Book Heritage Lab

In 2016, Prof. Lieve Watteeuw launched the Book Heritage Lab – KU Leuven. The BHL is an innovative expertise lab of KU Leuven for research and conservation of manuscripts, early printed books and documentary heritage. Illuminare and the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies – as experts and keepers of the KU Leuven’s documentary heritage – took the initiative to establish the BHL for diagnosis and research of the material history of medieval and early modern paper and parchment artefacts, with a special focus on production, preservation, scientific imaging and conservation. The researchers of the BHL and the Imaging Lab (University Library) are closely collaborating to establish protocols and data to reveal sources of artistic production and degradation characteristics of fragile documentary cultural heritage artefacts. The BHL is embedded in several ongoing and recently obtained research and conservation projects such as RICH, FINGERPRINT, ArtGarden and the Cardinal d’Alsace Library Project.


FINGERPRINT is an interdisciplinary collection and data management project, involving art history, art technical research, digital imaging, image processing and conservation science. The aim is to use advanced digital imaging, statistical processing and laboratory analyses to monitor and evaluate the phases of the genesis of a print, from preparatory drawings through proof impressions to later states and editions. The four year project is a collaboration of the Print Room of the Royal Library of Belgium and three KU Leuven teams: Illuminare, the Imaging Lab and ESAT. Up to now art historical research on prints and drawings has depended for the most part on traditional art historical methods based on observation with the naked eye and on the subjective memory and knowledge of connoisseurs. The aim of this project is to develop tools to automatically perform an objective artefact analysis and software to visualize, compare and order large quantities of complex visual and material data. The exceptional collection of graphic works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Royal Library of Belgium forms a test corpus for the project. As an affiliated PhD student, Maarten Bassens is currently conducting research within the FINGERPRINT project.

Iconology Research Group

Illuminare is closely connected to the Iconology Research Group, a research platform founded by Barbara Baert that explores the role of iconology in relation to Visual Studies and Bildwissenschaften. Their projects focus on the making, meaning and migration of images from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Iconology is a two-faced beast. To students, it is often presented as a functional subordinate to art history. In the practice of research, it transgresses the borders of its discipline and can devour whole universes of images. Indeed, iconology, as envisioned by Aby Warburg, is supposed to study images produced inside and outside the realm of art. And in order to trace the meanings, histories and transformations of images, iconology is in essence interdisciplinary. Warburg therefore explored anthropology, Erwin Panofsky looked into film, and Ernst Gombrich put psychology and social sciences to his service. After these famous ventures from within, the pictorial turn however was announced by other disciplines, and implied a critique of art histories’ conservative approach to images. Visual studies was formed and opened the realm of images to literary theory, gender studies, performance and film studies and many others. Yet, in the endeavour to study visuality in all its facets the field remains somewhat indistinct. More recently, Bildwissenschaften has turned to focus on the image as object again, and in doing so has moved beyond the humanities highlighting image production in all fields. Facing a possible visual illiteracy, methods to study images are also developed outside academia. In other words, the need to unravel the meaning of past, present and future images has become omnipresent. The Iconology Research Group (IRG) wants to investigate how iconology as a field and method, which originated within art history, relates to these recent developments. It wants to review and rethink original methodologies in the light of new approaches. How has iconology evolved in the past decennia, could it incorporate visual studies or a science of images? How have new disciplines profited from iconology and how can they in turn inspire and/or reinvent iconology? Beyond methodological reflection, the IRG singles out three central research themes: the production and technologies of pictures (i), the significance and agency of images (ii), and the transfer and migration of motives (iii). These will be addressed within a wide historical and geographical scope, as we regard the tracing of pictorial meaning throughout time and space an essential characteristic of iconology. Please contact Annelies Vogels and Stephanie Heremans for further information regarding the IRG.

Barbara Baert is founder and editor-in-chief of four IRG series: Studies in Iconology (Peeters Publishers), Art&Religion (Peeters Publishers), Iconologies (ASP Editions), and most recently Recollection. Experimental Reflections on Texts, Images and Ideas (Leuven University Press).


Advisory Board

Claudia Benthien (Hamburg), Ralph Dekoninck (Louvain-la-Neuve), James Elkins (Chicago), Jeffrey Hamburger (Cambridge, MA), Bianca Kuehnel (Jerusalem), Han Lamers (Oslo), John Lowden (London), Anneke Smelik (Nijmegen), Victor Stoichita (Fribourg), Jeroen Stumpel (Utrecht), Paul Vandenbroeck (Leuven), Jan Van der Stock (Leuven), Gerhard Wolf (Florence)


Partner Institutions

Center for Iconographic Studies - Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences - University of Rijeka (

Centre for Women’s Studies in Theology - KU Leuven (

European Network on the Instruments of Devotion (ENID) (

GEMCA - Group for Early Modern Cultural Analysis - Université catholique de Louvain (

Illuminare - Centre for the Study of Medieval Art - KU Leuven (

LECTIO -Leuven Centre for the Study of the Transmission of Texts and Ideas in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - KU Leuven (

Litterære tradisjoner og tekstkulturer i det tidligmoderne Europa - Universitetet i Oslo (

Ruusbroecgenootschap - University of Antwerp (

The Interior: Art, Space, and Performance (Early Modern to Postmodern) - Research Project Universität Bern (

The Lieven Gevaert Centre for Photography and Visual Studies - KU Leuven & Université catholique de Louvain (

Werkgroep Visuele Cultuur Nederland - Huizinga Instituut (


From antiquity to the present day, the Greek term kairós, which expresses the complex idea of ‘grasping the right moment’, travelled through art and literature. This project explores the artistic reception of this notion in the visual arts by bringing insights from Classical Reception Studies and Iconology to bear on how we can understand processes of visual transformation through time. As such, it is the very first extensive, inter-disciplinary research into kairós afterlife in the history of ideas of the Middle Ages and Early Modernity in Europe, drawing extensively upon literary, archaeological, and iconographical sources. As the figure of kairós has been interpreted variously throughout history, from antiquity to the modern era, this research project not only sheds light on how text and image work together to transform the classical heritage but also problematizes the wide-spread idea that iconographies are essentially stable and static. Stephanie Heremans and Laura Tack are affiliated researchers contributing to this project, which is directed by Barbara Baert and Han Lamers (University of Oslo).

