Whither the Ghent Altarpiece?



Four designs by architecture students from the University of Ghent (UGent)

During the academic year 2011-2012, a group of students from the MSc course in architecture at the University of Ghent prepared a series of draft designs for possible new locations for the Ghent Altarpiece after the current restoration work is completed. A total of four designs were developed, in consultation with experts and the different parties involved, which were then presented as a contribution to the on-going debate concerning the future of this famous work.

There can be no doubt that there is something both engaging and unique about the fact that a centuries-old artwork of international importance, such as the Ghent Altarpiece, can still be seen in the church, for which it was originally intended. It is currently on display in the Villa Chapel of St. Bavo’s Cathedral. This choice of venue dates back to the 1980s and has a number of serious shortcomings. In the first place, it fails to meet modern climate requirements for the optimum conservation of paintings. While the present steel and glass vitrine does protect the work against vandalism, it is not airtight. Moreover, in the Villa Chapel, the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece are in an unventilated and unheated room, in which the daily stream of visitors gives rise to dangerous variations in temperature and humidity, which could cause the paint layers to blister.

A second problem is caused by poor visibility. The existing glass vitrine in the Villa Chapel is far too small, which makes it impossible to view the painting properly, either at a distance or close up. The interaction between the various panels requires the viewer to see the work as a whole (as an overview), while, at the same time, allowing him or her to examine the stunning detail work from close up. Furthermore, the work is now permanently displayed in half-open position, which not only deprives visitors of the experience of seeing the work completely open, but also makes the outer panels difficult to see.

At first sight, it would appear that both problems could be solved by moving the Ghent Altarpiece to a museum venue. In this way, a reception desk could be properly organized for visitors, in order to provide them with practical and content-related information. However, we still need to ask ourselves how much importance we need to place on the historical link between the Ghent Altarpiece and St. Bavo’s Cathedral, in general, and the Vijd chapel, in particular.
Due to its many additions, the Vijd chapel now looks completely different from its 15th century appearance and also presents similar practical problems to those encountered in the Villa Chapel. These four designs by students are an attempt to break the stalemate in the ‘museum vs Vijd chapel’ debate. Each proposal suggests a different location for the altarpiece and makes a bold statement, suggesting interesting ways of displaying the Ghent Altarpiece.

UGent - Department of Architecture and Urban Planning
These designs are the end result of a special assignment on architectural theory, which was completed in the first semester of the academic year 2011-2012, under the overall direction of Prof. Bart Verschaffel. Supervison: Prof. Bart Verschaffel and Maarten Liefooghe, assisted by Prof. Arnold Janssens and Lien De Backer. Collaboration: Prof. Maximiliaan Martens, Emeritus Prof. Anne Van Grevenstein, Canon Collin and Philippe Depotter, architect.
Exhibition curator: Maarten Liefooghe.