The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is the lower central panel of the altarpiece and its name is often used to refer to the entire Ghent Altarpiece.
How does it make you feel to know a famous painting has had “a longer and more exciting life than any person can probably have?”
Superlatives follow The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb everywhere it goes. “World’s most coveted masterpiece.” “Most influential painting in history.” “First great painting of the Renaissance.” The giant 600-year-old oil work in 12 panels is an astonishing realist rendering of icons of Catholic mysticism, including the Annunciation, John the Baptist, the Fountain of Life, and nudes of Adam and Eve, by Flemish artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It debuted in 1432 at St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium—and then, unsurprisingly given its accolades, the so-called Ghent Altarpiece became the target of numerous tangled art heists, earning yet another title: “Most stolen artwork of all time.” It went on a grand European tour led by thieving masterminds for centuries, only to earn it one final distinction: “The world’s most well-traveled artwork.” Or at the least, most kidnapped. While there may be famous pieces that have toured the world from gallery to gallery, no other work of art has been whisked from place to place on the whims of dictators and thieves as much as this one.
If anyone knows the map points of this roving masterpiece, it’s Noah Charney, art historian and best-selling author of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece. As the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art and a professor of art crime, Charney set out to tell the full story of the Ghent Altarpiece, one he believes has had “a longer and more exciting life than any person can probably have.”
The artwork’s journey crosses three centuries and four countries (Belgium, France, Germany, and Austria), in and out of hands six different times—it’s the kind of story Hollywood drools over (The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, depicted the hunt for the painting by Nazi Germany during World War II).
Why the craze? It wasn’t the allure of being the first known oil painting—a common misconception, says Charney. Instead, the Ghent Altarpiece was the first work on a large scale to show the capability of oil painting, which was a relatively new medium at the time. The fact that it earned fame early on helped make it a target—and a piece much coveted by despots across the ages, from Napoleon to Hitler.
Conservators just wrapped up a major restoration of the altarpiece and it will be back on display for the first time in five years.
The Ghent Altarpiece’s first trip out of the country was in 1794 to the Louvre, after Ghent was captured by French Republican troops, but later returned to Ghent after the Battle of Waterloo. Then, at the start of WWII, the art treasure’s travels became more adventurous when it was sent by the Belgian government to the lavish Chateau de Pau in the French Pyrenees for safe-keeping. There it was snatched and taken to Hitler’s art-looting headquarters in the 19th-century Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria—basically a stolen art hospital, as Charney describes it. From there, the painting was whisked away yet again: This time to the Altaussee salt mines, a secret Nazi stolen art storage facility in an underground ancient mine in the Austrian Alps. Today, you can retrace the painting’s steps by visiting the salt mines, now a museum.
The Monuments Men, a group of art experts-turned-war heroes appointed to save Europe’s art treasures during WWII, recovered the stolen altarpiece in 1945 from the Altaussee salt mines and brought it back to its original home in Ghent, where it’s been hanging at St. Bavo’s Cathedral without incident for half a century. But, the plot thickens. Conservators just wrapped up a major restoration of the altarpiece and it will be back on display to the public starting October 12 for the first time in five years. Charney also hints that some key discoveries were made during the restoration process and will be revealed to the public around then as well.
Sadly, one panel—known as the “righteous judges panel”—still has never been found, which continues to keep the mystery and drama of the piece alive. “It is still very active in the imagination of the Ghent people today,” says Charney, adding that a few times a year there is a “hot tip” to the panels’ whereabouts. A Ghent police officer is still assigned to the cold case.
“I’m sure [the missing piece is] intact and I think at some point will resurface—it’s just a question of when,” says Charney. “It shows how it is still very much in the cultural oxygen, that people continue to follow up on it and to report leads, whether they are false or not… People love a treasure hunt, right? And this is the big missing treasure of the Belgian nation.”