To Restore or Not to Restore: On Van Eyck

An Interview with Till-Holger Borchert

/ by Noah Charney

Renowned art historian and director of the museums of Bruges, Till-Holger Borchert, will shortly release a long-anticipated new monograph of Jan van Eyck. But its release was necessarily delayed, since a five-year restoration of van Eyck’s masterpiece, The Ghent Altarpiece (also called Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or Het Lam Gods in Flemish) was completed in the fall, and revealed some major discoveries that prompted a reexamination of what is arguably the single most-influential painting ever made. Noah Charney, author of the best-selling trade history book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb, spoke with Borchert about the restoration, his new book, and the traditional Bruges vs Ghent rivalry.


Noah Charney: The recent restoration of Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Het Lam Gods) is only partial—the restorers ran out of time and funding. But what they found was amazing and requires a reconsideration of every art historian’s work on the painting. What about their discoveries surprised you most? 

Till-Holger Borchert: Yes, indeed. The conservation treatment took considerably longer than anticipated and consequently it cost more money. However, the reason that the conservation treatment on the interior is now on the fast track is, in the first place, linked to the desire of the cathedral of St Bavo (owners of the altarpiece) to participate in a touristic event in 2020 that tries to promote the destination city of Ghent as the “Van Eyck” city. As director of the Bruges’ museums I have to say “nonsense,” of course! : )


But seriously: They want to have the Ghent Altarpiece restored completely and reinstalled in 2020, which is in three years. As a consequence of this decision (a political decision in the first place), the conservation treatment of the interior cannot possibly be as thorough as the treatment of the exterior (recently completed) which is a pity, if you put it mildly, or scandalous, if you put it somewhat less mildly. The argument of the explosion of costs is less fundamental in the course of things, but the Institute Royal du Patrimoine Artistique – the institute that carries out the conservation on behalf of the cathedral – is now forced to stick to their original plans and estimates that were made before many new facts had become known.


Essentially what happened during the conservation process was the shocking discovery that the exterior (and especially the figures of the donors) had been extensively overpainted. Once the decision was taken by the conservators and the advisory board (a unanimous decision) to remove the overpaint, it became clear that, below, the original surface had survived. We art historians could have seen it before, if we would have allowed ourselves to look without prejudice, as the surface of the red garments are now much closer to Van der Paele (another major painting by Van Eyck) than before.


The essential question to date these overpaints remains unanswered: At least one part of the changes appeared before Michel Coxcie copied the altarpiece in the 16th century, and may be related to the cleaning of the altarpiece that Van Vaernewyck reports was undertaken by pre-modern painters Lancelot Blondeel and Jan van Scorel. But the large overpaints are – in my humble mind – perhaps more likely late 17th or early 18th century. 


The conservation has restituted an original Van Eyck below the change of time, and it is surprising, moving or shocking (you choose) to see it. Also – as a side-effect – the overpaint itself (now removed) gives us an insight into how later generation looked at and interpreted their visual impression of Van Eyck, much in the same way that a copy like our own Maelbeke-Madonna (a copy dating from around 1600 after Van Eyck’s lost Yeper Madonna) helps us to understand how previous generations looked at his painting. 


Can you reveal a “sneak preview” of some aspect of your analysis that will come out in your book, which is based on the new discoveries? You will be the first art historian to publish a book including the new discoveries, and so this is very exciting for your colleagues, like me, eager to read your thoughts on it.

I wish I could. Fact is that the book was finished in 2008, and it is an extended version of the small Taschen book I had published then on the painter. It includes – and I believe that’s still pretty valid – an extensive discussion of the workshop and followers of Van Eyck, plus a scholarly catalogue raisonée. The financial crisis in 2007/08 postponed the publication. I revised the book and updated it in 2012, and may have to do it once more, when it actually will be printed.


Are you of the opinion that the restoration project should press on, with more funding, even though this would require the altarpiece to be incomplete for many years to come (which would also interfere with a planned expansion of the cathedral exhibition center)? I can understand the arguments of both sides—on the one hand, there are certainly new secrets to be discovered through extending the restoration, on the other, it is hard to have the altarpiece in pieces for five or more further years.

Unfortunately, I have been too closely involved in the project to realize that, if the conservation treatment will be halted, it will be halted for another couple of decades. It is heartbreaking to think that the model-standards that have been accomplished now by the conservation team, and their specific knowledge, will be lost. If it stops now, they will move away and whenever one wants to go on, it has to start all over again. And honestly, I think that 3 years extra would have been more than sufficient to finish the conservation of the interior in a similarly thorough fashion as the exterior. In addition, I and others have pressed very hard to ensure that pieces of the altarpiece will remain visible. So next to the exterior, either the upper or the lower segments would have remained on view. 


Hubert van Eyck was Jan’s older brother, was an active painter, and was likely the person first contracted to paint The Ghent Altarpiece, with Jan completing it when Hubert died. But Hubert is one of art history’s great mysteries. Are there any extant paintings or drawings that you feel can be attributed to Hubert van Eyck?

