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May 6 The Ghent Altarpiece - the most stolen work of art


Its been described as the most stolen piece of art, the first great oil painting of the Northern Renaissance. A complex multi-panelled painting laced with Catholic Theology. Today in 1432 we remember how this masterpiece of European Art by the Van Eyck brother was consecrated. It has been desired by many and passed through many hands, and across borders. Recovered by the famous Monuments Men in the Second World War after Hitler had hid it in a salt mine. Not many paintings have a story like it



We travel to Ghent in Belgium where today the great Altarpiece painted by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck was consecrated. One of the world's treasures, some art historians argue that it is the most influential painting every made. The world's first major oil painting, it is seen as the defining monument of the “new realism” of Northern Renaissance art. It also has a fascinating history as it has changed ownership, and is dubbed by some people as ‘The Most Stolen Painting of all time’


The 12 panels of the painting are laced with Catholic mysticism. It's almost an A to Z of Christian dogma and belief – from the annunciation to the symbolic sacrifice of Christ, with the "mystic lamb" on an altar in a heavenly field, bleeding into the holy grail. Commissioned by the Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd ( a wealthy merchant) and his wife Lysbette as part of a larger project for the Saint Bavo Cathedral chapel. Painted by the Van Eyck brothers, a now lost inscription on the frame stated that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck — calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art) — completed it in 1432. The altarpiece's installation was officially marked today on 6 May 1432. Eight of its twelve panel painting are doubled hinged shutters, allowing two distinct views depending on whether they are opened or closed; except for Sundays and festive holidays, the outer wings were closed off and covered with cloth. The original, very ornate, carved outer frame and surround, presumably harmonizing with the painted tracery, was destroyed during the Reformation; it may have included clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters and even playing music.


Since then, it's almost been destroyed in a fire, nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, by Napoleon, hunted in the first world war, sold by a renegade cleric, then stolen repeatedly during the second world war, and at different times been forged, pillaged, dismembered, censored, stolen. In 1934, one of its 12 panels depicting The Just (or Righteous) Judges was stolen in a heist that has never been solved, though the case is still open and new leads are followed all the time. The theft was followed quickly by a ransom demand for one million Belgian francs. As a show of good faith, the ransomer returned one of the panel's two parts (a painting of St John the Baptist). Soon after a stockbroker had a heart attack at a Catholic political rally. He summoned his lawyer, Georges de Vos, to his deathbed and whispered: "I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is. The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table. The lawyer followed the instructions and found a tantalising clue about the stolen panel's whereabouts: "[it] rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public. "During the second world war, 10 years after the theft, Joseph Goebbels sent an art detective, Heinrich Köhn, to Ghent to find the lost Judges panel as a gift for Hitler. Köhn's investigation concluded that the panel was originally hidden on-site, but had been moved before he arrived, to keep it out of his hands.


In 1940, at the start of another invasion by Germany, a decision was made in Belgium to send the altarpiece to the Vatican to keep it safe during World War II. The painting was on route to the Vatican, but still in France, when Italy declared war as an Axis power alongside Germany. The painting was stored in a museum in Pau for the duration of the war, with French, Belgian and German military representatives signing an agreement which required the consent of all three before the masterpiece could be moved. In 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the painting to be seized and brought to Germany to be stored in a castle in Bavaria. After Allied air raids made the castle too dangerous for the painting, it was stored in the Altaussee salt mines, which greatly damaged the paint and varnish. Following the war, in 1945, the altarpiece was recovered by the Allied Monuments Men and returned to Belgium in a ceremony presided over by Belgian royalty at the Royal Palace of Brussels, where the 17 panels were displayed for the press. French officials were not invited as the Vichy government had allowed the Germans to remove the painting.