Universally acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of European art of all time, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece–a.k.a. The Ghent Altarpiece–is in the news. Again.
The Ghent Altarpiece was completed in 1432* by Jan van Eyck. Jan, who is dead famous, had inherited the project from his older and considerably less famous brother, Hubert, who was commissioned by Joost Vijdt to supply his family’s Chapel inside St. Bavo’s (then St. John’s) in Ghent with an altarpiece. Hubert died in 1426 leaving the project incomplete–exactly how much of the altarpiece had been realised by 1426 (i.e. just its design or had Hubert actually put brush to panel) has since generated reams of (mostly boring) art historical rumination. Vijdt, the patron, was a merchant, financier and warden (“kerkmeester”) of St. John’s, and we’re sure that it was for Joost that the van Eycks undertook their monumental, multi-panelled, triptych because its original frame bore an inscription saying so.
The altarpiece’s frame isn’t the only part of the triptych to have since perished, however. To say that the altarpiece has had a troubled history is to put it mildly. Parts have been lost in accidents—its predella (a row of short panels across the bottom of an altarpiece) was lost in a 16th-century fire—but other losses and movements have come about as a result of political and religious conflict.
Mercifully, the altarpiece was spared during the “iconoclastic fury” (“beeldenstorm”) that swept the Netherlands in 1566; the altarpiece was moved out of its chapel and stowed away in the attic. (We get a sense of the very real danger posed to works of art during the 1566 “fury” in the above engraving by Frans Hogenberg, which shows coloured windows being smashed, statues being torn down and triptychs being bashed away at in Our Lady’s church in Antwerp.)
But over the course of the subsequent centuries, the van Eycks’ altarpiece hasn’t been so lucky. It has been the victim of over a dozen crimes and no less than 7 thefts! And it’s the thefts that have brought the altarpiece back into the limelight.
The altarpiece was nicked by the French after the Revolution and put up in the Louvre, only to be returned to Ghent in 1815 after the defeat at Waterloo. The wings, less Adam and Eve, were then pawned in 1815 by the Diocese of Ghent, which failed to redeem them. Consequently, they were then sold on to an English collector in 1816 and off they went to London. From there, they were re-sold to the King of Prussia, who had them packed up and sent off to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. Meanwhile, back at Ghent a fire damaged what was left of the altarpiece and Adam and Eve were sent to Brussels to be stored in a museum.
Things then get a whole lot worse in the 20th century.
During World War I German forces helped themselves to a couple more panels from the already fragmented Ghent Altarpiece (the wings were, we remember, already in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie). At the close of the war, however, and following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles with its repatriation clauses, all the panels from the Ghent altarpiece then in Germany were returned to Ghent in 1920.
Things then go quiet for about a decade until 1934. In April that year the panel showing the Just Judges from the left wing was stolen–and we’ll come back to this in a bit.
Half a decade after the Just Judges vanished, on the outbreak of World War II, it was decided that the Ghent Altarpiece should go off to the Vatican for safe keeping–the Germans had got their hands on it before thought the Belgians! But this plan was thwarted when the Italians declared themselves as an Axis Power alongside Germany. By then, the altarpiece was already in France on its way to Italy, and so the altarpiece was held in a museum in Pau until the French, Belgian and German authorities could agree over what to do with it. Never one to miss an opportunity, though, Hitler had other ideas and decided to seize the altarpiece anyway. So off it went (some parts back!) to Germany, first to the Schloss Neuschwanstein and then, following raids there, to the Altaussee salt mines. The Americans finally recovered the painting for Belgium after the war—above is that remarkable photo of the dismantled panels being inspected at Altaussee—and it was triumphantly returned to Belgium in a ceremony overseen by the Belgian Royal Family. In Belgium, the altarpiece was displayed in the Palais Royal de Bruxelles for the worlds’ press, minus any French officials who weren’t invited because they’d “allowed” Hitler to seize it.
In light of all that(!), it’s hardly surprising that the altarpiece you see nowadays inside Vijdt’s little chapel in St. Bavo’s is a replica – that’s it below. (I happen to think that the replica’s a good thing to have though, not just for the safety of the original’s sake but also because you can have a go at moving the wings etc. of the replica, to see what the thing would have looked like in motion, opening and closing, which you never get to see happening with the “real” one.) The peripatetic actual Ghent Altarpiece is in now in the basement, displayed in an air-conditioned (bullet-proof?!) glass box.
So all’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. The glistening, jewel-like behemoth that you now see dramatically lit in the darkened basement of St. Bavo’s isn’t exactly everything it first seems to be.
Of the many trials and tribulations that the van Eycks’ great work has endured throughout its history, the Just Judges panel that was stolen in 1934 is still out there, somewhere in the ether (picture below of the altarpiece with its missing bit, and alongside that an old photograph of that panel). What you now see when you look at the bottom tier of the Ghent Altarpiece’s interior left wing is a replica of the lost panel done in 1945 by Jef Van der Veken.
The theft of the Just Judges is a complete mystery.
On the night of 10th April when the panel went missing, a French note was affixed to the altarpiece saying ‘Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles’, thus politicising the theft by referring to the panel’s repatriation to Ghent from Germany just a decade or so previously . This was followed-up with a ransom demand for 1million Belgian Francs, which went unheeded. Most astonishingly, following negotiations the ransomer did return–apparently as a sign of good will? Eh?–the grisaille St. John the Baptist, which was on the verso of the Judges panel and is what you see when the altarpiece is closed. Then in November 1934 the self-proclaimed thief Arsène Goedertier revealed on his deathbed to his lawyer that he ‘alone’ knew where the Just Judges is and vowed to take the secret with him to the grave. He also intriguingly said that the panel was hiding in a place where it would be impossible for him or anyone else to move without arousing public attention. So it’s somewhere prominent and public then? Goedertier died and the police concluded that he had indeed taken it.
And it’s for that reason that the Ghent Altarpiece is again in the news. Recently, there have been a couple of murmurs about the whereabouts of the Just Judges. At the beginning of this year, a retired police officer reckoned the Just Judges would be found buried under the soil in a cemetery near Brussels. Meanwhile, in 2008 somebody else tipped the Ghent police off that the panel could be found under some house in Ghent, which the authorities naturally proceeded to partially demolish but found absolutely nothing.
The latest addition to the saga comes from Paul De Rigger, who claims that he knows for certain who currently owns the panel. Apparently, it’s knocking around in the collection of an important and well-known Ghent family. De Rigger won’t out the family but is hoping that with pressure they’ll out themselves and that the Just Judges will finally be reunited with the altarpiece.
To be continued . . . !
* According to the inscription on the frame, which features a chronogram spelling out the date 1432. Whether or not this inscription dates from van Eyck’s time, however, is a subject of debate and there’s an argument to believe that the altarpiece was actually finished in May 1435.