That remains a problem, but no. I have argued (not exclusively in my not-forthcoming book) that medieval workshops are organized as collective enterprises, where the individual artist’s style is emulated perfectly by collaborators. As most likely Jan and Hubert worked together at some point, their style must have been essentially the same. Both artists had workshops, the members of both of which collaborated on The Ghent Altarpiece. I also strongly object to the early dating of the Turin-Milan hours: It’s all Van Eyck, workshop and followers. 


Would you guess whether any visible surface paint in Het Lam Gods might be by Hubert?

For the moment, no. But the conservation treatment of the interior will probably give us new insight. I am particularly interested to see what conclusions can be taken from the lower register, that arguably looks least like other works by Jan Van Eyck (i.e. his Marian paintings). 


Any idea whether some of Jan’s innovations as a painter might have been inherited from Hubert?

Jan van Eyck stands in a long tradition of pictorial innovations. There are clear links to the Parisian art of the late 14th century, as well as links to the Mosan region. Hubert may have been an intermediary link, but not necessarily so, since Jan Maelwel and the Limbourgs were originally active not that far from the birthplace of the Van Eycks. I would love to organize an exhibition once that would focus on the pictorial innovations in the period from Giotto to Van Eyck.


Are there any works originally attributed to Jan that, in your opinion, should be newly reattributed to his studio, finished shortly after his death?

Many, actually. This is why I personally think that my catalogue raisonnée in the unpublished book would be important. Not because I am 100 % sure, but because it would be necessary to stir up the discussion. 

I have grouped a few works of collaborators and followers, like the Master of the Berlin Crucifixion, the Master of the Detroit Saint Jerome, the Master of the Philadelphia Saint Francis. I am pretty convinced that the Rotterdam panel is by another hand, and one that doesn’t quite understand atmospheric perspective yet (and is similar in this to the master who painted the Finding of the Cross miniature in the Turin-Milan hours). 

The introduction of the “Rotterdam crucifixion” drawing draws attention to the role of manuscript illuminators in protecting the artistic heritage of Van Eyck into the 16th century.


What are your thoughts on the recent theory that Het Lam Gods was completed perhaps years after 1432, and is therefore unrelated to the current theory that it was a backdrop for the baptism of Duke Philip’s son? Dendrochronology seems to refute this new dating theory, but proponents of it argue that dendrochronology is not always accurate…

The dendrochronological report doesn’t really contradict this theory by Hugo van der Velden, as it only established termini ante quem, it is impossible to disprove this idea on the basis of the dating of the wood. More important is the fact that Van der Velden’s reading of the Quatrain has been proven wrong by a German Philologist, and therefore one of his main arguments for his theory (the arguments of which he hasn’t revealed in full, since he first formulated them in 2002) collapses. In my view, establishing the fact that the altarpiece was done in 1432 or three years later is a minor detail, compared to more fundamental questions on what artistic matrix had the painter and the patron in mind, when they completed the altarpiece? Griet Steyaert’s article in the Burlington Magazine is also problematic – although many colleagues were very convinced – as the idea of monumental sculpture hasn’t really found any following – much in contrast to the wide reception of the altarpiece as such. The other argument – that of the charter drawn in 1435 – is also unconvincing, as it was practice to establish foundations in more than one step. Both the Van der Paele and Rolin paintings by Van Eyck make foundation and commissioned altarpieces, but then enlarge the foundations and have more masses read. This seems to be the case in Ghent as well, and I assume the document actually is drawn up to summarize earlier agreements. 


What are your thoughts, more generally, on art history as a subject having nearly been cancelled as an A-level in the UK, and just recently saved?

I have no opinion on that matter, as I am a native of Germany and art history wasn’t part of our curriculum. It should be, though, as in increasingly multi-cultural societies, art history is one way to teach cultural understanding and create a canon of (artistic) values that actually remains based on society. 


What are your thoughts on how connoisseurship has become almost a naughty word, dismissed as a parlor trick?

That’s a tough one, especially in the light of the recent discussions of fake Frans Hals, Cranach, Gentileschi etc. Nobody makes a good figure here, since attributions by art historians (published ones) turn out to be contradicted by scientific findings, but the findings are not disclosed, nor does anybody speak up. These falsifications – if they are indeed falsifications – make the world of connoisseurs, museum curators, art historians, dealers, auction houses look bad, and I feel very badly about the fact that there has been no public declaration of some sort – for example, in the Burlington Magazine that published the Hals as authentic and a major discovery. They comment on their editorial pages on pretty much everything, and it would have been important, I believe, to show that there is no knowledge without errors. 


This said: Scientists make mistakes too, and I am not sure how high I am, to vet Mr. Jamie Martin’s expertise (the guy who runs Orion that did the tests on the Hals and sold his firm to Sotheby’s). I had a drawing tested once with the aural result “all clear,” yet it turned out that it contained titanium in the drawing material, and therefore had to be wrong. The expert (a scientist) didn’t know the history of pigments. And I assumed he did. My mistake, also his. Lesson learned. I take connoisseurship very seriously, but ultimately art history may have goals beyond.


I’m finishing a book on lost art (for Phaidon). I wonder if there is any one work of art that has been lost through history that you would be most excited to find?

In my case, that would be the Lomellini Triptych by Jan van Eyck (once in the possession of Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Naples).


Thank you very much, Dr Borchert, I really appreciate your words and time.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.