Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Ghent Altarpiece, Most Stolen Painting of All Time

I listen to a lot of books, usually in my car driving to my office and back or anywhere I drive on my own. I try to adhere to a routine of alternating Non-Fiction and Fiction. What I like best are when true events are woven into a mystery, aka a historical novel.

Anyone interested in art history knows the story of the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 which took on a life of its own making it the greatest tourist attraction in Paris.

Recently I started a book by Steve Berry, a well-known mystery writer, because the review mentioned the Ghent altarpiece. Also known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, it is considered one of the most important works of art in the western hemisphere. What might be news to you is that it is also the most stolen work of all time! There have been between 11 and 15 crimes against the altarpiece depending on your sources. I will reveal a number of them below.

The 12-panel polyptych is said to have been painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432. It measures 14.5 by 11.5 feet. Believed to be the first major work using oil paint it marked the transition of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It was commissioned by Jodocus (Joos) Vijd. Today we sometimes indicate who commissioned a painting in the label on a museum wall. Then, however, (what makes much more sense) the artist painted Vijd’s likeness on the lower left panel and his wife on the lower right. Here you can see an image showing both the front and back images of the Altarpiece. When the altar is closed you see the donors.

In 1566 “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” almost fell victim to Reformation iconoclasts. Calvinists did not believe in the worship of images and therefore wished to eliminate them from churches. Realizing the danger Catholics moved the altarpiece from the cathedral to the Ghent Town Hall which they considered their stronghold.

The Mystic Lamb

In 1794 Napoleon’s troops stole four of the panels. After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and Lous XVIII was restored to the throne he gave the panels back to Ghent as a thank you for having harbored him when he fled the Revolution.

The following year a vicar at Ghent Cathedral, who deemed six wing panels worm-eaten and in bad condition, sold them to an art dealer. They ended up in a Berlin museum. In 1919, however they were returned to Ghent as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles.

During World War II Hitler and Göring wanted the altarpiece as pay-back for the loss of the panels due to the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler also believed the paintings held mystic powers and that possession would ensure his winning the war. When Nazi troops found the altarpiece on its way to the Vatican for safekeeping, they seized it. First it went to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria for restoration and after that it was put with 7,000 other art works looted by Hitler’s army in a salt mine near Altaussee, Austria. After the War It was retrieved and returned to Ghent by the U.S. Monuments Men.

The Ghent Altarpiece in Althaussee Salt Mine

What remains a mystery, however, is the theft in 1934 when a thief stole the lower-left panel of the Righteous Judges and wanted a ransom of a million Belgian Francs. As an act of good faith, so to speak, he (they) returned the grisaille painting of St. John the Baptist which was on the back of the panel. Though a deathbed confession revealed copies of the ransom notes, what happened to the painting remains a mystery. The case is still an open one and a detective with the Ghent police is assigned to it.

After an eight-year restoration, the altarpiece, with a reproduction in place of the missing panel, is now back in St.Bravo Cathedral, protected in a $35 million dollar bullet proof display.

I have written about the strange life of objects before but this one may just be the strangest!

1 comment:

  1. As always, of interest. Hope all is well out there! XXX