Reviewed June 2018
Stephanie B. Fletcher, E-Resources/Reference Librarian
Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago
Funded by the Getty Foundation and the Gieskes-Strijbis Fund, the website Closer to Van Eyck is the updated version of Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. The earlier website reports the results of a 2010 condition assessment of the Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s monumental polyptych completed in 1432 and housed in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Closer to Van Eyck picks up where the legacy website leaves off, documenting the ongoing and extensive restoration of the altarpiece, which is expected to be complete by 2020. Both sites include downloadable reports about the altarpiece’s conservation history, digital macrophotography of its interior and exterior paintings, and an image viewer. Videos of the restoration process, expanded essays on conservation techniques, an index of available images, and macrophotography of additional works by Jan van Eyck are welcome additions to the new version.
The stunningly detailed photographs on Closer to Van Eyck document the current restoration at a microscopic level. The user can access high-resolution macrophotography, infrared macrophotography, infrared reflectography, and x-radiography of the polyptych’s paintings. Photographs from before, during, and after the restoration are available for the exterior paintings; the interior paintings are still under restoration, so additional macrophotography will be added when the project is complete.
Clicking on an image opens up the image viewer, within which the user can select up to four images to view simultaneously and toggle between different types of photography. Users can save breadcrumbs of specific views, share image details on social media, email image links, and copy URLs. The ability to compare, save, and share high-resolution photographs of the various states of the altarpiece is extremely useful. The major drawback to the image viewer’s functionality is that users cannot download entire high-resolution images (they can only download thumbnail-sized, zoomed-in details). The website and its images can be used freely for research or educational purposes, providing they are cited.
Although the website’s primary focus is digital photographs, additional content, such as the description of conservation techniques and the section on other works by Jan van Eyck, adds valuable historical context to the Ghent Altarpiece restoration project. The website is easy to navigate, thanks to a table of contents on the left-hand side. The publishers also include instructional videos that demonstrate the website’s features and how to access them. However, the user must beware not to accidentally navigate into the legacy website, since there is no obvious way to return to the new version.
Closer to Van Eyck’s greatest strength is that it pairs macrophotography with detailed conservation documents about the Ghent Altarpiece. The new “Further Works” section, featuring photographs of twenty-six additional paintings, helps broaden the publication’s scope. However, the website remains primarily a digital image archive with complementary content about the current restoration project. It resembles other image-heavy digital publications like the Cranach Digital Archive, which also includes conservation information alongside high-resolution photographs, yet it lacks the detailed art historical descriptions and comparative examples found in traditional online catalogs like the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Digital Initiative collection or the National Gallery of Art’s NGA Online Editions. Nevertheless, Closer to Van Eyck’s image viewer functionality, which allows the user to simultaneously compare multiple images at varying stages of treatment, far exceeds any similar tools on these sites.
Closer to Van Eyck, boasting a relatively simple design and free, web-based access to high-resolution photographs, is especially useful for art historians teaching or researching the Van Eyck family and the Northern Renaissance; for students of art history at all levels; and for painting conservators interested in the massive restoration project. It is a valuable historical document that carefully traces the multiple stages of the Ghent Altarpiece’s complex restoration history while allowing users across the globe to visually explore the altarpiece in an entirely unique and comprehensive manner.