To read "Kairos: The Right Moment or Occasion" by Barbara Baert on the website of the Institute for Advanced Study, click here.

Leuven Louvain Illuminations

Since 2015 Lieve Watteeuw and Catherine Reynolds are researching the collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts of the Leuven University. The Catalogue of Western Book Illumination in the Universities of Leuven – Louvain involves the holdings of medieval illuminated manuscripts in both sister University collections: in KU Leuven kept in the Special Collections, in the University Archive and in the Library of the Faculty of Theology (the Maurits Sabbe Library), and in UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve kept in the University Archives. In total ca. seventy medieval illuminated manuscripts. with miniatures and decorated folios are studied and described in detail. Beside the renowned and richly illuminated Neapolitan Bible made for Robert of Anjou (ca. 1340), there are illuminated Books of Hours of Flemish, Dutch, Italian and French origin, Antiphonaries, Prayer books, liturgical, legal and scientific works. Rosamunde Baele and Floortje Clerix are junior collaborators in this project, together with dr. Anne Dubois of UCL. The richly illuminated catalogue will be published in 2019 by Peeters Publishers.

Ornamenta sacra

This collective project, gathering scholars from different institutions (IRPA/KIK, UCL and KU Leuven), aims at conducting an iconological and anthropological research devoted to the late medieval and early modern liturgical heritage (ornamenta sacra) from the Southern Netherlands (1400-1700). It is concerned with different kinds of objects fundamental to the ceremonial, which occupied a central place in the religious art of the past. We will investigate the provenance, the (material, technical, stylistic, iconographic etc.) nature and the evolution of this production in order to better understand its religious, social and artistic importance for a time span characterized by profound transformations of the liturgy and by religious reforms and conflicts. The historical anthropology of the visual, the sensible and the ritual will offer a methodological framework within which we will consider the material and symbolic nature as well as the spatial and ritual context of these objects, so as to provide a renewed analysis of their forms and functions. Wendy Wauters conducts her doctoral research in the context of the Brain-Belspo project Ornamenta sacra.


The RICH project (Reflectance Imaging for Cultural Heritage, Illuminare, in collaboration with ESAT) is developing an imaging tool for research, study, and exploration of the material characteristics of graphic materials produced in medieval and early modern times. The development of the RICH minidome enables multi-spectral imaging, expands non-destructive art-technical research and has great potential in determining conservation treatments of irreplaceable cultural heritage artifacts. With the minidome, the topography of medieval book illuminations, stamps, inks, seals and bookbinding stamps is visualized and monitored in 3D.

Rijmbijbel of Jacob van Maerlant

In collaboration with the Manuscript Department of the Royal Library of Belgium, and the conservation studio of the KBR, Lieve Watteeuw starts in February 2017 an integrated research on the material characteristics of the ‘Rijmbijbel of Jacob van Maerlant’. Maerlant is one of the most important Middle Dutch authors during the Middle Ages. The Brussels manuscript is the oldest illustrated manuscript in the Dutch language. Since 2016, it is undergoing an intensive conservation treatment, funded by the Fund de la Serna of the King Boudewijn Foundation. With scientific imaging (the Micro-dome, the Hirox 3D binocular) and through Xrf mapping the project will reveal detailed information on production characteristics of this important 13th century manuscript and support the conservation treatment. The research is conducted in collaboration with the Imaging Lab – KU Leuven and the laboratories of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA).

The 3Pi Project

The scope of 3Pi Project (Papyrus, Parchment, Paper Imaging ) from the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts, ESAT and the University Library, KU Leuven is focusing on interdisciplinary research on fragile historic documentary heritage as manuscripts on papyrus, parchment and paper, involving scientific imaging, analytical data, conservation science and  issemination on a performant dissemination platform in order to establish the origin and creation of documentary heritage artefacts. The 3Pi Data creation will allow characterization of materials between micro and full object level from the oldest documents written on papyrus, to medieval and early modern parchment and paper manuscripts.

The ArtGarden research project

The ArtGarden research project tests and develops an efficient, “best practices” matrix tool for the art-technical monitoring, imaging and documenting fragile historic mixed-media objects. This is used to facilitate decision making during conservation and preservation practice. The case study of ArtGarden is the conservation and preservation of the unique collection of seven Enclosed Gardens from the Mechelen City Museums. Due to the multimedia nature of the Gardens this project generates new know-how that can be applied to the conservation of other complex heritage objects in comparable conditions. The aim is to develop an international benchmarking project for conservation and preservation of original multi-media artefacts in museal environments. Promoters of the ArtGarden research project are the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), the KU Leuven and the University of Antwerp, Axes. In January 2017, Hannah Iterbeke joined the ArtGarden research project, and has been studying the significance and preservation of historical mixed-media ensembles in the context of her PhD dissertation.