Specialists of the imagery unit
Photo in normal light, X-radiography, photo in ultraviolet light and macro-XRF of a side panel with donors and a saint (Ambrosius Benson, oil on wood, early 16th century, Apelles Art Collection Luxembourg-Groeningemuseum Brugge), 2016
Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage


The experts of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) use several scientific imagery techniques to study works of art:

  • photography in normal light | Every work of art is documented before and after treatment. These images become part of one of the largest photo collections of artworks in the world: the photo library of the KIK-IRPA. This holds more than a million pictures of Belgian heritage, and they can be accessed through BALaT. Some artworks have been photographed at different times: these photos are a valuable source of information for their material history.

  • X-radiography (RX)| This is used to reveal the painting technique of artworks and gives valuable information on the condition of the support (here the white spot in the lower part of the face of the saint corresponds to a seal on the reverse side of the panel) and of the paint layer (losses). In this case the X-radiograph reveals an underlying composition with a patron and a saint.

  • photography in ultraviolet light (UV) | The varnish becomes visible as a milky white veil (for example in the upper part of the face of the saint). Recent retouching appears as dark spots (scattered around the faces).

  • macro-XRF (x-ray fluorescence) | This new analysis technique shows the distribution of chemical elements present in the paint layer of a painting: the image obtained is a chart of elements, which can often be used to identify the pigments! The macro-XRF of calcium (Ca) in this case highlights the brocade painted on the dress of the donor (lower right). The chart for copper (Cu) shows that the landscape was painted without the first two figures; the patron saint in armour was subsequently painted onto the landscape. On the macro-XRF for iron (Fe), the cross of the first patron saint painted is highly visible. Finally, the macro-XRF for lead (Pb) is similar to the x-ray but gives more detail on the distribution of lead white: the patron saint is clearer and we see that the donor (kneeling figure at the bottom) is a woman: she is wearing a blouse with a white collar and a flared sleeve, with a dress that appears to be edged with ermine. The IRPA is the first federal institution in Belgium to be equipped with a macro-XRF system to study works of art.

These visual documents aid the conservator-restorers and art historians in understanding the material history of works of art and in determining their true condition. This information is vital when deciding upon and carrying out appropriate conservation treatment. All these imagery techniques are moreover non-invasive: they enable us to analyse artworks without actually touching them.   

Read more: www.kikirpa.be

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