Visit the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, The Netherlands, and you’ll have a chance to see Johannes Vermeer’s painting, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ from maybe a few feet away—depending on the crowds around the famous piece. Or you can explore this website that provides access to a massive 10-billion-pixel scan of the painting with more detail than the human eye could ever see in person.
The scan was created last year by Hirox Europe (a company that makes digital microscopes) at a resolution of 93,205 x 108,565 pixels, which amounts to 10,118,800,825 microscopic snapshots of the painting each covering an area of just 4.4 microns in size. As with most gigapixel images, the digital copy of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ was created by assembling a collection of shots all focusing on different areas of the painting, which in this case amounted to 91,000 individual photographs snapped throughout a single night. Using custom software developed by Hirox, assembling all those shots into one image was an automated process.
The scan provides an unprecedented look at the painting in more detail than any art fan would care about. But more importantly, it gives art historians and preservationists a better look at the condition of the painting’s surface as well as the state of previous restorations, which will help inform and guide future restoration and preservation attempts.
Hirox’s digital microscope wasn’t pushed to its maximum capabilities, however. In addition to scanning the entire painting, the team created even higher resolution scans of 10 specific areas where every pixel represented just a 1.1 micron speck of the entire piece. Not only were high-res snippets of the painting created during this additional scanning process, but also a 3D representation of its surface revealing how small paint chips have warped and curled at the edges over time.
It might sound obsessive, but understanding what happens to famous artworks like ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ over time (the painting is now 355 years old at this point) at a near-microscopic level is a crucial part of ensuring that in another 355 years, future generations will be able to enjoy the original as well. But if they can’t, at least there’s now a flawless digital copy.