To save a masterpiece: the Ghent Altarpiece
Huddled in a windowless room in the St. Bavo Catheral in Ghent, Belgium, half a world away from his office at Queen’s, Dr. Ron Spronk is a man on a mission. The professor, former Head of the Department of Art, is the lone Canadian working with a 13-member team of international experts who are preparing to restore one of the world’s greatest art masterpieces. “The Ghent Altarpiece, sometimes called the Adoration of the Lamb, is the Netherlandish equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling,” says Spronk, who is also the Hieronymus Bosch Chair at Raboud University in Nijegen, The Netherlands.
Spronk and Prof. Anne van Grevenstein-Kruse from the University of Amsterdam, are heading up the international team that is busy assessing the work’s physical condition in preparation for a potential restoration project. The team is also making recommendations for the altarpiece’s future display. This preliminary study, funded with a $230,000 (U.S.) grant from the Getty Foundation, is astonishing in its breadth, scope, and detail and has been attracting international attention. News of the project has been reported in such high-profile publications as The New Yorker, the Times of London, and The New York Times.
Six decades since its last restoration, the Ghent Altarpiece is showing its age. “Restoration of old masterpieces is not without controversy. Besides the ethics of art conservation, there’s the chemistry and physics involved, the craftsmanship of the restorers, and cultural differences in how restoration is done, all which must be considered,” says Spronk. “The full restoration process will take as long as six to seven years and is expected to cost about 2 million dollars. The preliminary assessment will help address some of the issues ahead.”
Even the preliminary assessment is a massive project. Spronk has been charged with the coordination of the technical documentation of the alterpiece, which includes tens of thousands of photographs. Assessing the physical condition of the paintings requires X-rays, infrared reflectography (used to capture the under-drawings), infrared photography, digital macro photography and dendochronology (which is used for dating).
Back in Kingston after a flying visit to Belgium, Spronk shows off some of the detailed photographs of the art, all of which he hopes to upload shortly to a website, to be made publicly available without copyright. On his laptop, he has photographs of such high resolution that single brushstrokes in the paintings are clearly visible. The staggering beauty of this 15th century masterpiece, combined with the technological marvels of high resolution photography and the portability of a laptop, which enables us to see microscopic details in photographs of a work of art, is an astounding testimony to the genius of mankind.
Spronk’s delight in the project is palpable. “It’s a daunting responsibility, but it’s also an enormous privilege to be working on such a unique part of our cultural heritage,” he says.
His future plans include undertaking a major research project on another Early Netherlandish painter: Hieronymous Bosch. This large international project will make excellent use of the OSIRIS infrared camera that was a generous gift to Queen’s from Drs. Isabel and Alfred Bader.