The Turbulent History of the Ghent Altarpiece: A Masterpiece Tested by Time

The "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is a masterpiece of Flemish art created by the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan.  This magnificent work boasts a long and dramatic history, filled with theft, destruction, and remarkable escapes.

One particular panel, "The Just Judges," exemplifies the altarpiece's troubled past. Stolen in 1934, it remains missing to this day.

Picture by Pixabay

A Polyptych with a Price

The altarpiece is a polyptych, meaning it consists of twelve individual panels. Eight of these panels can be folded closed, with the remaining eight painted on both sides. Hubert van Eyck began the work in 1426, but after his death, his younger brother Jan completed it in 1432. The altarpiece's journey began even before its creation was finished.  

Escaping the Beeldenstorm

In 1566, during the Beeldenstorm (Iconoclasm), a wave of religious iconoclasm swept through the Netherlands.  Catholics in Ghent managed to save the panels by hiding them in the cathedral's bell tower before an angry mob stormed the church.

The altarpiece continued to face challenges.  In 1781, the Holy Roman Emperor deemed nudity on two panels featuring Adam and Eve to be inappropriate.  These panels were removed and stored away.

Division and Reunification

The French Revolution brought further disruption.  In 1794, most of the remaining panels were taken from the cathedral.  Only the central panel, depicting the Lamb of God, was transported to France.  Thankfully, it was returned to Ghent after Napoleon's defeat in 1815.

However, the altarpiece remained incomplete.  Shortly after the central panel's return, the entire work, minus the Adam and Eve panels, was sold for a surprisingly low price.  The panels then embarked on a circuitous journey, eventually ending up in a museum in Berlin.

War and Recovery

During World War I, fearing German occupation, the remaining panels in Ghent were cleverly hidden within the city walls.  Meanwhile, Germany was forced to return the panels they possessed after the war.  For the first time in over a century, the altarpiece was (almost) whole again.

The Theft of the Just Judges

The altarpiece's troubles weren't over.  In 1934, two panels were stolen, including "The Just Judges."  A ransom note hinted at a connection to the Treaty of Versailles, but the trail soon went cold.  Despite the recovery of one panel and attempted negotiations, "The Just Judges" remains lost to this day.

The story of the Ghent Altarpiece is a testament to both the enduring power of art and the lengths to which people will go to possess it.  While the mystery of "The Just Judges" continues, the remaining panels stand as a magnificent reminder of artistic genius and human resilience.