The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) is a pioneer in scientific imaging for the research and conservation of Belgium's art heritage. With years of experience and top-quality instruments, we are dedicated to the technical and art historical study of paintings and to photographing works of art and archaeological objects. Through radiography or infrared reflectography, we bring the secrets of each object to light.
A holistic approach to paintings
The strength of our research lies in the combination of technical, analytical and art historical expertise. In consultation with the owner of the work, we determine the goal of the study. There may be questions on a painting’s technique, materials and creative process. In many cases, we investigate the attribution or authenticity. In other cases, we investigate the attribution or the authenticity.
We start with a thorough examination of the painting. This can be done in our facilities or on location, even abroad. For some projects, detailed technical research is sufficient; others require an interdisciplinary approach. This is organised together with our colleagues from the laboratories of the Centre for the Study of the Flemish Primitives and the Art Historical Research and Inventory Unit. For specific questions, we can rely on our extensive network of experts.
The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) has a range of techniques available for this type of research:
- photography (in high resolution)
- infrared reflectography
- Raman spectroscopy
- analysis of cross-sections
- carbon dating
The results are presented in illustrated research reports.
Using professional photographic equipment in our studios or on location, we photograph and document:
- works of art, such as paintings, sculptures, glassware, tapestries, textiles, furniture, stained-glass windows, etc.
- historic buildings and archaeological sites
- major cultural events, such as the Carnival of Binche
- public and private art collections
- archaeological discoveries.
High resolution reveals spectacular details
In recent years, we have specialised in photographing paintings in high resolution (HR).
We take macro photographs of the work of art, which are digitally stitched. We can photograph in four modes: normal light, ray light, near-infrared light and ultraviolet light. In the highest resolution, the images approach those of a stereo microscope. Macro photography contributes to our knowledge of an artwork, but also provides useful information for restoration:
- Details of the brushwork become visible.
- We can assess the material condition of a painting down to the smallest crack and locate later retouching.
- Individual pigment particles become visible, giving an idea of the painter's palette.
- The infrared mode allows the physical characteristics of the underdrawing to be studied. Infrared macro photography thus complements infrared reflectography, a technique that penetrates further into the infrared.
We improved our techniques through Closer to Van Eyck and VERONA. For these projects, we documentated all of Jan van Eyck's paintings in Belgium and abroad, starting with the Ghent Altarpiece. This produced spectacular results, revealing details invisible to the naked eye.
Infrared reflectography with a state-of-the-art camera
Paintings on canvas, wood or copper can also be studied using infrared reflectography.
Sophie De Potter: "We use infrared mainly to make the underlying drawing visible. This gives us an impression of the creative process: did the artist carefully plan the composition, or did he proceed more intuitively? Did he hesitate or change his mind during the production? It also reveals hidden signatures."
We also work on issues related to the authenticity of the work. Infrared reflectography enables us to distinguish copies or fakes from originals. In the case of copies, we can also determine the copying technique, for example, squaring-up, pouncing or tracing.
The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage has an infrared camera with an integrated scanning mechanism that produces high-resolution images with flawless sharpness and detail. We are also equipped with a macro lens for extreme close-ups. Thanks to a customised motorised rail system, the camera moves smoothly over the painting at a constant speed.
We use infrared mainly to make the underdrawing visible. This gives us an impression of the artist’s creative process. It also reveals hidden signatures.
Radiography or X-ray photography is suitable for studying works of art in various materials (canvas, wood, glass, metal), and archaeological objects. The technique determines whether restoration is necessary or not. It reveals the actual state of a work of art and shows, for example, woodworm, canvas cracks or paint loss. As with infrared, the images also tell us about the artist's technique, the materials and the creative process.
Catherine Fondaire: "Traditional lead white will appear white on an X-ray, but zinc white (used from the mid-19th century) and titanium white (from the 1920s) will not. A radiograph can be a first clue to detecting late copies and forgeries."
For works of art, traditional X-rays on film yield the best results. Safety is paramount. We have a specially built bunker room in the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. We follow a strict safety protocol. When working on-site, mainly in churches and museums, we follow a strict safety protocol. We visit sites in advance to assess the feasibility and we contact the local radioprotection agency to obtain the necessary authorization.
A radiographic examination can give a first clue in the detection of late copies or forgeries.
Highlighting our discoveries
We regularly publish the results of our studies and take part in conferences in Belgium and abroad. The most recent publication by the Scientific Imagery Unit is The Bruegel Success Story, published in 2021.
Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a lecture, either on-site or by videoconference.
Would you like to request an analysis? Contact Dr Christina Currie for a quote and more information.
Dr Christina Currie will be happy to help you decide on a particular imagery method or on a full study.