In 1432, Jan van Eyck put the finishing touches on the large masterpiece that he began with his brother years earlier.
The lesser known Hubert van Eyck didn’t live to see the completed magnificence of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which consisted of 12 panels depicting religious scenes and saints. It was one of the most intricate oil paintings to ever have been produced, and the result was a powerful and stunning work of religious art.
The masterpiece was installed in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, ready for the adoring gaze of religious and art pilgrims for centuries to come.
Or so the artists and their patrons intended.
Little did they know, the Ghent Altarpiece, as it became known, was destined for a tumultuous, adventurous reign.
Over the past five centuries, the painting has become one of the most coveted works of all time.
According to art historian Noah Charney, who wrote a book about the work called Stealing the Mystic Lamb, it has suffered 13 separate crimes over its history, becoming the victim of thefts and fires, despots and madmen. (What is intact of the piece is presently being restored at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent.)
Each time, the work has been miraculously found and restored—all except for one panel, that is. The two-part, lower left hand panel known as the Just Judges remains missing to this day.
The early years of the Ghent Altarpiece were relatively peaceful. But that all changed nearly 150 years after the painting took up residence in the Cathedral, when its first set of troubles began.
In 1566, Protestants and Catholics were engaged in the age-old tradition of battling it out over whose religious beliefs were correct. To drive their position home, a group of angry Protestants decided to storm over to the Saint Bavo Cathedral, batter in the front door, and steal the Ghent Altarpiece, intending to destroy it in a fiery blaze of virtuous glory. But after they forced their way inside, they realized that the painting was missing. A group of Cathedral guards had been warned about the approaching mob and had dismantled the panels, hiding them safely out of reach in a church tower.
This attempted act of devout thievery kicked off a centuries-long streak of individuals—and even nations—seeking to acquire or destroy the Ghent Altarpiece.
There was the time when the painting was censored by the local mayor after Pope Joseph II paid the work a visit and objected to one panel’s detailed nudity of Adam and Eve.
Then, a few decades later during the Napoleonic Wars, a French general snatched the central panels for the glory of king and country. The panels were moved to the Louvre, where they stayed on display for French citizens until Louis XVIII kindly returned them to Belgium in 1814 after taking his throne back.
One of Saint Bavo’s own—a vicar—stole several panels in 1816, which eventually found their way into the collection of Kaiser Frederick III and a museum in Berlin. The remaining panels were hidden by a church official during WWI to avoid further pillaging. It took the Treaty of Versailles to bring all of the panels back home and reassembled in Ghent.
The real trial for the work came during WWII, when both Hitler and chief henchman Hermann Göring became desperate to acquire it for their personal art collections.
The two madmen, who normally seemed so aligned in their attempts to destroy the world, now found themselves in a battle against each other to see who would win this coveted prize.
According to Charney, a game of musical looting ensued. Hitler got his hands on the work first, when the Nazi unit assigned to plundering cultural treasures grabbed it from the castle in the south of France where the Belgians had attempted to hide it. Not willing to concede the prize, Göring had one of his aide’s seize the 12-panel piece.
But Hitler found him out and ordered his men to step in and take it once more. The Ghent Altarpiece was stored along with many of the world’s greatest treasures in one of the infamous salt mines, where it was discovered by the Monuments Men at the end of the war.
It’s safe to say that the Ghent Altarpiece has been through its share of trauma, not to mention been witness to some major historical moments.
But while religious wars, Napoleon, and even Hitler and Göring weren’t successful in stealing or destroying the work for good, petty thieves were.
The only damage to the Ghent Altarpiece that continues to this day occurred in 1934, several years before the madness of WWII engulfed the region, when thieves hid in Saint Bavo Cathedral before closing one April night. After the doors had been locked, the thieves broke into the chapel where the painting hung and ripped the lower left panel, the Just Judges, from the rest of the altarpiece. They escaped with nary a trace.
Belgium went on high alert when the theft was discovered the next day, according to an article in The New York Times. Extra policemen were called in, while ports and border crossings were closely monitored.
Soon after the piece went missing, the police received a ransom note. The thieves said they would return the panel in exchange for one million Belgian francs. In something of a weird “proof of life” move, they sent part of the painting back.
Then, in November of that year, a middle-aged stockbroker, Arsène Goedertier, gave a deathbed confession to his lawyer after suffering a heart attack that he was the only one who knew the location of the missing panel. In his bedside table, his lawyer found evidence that he may have been responsible for the ransom note in addition to another note that was never sent.
It mysteriously read, “[it] rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public.”
While officials concluded that Goedertier was telling the truth, the panel has never been found and evidence has since popped up that, at the very least, complicates this narrative. According to Charney, an officer remains assigned to the case to this day.
Despite its missing piece, the Ghent Altarpiece remains just as powerful a religious symbol and historically important painting as ever. In 2010, the Getty Foundation awarded a grant for the conservation, restoration, and digital documentation of the piece.
A reproduction of the Just Judges now fills the missing panel’s empty spot where the masterpiece hangs once more in Ghent. Despite the missing original, Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s painting remains just as powerful a religious symbol and historically important painting as ever. In 2010, the Getty Foundation awarded a grant for the conservation, restoration, and digital documentation of the piece.
At the turn of the 15th century, religious pilgrims flocked to Ghent, Belgium to take in the wonder of the Ghent Altarpiece. Now, art lovers from around the world can examine the work up close and in minute detail through the interactive digital recreation. All except for the original Just Judges panel, of course, which the digital copy shows as a distant, greyed out reproduction of the vibrant panel that once hung there and that now remains hidden away, waiting to be found.