Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The magic JPEGs of the Ghent Altarpiece

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If you’ve listened to this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, you heard technical examination specialist Ron Spronk talk about the amazing new “Closer to van Eyck” website. Spronk is something of a rock star among technical art historians: He worked on the remarkable “Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings” exhibition at Harvard and on a major show of early Netherlandish diptychs at the National Gallery of Art. He’s currently working on Hieronymus Bosch.

Spronk discussed the following example on the show, and it’s such a remarkable example of how technology and a gee-whiz website can contribute to our knowledge of art history that I can’t resist sharing it here: The ‘Singing Angels’ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is one of the panels on the ‘top level’ of the altarpiece. In the JPEG above, it’s the second panel from the left. The red-clad angel on the left of the panel is wearing richly ornate vestments that feature a sparkling blue brooch. However, unless a viewer happens to have brought his stilts to Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral, he’ll never see that brooch: It’s about 11 or 12 feet off the ground.

Actually, there are two things about that brooch a viewer would never see, and thanks to “Closer to van Eyck” you can see them both here (click here for an image that will fill your entire screen):

On the left hand side of this JPEG is the under-painting of the jeweled brooch as seen via infrared macrophotography. (The IR camera effectively turns back time, showing the layers of paint or drawing underneath the visible layer.) As you can see, the surface is smooth or flat. It’s a jewel, but it’s not capturing or reflecting light — yet.

On the right in the JPEG above (and in even greater detail at right and here), you can see the finished brooch, almost certainly painted by Jan van Eyck. (Jan’s brother Hubert started the altarpiece, died while working on it, and it was finished by Jan.) That little white spot on the right is a reflection of the windows in the Joost Vijd chapel at Saint Bavo. The “Closer to van Eyck” website reveals that it was late in the painting’s creation when van Eyck added that detail, the reflection of the window. He painted it exactly as the window would have hit the panel, as if the broach were, well, real. Van Eyck probably — well, almost must have — added that detail after the painting was installed in the chapel.

Not only would you never see that much detail on the broach if you were to stand at the foot of the Ghent Altarpiece, but the infrared macrophotographic image may provide art historians with a key hint about how and perhaps when van Eyck added some of the most dramatic realist details to his paintings.

Related: This week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast is all about Jan van Eyck. Art historian Craig Harbison joins me to talk about the revision and expansion of his important “Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism,” and technical examination specialist Ron Spronk talks about, well, the stuff I’ve been showing you here. Download the program, subscribe via iTunes, subscribe via RSS and/or view images of art discussed on the show.

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  1. David Byron says:


  2. Fascinating. Do you know the measurements of the detail you have reproduced?

  3. Catherine Conroy says:

    That’s the coolest thing I’ve never seen!

  4. S Gilbert says:

    Interesting article. The word is brooch not broach. Brooch is a pin and a consider a piece of jewelry.

  5. Joanna Swan says:

    Jan van Eyck macrophotography beats pretty much any other high activity, ever.

  6. […] in on these glints in the Ghent can reveal further surprises. Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green reports on the discovery that one of the angels is sporting a brooch with a blue jewel, reflecting […]

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