While in Florence, we were so busy working at the Villa that it left us little time to explore. I managed to visit the Duomo and squeeze in a day trip to Siena, but much of our time was spent at the Villa, trying to ensure that we got as much done as was humanly possible.
The same cannot be said for the week after our time at the Villa ended. Back in fall 2013, I took a seminar with Professor Colin Eisler on Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece – a stunning medieval work that is currently undergoing a very public conservation effort at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts. My research for the class unsurprisingly dealt with the books depicted in the altar; my classmates variously studied the nudes, the skies, the metalwork, and so on. It was a fascinating class, with all of our papers drawing from each other’s works.
Having spent so much time poring over the altarpiece, Dr. Eisler felt that we all deserved to go see it, and thanks to his miracle-working abilities and the generosity of one of the IFA’s wonderful donors, I was able to do just that.
In short, I spent the week after my work at the Villa gallivanting around Belgium and (mostly) taking pictures of books in paintings.
It was an overwhelming week. I started off in Brussels, where I wandered around Grand Place, visited the Royal Museums of the Fine Arts and the Magritte Museum, and watched the city celebrate its win over Russia in the FIFA World Cup.
While in Brussels, I took a day trip to Bruges, where I saw Michelangelo’s Mother and Child at the Church of Our Lady and van Eyck’s van der Paele Madonna at the Groeningemuseum. I was struck, as I usually am, by the incredible wealth of texture on medieval paintings. The gilding and tooling gives a sense of depth that is really lost in pictures, and you only ever see it when you’re face to face with the work. It’s breathtaking.
I also took a day trip to the beach! On Mondays, almost all the museums are closed. Since museums were what I was primarily interested in, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I ended up going to De Panne, about an hour by train from Brussels. It was a little chilly, but that’s a small price to pay for one’s first view of the North Sea!
From Brussels, I went to Antwerp, which is rather… Rubenesque, in that almost every museum has a Rubens work in it. My main interest, of course, was in the Plantin Moretus Museum, which among other things boasts the world’s oldest printing presses.
Finally, I went to Ghent. It felt a bit like a pilgrimage, going to see the altarpiece which started the whole journey. The bulk of the altarpiece is housed in St. Bavo’s Cathedral – its original site. However, some panels are at the Museum of Fine Arts, where they are being conserved by a team of paintings and wood conservators. I was fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Martens, professor at the University of Ghent and a member of the conservation team. I will always be grateful to him for taking time out of his busy day for meeting with a mere student! We spoke about the recent discoveries regarding the overpaint on the panels, and the decision to remove it. As he pointed out, even with the removal of the layers of discolored varnish, there has been a tremendous change in the appearance of the altarpiece. Details have begun to appear that we couldn’t even have guessed at. It will be exciting to see what more is revealed as the cleaning of the panels continues.