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Masterpiece leaves storage as Antwerp museum nears reopening


Moving a masterpiece is never easy, even more so when it measures 4.11 by 6.75 meters (13.5 feet by 22.1 feet) and weighs 560 kilograms (1,225 pounds). Such is the size of the “Baptism of Christ,” by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens (1605), the jewel in the crown of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

The painting was moved out of storage Tuesday ahead of the museum’s reopening after over a decade of renovations.

“We know exactly where each work will be hung or placed”, said Carmen Willems, general director of the museum. “Our own team of curators and restorers, together with experienced art transporters and art handlers, will ensure this delicate undertaking is brought to a successful conclusion.”

After an 11-year shutdown for the renovation work, the artwork is reemerging from its slumber. Renovation was originally slated to be done in 2017 but took five years longer than scheduled.

During this time, nearly 4,000 works of art traveled around the world, while internally the atelier worked to restore just over 130 paintings and sculptures.

ANTWERP Technicians and art handlers raise the ‘Baptism of Christ’, by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens as it comes through a slot in the floor inside a gallery at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp in Antwerp, Belgium. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

On Tuesday, the first monumental Rubens was moved from the internal depot of the museum — housed two floors down and once a nuclear bomb shelter — to the newly renovated exhibition hall.

Due to its size, the painting remained untouched during the renovation. It was lifted via a special trap built into the floor and hoisted with a pulley and the able hands of a group of professional art handlers.

When it emerged inch by inch, the painting faced the wall and was then pulled along on soft cloths by workers on a scaffold. A crowd invited for the event waited patiently for the painting to be turned around and seen in all its glory.

It’s not the first time such a painting has emerged from a hiding place. The special trap and pulley system was also used during World War II to safely hide large pieces of art from looters.

When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens its doors in September, the centuries-old works of art will be blended into a more modern and sleeker interior, a newly upgraded climate-controlled environment and on the whole, a brighter, cleaner space. For those missing a bit of nostalgia, the iconic burgundy sofas will remain in the galleries.

While Antwerp residents missed one of their most popular and iconic museums for more than a decade, more than 6.7 million other people have had the chance to view the art, whether it was on loan or part of an exhibit at other museums. The main idea was not to keep it under lock and key for the duration of the work.

“The Flemish Masters are returning home at last”, said Luk Lemmens, chairman of the museum.

The reinstallation of the works will be done in phases. A selection of 650 works of art from a total collection of some 8,400 pieces will soon be on display.

In addition to Rubens, the museum also has four oversized paintings by Anthony van Dyck, another Flemish 17th century master.

Works that do not form the exhibition within the museum will be made accessible via the digital collection catalogue on the website.

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