Nov 28, 2010

Van Eyck "The Ghent Altarpiece"

Jan van Eyck 
The Ghent Altarpiece
This monumental altarpiece, one of the most important works in the history of art, also has the dubious distinction of being the most frequently stolen artwork of all time.  It is therefore the most desired and victimized painting in history.

Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has disappeared, been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, painted over, censored, attacked by iconoclasts, hidden away, hunted by Nazis and Napoleon, prized by The Louvre and a Prussian king, damaged by conservators, returned as war reparations, stored in castle vaults and secret salt mines, used as a diplomatic tool, nearly been blown up, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.

Perhaps the single most influential painting in the history of art, it is certainly the most important object in the history of art theft.  No other artwork has been subject to so many adventures and crimes, both attempted and successful.  Though an inanimate object, the enormous altarpiece in all its intricacies and intrigues develops a personality of its own.  Indeed, this disappearing masterpiece seems loathe to stand still for too long.

There is even a mystery around its creation.  Everyone has heard of Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), but what about Hubert van Eyck?  An inscription was discovered in the 19th century which reads that this artwork was begun by Hubert van Eyck and finished by Jan, the painter’s brother.  But while evidence exists that a painter called Hubert van Eyck lived in Ghent at the time that the Ghent Altarpiece was painted, not a single authenticated painting by Hubert exists today.  Some think that the inscription was a contemporary forgery, while others think that Hubert van Eyck is a lost genius.  Art historians are still divided.

What makes this painting so important to the history of art?  What, beyond its beauty, made it so desired as to have been the victim of so many crimes?

It is the first major work by the young genius, Jan van Eyck.  While Jan did not invent oil painting, as has been popularly misconceived, he was the first to take full advantage of the capabilities of the new medium, which permitted infinitely greater detail than the previous painting method, tempera, which used opaque egg yolk to bind pigment, rather than translucent oil.  After this painting, oil would become the universal preferred medium.  Jan’s advances in oil were for painters what the first use of steel was for architects.

Art historians love to recite “firsts.”  So while Jan was not the first oil painter, he was the first to paint:
·         monumental works with an intricate level of detail usually reserved for portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts.
·         observed naturalistic details, such as the effect of water seen through glass, the light reflecting in a horse’s eye, and botanically-identifiable plants.
·         the un-idealized human nude, in the figures of Adam and Eve.
·         individually detailed faces in a massive crowd scene with over one-hundred figures, taking the time to render vivid portrait-like expressions, if not actual portraits.
·         articulated bodies beneath painted clothing, the people wearing the clothes rather than the clothes floating around the people.
·         using disguised symbolism, imbuing realistically-realized and situated objects with a covert Christian symbolism.
The following other statements will clarify what may be said historically about Jan and Hubert:
·         Hubert van Eyck was indeed a painter and brother to Jan.  He was commissioned to paint the Ghent Altarpiece, but he died so soon after having received the commission that his presence is all but inarticulate.  The painting as we see it is therefore wholly the work of Jan.
·         Jan did not invent oil painting, but did bring it to an unprecedented level of excellence, turning the mere binding of pigments with oil into a masterful medium that would be preferred by every painter from his day forth.
·         Along with Giotto in Italy, Jan may be considered the first Renaissance artist.
·         In his unprecedented realism, Jan may be considered a forefather of Realism as an artistic movement.
·         The Ghent Altarpiece being Jan’s premiere major artwork may be seen as the first instance of his many “firsts” as an artist.
·         Because it is the most frequently stolen painting in history, it follows that the Ghent Altarpiece is also the most desired painting in history.
For historians of art and art crime, the Ghent Altarpiece should be number one on the list of what must be seen.

Below is a chronology of events in the history of The Ghent Altarpiece.  For more images and details, visit  For the full story of the most frequently stolen, and arguably the most important painting ever made, please see the new book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (PublicAffairs).

