painting in a specially-designed, open source website entitled 'Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece.'
Consisting of 12 panels (one of which is a copy, the original having been stolen in 1934) and depicting numerous complex theological scenes, the documentation project has rendered the already composite work into 100 billion pixels using the highest resolution photography.
A collaboration between the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Lukasweb, Belgium, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and funded with support from the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the venture to digitally document the work took 9 months, initially to assess it for conservation.
"And then it grew into 'These results are interesting, how can we share this information with the widest possible audience on a website?'" said Deborah Marrow, Director of the Getty Foundation.
The documentation process -- which made use of macrophotography in visible light, macrophotography in infrared light, infrared reflectography and X-radiography -- probed beneath the painted surface to reveal the under-drawings.
"One of the big open questions surrounding the polyptych is the involvement of Hubert van Eyck, the older brother of Jan van Eyck, in the production of the painting," said Ron Spronk, Professor of Art History at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, who led the project.