CD-Rom on the Van Eyck Altarpiece, Ghent


A Review by Kees Kaldenbach.

A CG re-creation lets viewers get up close and personal with a unique 15th-century masterpiece

In 1432, painter Jan van Eyck completed a towering work of art, titled The Adoration of the Lamb, in the then-new medium of oil paint. Approximately 570 years later, digital artists working in the contemporary medium of computer graphics re-created the set of paintings for a DVD titled De Visione Dei, which focuses on the creation of the original art, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. 

These 3D images, re-created by an academic group from Ghent University, are from a set of paintings on panel located inside the St. Bravo Cathedral in Belgium. Available on a DVD, the imagery offers an unobstructed view of the paintings and the environment.

The 21st-century art history production is the brainchild of Ghent University (Belgium) professor Marc de Mey, who created the project with architect/animator Wim de Boever. The concept was born from their academic research into the crossover within the arts, sciences, and religion. The team, working with a multi-disciplinary group, transformed the masterpiece from the early Renaissance period into virtual art using Discreet's 3ds max software.

In doing so, the group not only made the original work accessible to people throughout the world, but also provided an intimate view of the piece that is unattainable today because of its current exhibition arrangement inside the Vijd chapel at Ghent's grand St. Bravo Cathedral, where it is now displayed in a small space behind a protective casing.

The original work was created as an enormous set of paintings on panels, also known as a polyptych, by the two van Eyck brothers: Hubert, who started them, and Jan, who completed them. The masterpiece measures 11 feet 3 inches high by 14 feet 5 inches wide and includes a fixed central segment of four panels and a pair of wings, each of which contains four additional panels.

By manipulating the 3ds max model, viewers today are able to see the position of the panels as they were originally displayed, thereby allowing them to gaze at the entire work, including the Annunciation scene depicting the incarnation of the Virgin Mary, which cannot be seen from the display case because of the closed positioning of the original panels.

Generating the CG models was far from easy. Since 1986, the panels have been displayed at the main entrance of the cathedral in a bank vault-quality glass container under bright floodlights. While protective, the thick glass made it difficult to acquire accurate measurements necessary for digitally re-creating the paintings.

So for analysis purposes, de Mey's team was granted access to high-quality photographs of the artwork taken by the late Reverend Alfons Dierick before the protective glass was installed. These pictures show the paintings in their original location, in full view, and under natural lighting, enabling the digital artists to more closely replicate the original work for the DVD.

In addition to the digital models, the DVD contains animated architectural imagery, created by de Boever using Autodesk's AutoCAD software, for a dramatic opening to the DVD. These digital scenes incorporate a virtual camera flythrough of the finely detailed Gothic-style architecture of the cathedral before zooming in on the paintings.

The DVD, published by de Mey, is compatible with the PAL broadcast format. It is being distributed by Mercatorfonds Publishers in Belgium.

Kees Kaldenbach is an Amsterdam-based art historian whose work includes 3D presentations of the Delft master artist Johannes Vermeer and of Delft. He can be reached at






Computer Graphics World February, 2004

Authors :   Kees Kaldenbach


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