Chronology of Key Events Related to The Ghent Altarpiece
c. 1385
Hubert van Eyck is born, probably in Maaseyck.
c. 1395
Jan van Eyck is born, probably in Maaseyck.
Philip the Good, the third Duke of Burgundy, rules Flanders.
Jan moves to Bruges and is appointed Court Painter and valet de chamber to Philip the Good.
Hubert van Eyck dies. 
The Ghent Altarpiece, originally commissioned of Hubert van Eyck by Joos Vijd (perhaps as early as 1420) is taken up by Jan.  The state of the altarpiece at this time is unknown.
The Burgundian treasury in Lille pays for the first of many journeys and “secret” missions to “distant lands” undertaken by Jan in the service of Philip the Good.
6 May 1432
The Ghent Altarpiece is presented to the public for the first time, at the occasion of the baptism of Philip the Good’s son, Joos.
Jan paints Portrait in a Red Turban, unanimously considered to be a self-portrait.
Jan paints his second-most famous work, The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (also known as The Marriage Contract).
9 July 1441
Jan dies and is buried in Bruges.
Giorgio Vasari credits Jan with the “invention of oil painting,” adding to his already considerable renown and mystique.
19-20 August 1566
Calvinist rioters break into Saint Bavo Cathedral, intent on burning The Ghent Altarpiece as a Catholic icon.  They are foiled by the wiles of a small band of knights who dismantled the altarpiece and hid it in one of the church towers, locking themselves into the stairwell, and prepared to defend it with their lives.
Emperor Joseph II of Bohemia and Hungary visits the cathedral to see the famous altarpiece.  While he admires the painting, he finds the images of the nude, warts-and-all Adam and Eve too realistic and ignoble for his Enlightenment tastes.  The Adam and Eve panels are removed to the cathedral archives.
French Republican troops capture the city of Ghent and steal the four central panels of the altarpiece, sending them to The Louvre.
The four central panels are returned to Ghent after the Battle of Waterloo, a thank-you gift from the new French king, Louis XVIII, who had been sheltered in Ghent when Napoleon escaped from Elba.
Vicar Le Surre steals the wing panels of the altarpiece from the cathedral while the bishop is out of town.  They are smuggled and sold to Brussels art dealer L J Nieuwenhuys, who almost certainly commissioned the theft.  They will be bought by British collector Edward Solly, and sold once more to Frederick William III, the King of Prussia, who hoped to build a collection that would out-do The Louvre.
A fire breaks out in Saint Bavo Cathedral, and the remaining panels of the altarpiece suffer minor damage.
The wing panels of the altarpiece are cleaned at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, which had inherited the Prussian royal collection.  On the back of one of the panels the famous and mysterious inscription is discovered, suggesting for the first time to art historians that the previously unknown artist “Hubert van Eyck” began The Ghent Altarpiece.
At the start of the First World War The Ghent Altarpiece is divided among three cities.  The Adam and Eve panels are in Brussels, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.  The stolen wing panels are in Berlin.  And the four central panels remain in Ghent, on display at the cathedral.
When German occupation of Ghent seemed inevitable, Canon Gabriel van den Gheyn arranged to smuggle the central panels out of the cathedral and hide them for the duration of the war, to preserve them from German art hunters. Germans attempt to discover the location of the central panels in order to steal them on five separate occasions during the occupation.
The Treaty of Versailles specifically cites The Ghent Altarpiece and insists that the wing panels be returned from Berlin to Ghent.
Only now is the Treaty of Versailles enforced, and the wing panels returned to Ghent.  The Adam and Eve panels are likewise returned from Brussels, so the altarpiece is whole once more.
10 April 1934
The Righteous Judges and Saint John the Baptist panels are stolen from the cathedral during the night.  A ransom demand follows.  The Saint John panel is returned in a show of good faith on the part of the criminals, but the ransom is never paid.  A total of 13 ransom notes follow.
25 November 1934
Arséne Goedertier collapses of a heart attack and whispers with his dying breath that he is last man on earth to know the location of the stolen Righteous Judges panel.  Four magistrates begin a one-month investigation before informing the police.  The situation suggests a cover-up.
Righteous Judges theft case officially closed.  Amateur detectives will pick up the case and find fascinating clues that evaded, or were intentionally over-looked by, the official investigators.
Belgian Minister of the Interior Octave Dierckx is approached by a lawyer who, on behalf of an anonymous client, offers to return the Judges panel for 500,000 francs. The matter was brought before the Belgian prime minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, who rejected the negotiations out of hand, saying, “One doesn’t do business with gangsters. We’re not in America.”
Conservator Jef van derk Veken begins his replacement copy of the Righteous Judges panel.  He completes it in 1945, and the following year it is installed with the 11 remaining original panels of The Ghent Altarpiece.
May 1940
At the start of the Second World War, The Ghent Altarpiece is sent for safe-keeping to Chateau de Pau in the south of France.
Summer 1942
On order from Hermann Göring, the altarpiece is stolen from Chateau de Pau by Dr Ernst Buchner, director of the Bavarian state museums.  It is brought first to Paris, then to Castle Neuschwanstein, were it is treated by a conservator.
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives branch of the Allied Army is founded.  The “Monuments Men” would seek out and protect tens of thousands of stolen and damaged artworks and monuments in the wake of fighting across Europe.  Among the most prominent of the Monuments Men rank Robert K. Posey and Lincoln Kirstein.  Attached to the Allied Third Army, they would lead the Allied effort to save the thousands of stolen artworks stored in a hidden warehouse in the Austrian salt mine of Alt Aussee.
8 April 1945
Operation Ebensburg begins, led by Austrian double-agent Albrecht Gaiswinkler.  The efforts of his commando team, Alt Aussee miners, and the local Austrian Resistance would delay the intended destruction of the mine and all its contents until the Allied Army arrived.
8 May 1945
The Allied Third Army arrives at Alt Aussee and secures the salt mine.  Posey and Kirstein help to excavate over twelve-thousand stolen masterpieces stored there.
21 August 1945
Posey accompanies The Ghent Altarpiece on its storm-tossed flight back to Belgium.  He will receive the highest honor awarded by the Belgian government for his service in preservation of their national treasure.
Jef van der Veken’s copy of the Righteous Judges panel is installed along with the recovered original, so that The Ghent Altarpiece appears once more complete.
Conservator Jos Trotteyn, after two decades of cleaning The Ghent Altarpiece, suddenly believes that the Righteous Judges panel, painted by Jef van der Veken during the Second World War, has been replaced by the 600-year-old original.  Tests are run by the diocese, who announce that, unfortunately, the panel on display is the van der Veken copy, not the stolen original.  But the test results are never made public.  Many believe that the stolen original is back in its place, and the altarpiece is whole once more.
The Getty Foundation and the Belgian Government announce a plan to restore The Ghent Altarpiece for the first time in decades.  The restoration could finally resolve the mystery of the Righteous Judges panel.  The debate over its restoration was recently profiled in The New Yorker, in an article by Peter Schjeldahl. 

The Ghent Altarpiece, for all its twists and turns, remains the most frequently stolen, and victimized, artwork in history, the subject of 13 crimes including seven separate thefts.  It is also, one may argue, the single most influential, and most desired, painting in history.