People from Ghent University and Van Eyck: art sciences and social history

(26-01-2020) In Ghent, it’s all about Van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece in 2020. One of the highlights is undoubtedly the return of the restored painting to St. Bavo’s cathedral. Years of research preceded the amazing renovation.

Moreover, many people from Ghent University have contributed with new insights relating to the Ghent Altarpiece. Over four weeks we will offer a glimpse into these insights via four areas of expertise. Today: art sciences and social history. Maximiliaan Martens (department of Art, Music and Theatre sciences and associate of the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval studies) and Jan Dumolyn (History department and associate of the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval studies) tell us about new research questions relating to Van Eyck in art sciences and social history.

What is the link between your area of expertise and research into the Ghent Altarpiece?

Maximiliaan Martens: “My focus lies on Flemish art between the 14th and 16th centuries. Almost all of my publications are connected with Van Eyck. My speciality is bridging the gap between exact science and art history. This was also my role as the coordinator of Ghent University’s interdisciplinary research group during the pre-restauration and restauration phases of the Ghent Altarpiece, and as co-curator of the MSK exhibition ‘Van Eyck. An optical illusion’.”

Jan Dumolyn: “The link with Medieval history, as my discipline, is also clear. We have been working for years already to investigate Van Eyck as a person, and to find out more about his social network and the social and geographical context in which he lived. In the past, studies tended to focus on the painter and perhaps also those who commissioned the work. However, using our methodology, the so-called social network analysis, we are expanding our horizons. This leads to many new, unexpected and surprising insights.

What insights were gained as a result of your research?

Maximiliaan Martens: “Many new insights have been gained in the field of art history. Since the discovery of the famous quatrain on the frame in 1823, there has been much discussion about what was painted by which of the brothers. Indeed, this poem stated that Hubert van Eyck began the work and that Jan completed it. With our research, we hoped to delve deeper into this mystery, however, what we discovered most of all is more about why we don’t know the answers (laughs). The main reasons? The many layers of painting on top – almost half of the work - and the fact that more painters were involved in producing the work than previously realised. 

We are now sure that the inscriptions on the frames are authentic. In the past, this was a topic of discussion, and there was even doubt about whether Hubert ever existed. The fact we now know that the inscription is genuine means that we look at Hubert’s section in a completely different light. For example, the theory that suggests that Hubert was the person behind the concept. This is a possibility, because we know from the archives that there was a meeting in his atelier in 1425 to look at the designs. Based on the fact that Hubert supposedly died as early as 1426 he cannot have painted much of the Ghent Altarpiece himself. This just goes to show: by making one discovery – confirming the authenticity of the inscription – many theories could be rejected and new ones were devised.

The Ghent Altarpiece has always been the odd man out in Van Eyck’s work. Its restauration has allowed us to discover that things that were considered ‘strange’ were in fact overpainting. Since its restauration we can see that the work does actually match well with Jan van Eyck’s style.

The collaboration also led to plenty of interesting knowledge and insights about how AI can be used in art history, for example, in image recognition (editor’s note: find out more in next week’s newsletter with professor Aleksandra Pizurica).
Jan Dumolyn: “Thanks to archival research we have found out in which street Van Eyck lived in Bruges. This was in the centre of the city’s commercial district, which was buzzing with culture and international trade. This information eliminates the theory that Jan van Eyck worked in isolation, as a bizarre genius with no contact with fellow artists. We have added this discovery and others in a map showing all the places in Europe that were visited by Van Eyck. The map – created by the cartographer Hans Blomme – is on display at the exhibition in the MSK.

Something else we deduced by analysing financial documents from the archives is the fact that Van Eyck’s wife, Margareta van Eyck, died before 1450. He himself died in 1441. We made this discovery while looking for something else, but this shows you that (historic) research involves a fair amount of serendipity (laughs). The discovery that she must have died before 1450 eliminates the theory that she continued to run Jan’s atelier after his death. We must now conclude that his atelier had already closed in 1450.”

Who from Ghent University was involved in this research?

Maximiliaan Martens: “These many insights were acquired thanks to an interdisciplinary approach, the many observations made by those involved in the restauration, and the use of all kinds of technology. Even before the restauration, colleague Arnold Janssens investigated the indoor climate of the Villakapel and St. Bavo’s cathedral. Thanks to the 3-D microscope belonging to colleague Peter Vandenabeele and chemical imaging by colleagues at the University of Antwerp, we know what percentage of the Ghent Altarpiece was painted over and the condition of the original layers of painting underneath. In carrying out research into the Ghent Altarpiece, Peter Vandenabeele was able to improve his techniques in pigment analysis. Aleksandra Pizurica and her team are always considering how to improve restauration methods with technologies like machine learning (AI).”

Jan Dumolyn:  “As well as collaborating with Maximiliaan Martens for archival research, I also worked closely with professor Frederik Buylaert from my department and with doctoral students Mathijs Speecke and Ward Leloup. The material culture illustrated by Jan van Eyck has been examined more closely by professor Wim de Clercq and postdoctoral researcher Maxime Poulain from the Archaeology department.” 

A glimpse of God

The exhibitionVan Eyck. An optical revolution in the MSK (1 February - 30 April) is well worth a visit. Maximiliaan Martens: “This is the first time it’s been possible to get such a close look at the treasures in his work. By looking, you can discover how Van Eyck and his contemporaries viewed the world and which metaphysical meanings were concealed in these observations.” Jan Dumolyn: “Ghent University’s contribution to the content in this exhibition should not be underestimated. Maximiliaan Martens and I wrote and corrected the copy in the galleries. We were also responsible for editing the catalogue, as well as writing a few of our own chapters.” If you can’t get enough of Jan Van Eyck, pay a visit to the exhibition ‘Van Eyck in Bruges’, as from 12 March in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, where Jan Dumolyn was once curator.

As from the first week of February, Maximiliaan Martens and Jan Dumolyn go into more detail on their research into Van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece in Ghent University’s podcast series, Geheugenissen (Memories). In the episode ‘Het genie Van Eyck: de code gekraakt’ they crack the code of the genius Van Eyck, you can discover who his friends and neighbours were and they go in search of traces of his mysterious brother Hubert. Highly recommended!

Next week: People at Ghent University and Van Eyck: engineering

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