Peter Smith examines the background and history of one of the world’s most famous paintings, Jan Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or Ghent Alarpiece
In 1420, Joos Vijd, Churchwarden an Alderman of the Belgian city of Ghent, along with his wife Elisabeth, commissioned an altarpiece for their private chapel in St. John’s church, which later became St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
Its correct title is ‘The Adoration of The Mystic Lamb’ but it is normally referred to as the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ and it consists of 24 different panels showing 284 figures.
Such is its beauty that Albrecht Durer described it as ‘a splendid, deeply reasoned painting’ and Phillip II of Spain was so impressed by it that he attempted to buy it for his own private collection and, when this failed, he had a full scale copy made.
The picture was placed in St. Bavo’s in 1432 and since then has had a chequered history. In the 1560’s, Calvinists used tree trunks as battering rams in an attempt to break the cathedral doors down to get at the picture, but were thwarted by the Bishop who managed to hide the panels in the belfry.
Just over 250 years later, Emperor Joseph had the panels showing a naked Adam and Eve (said to have been the first known nudes in Flemish painting) altered by having clothing strategically placed over the ‘offending’ areas.
Napoleon took it to Paris during the French Revolution and although it was returned later, one of the cathedral officials then sold it to an unscrupulous German art dealer and it wasn’t returned to Belgium until 1919 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
When World War II started, the altarpiece was en route to Italy for safe keeping in the Vatican but when Italy then entered the war it was sent to Pau in southern France. Eventually it finished in a salt mine in Austria before finally being returned to its original home.
But, even then it still wasn’t safe because on the night of 10-11th April 1934, two of the panels were stolen. One showed ‘St John The Baptist’ and the other ‘The Righteous Judges’.
It must have been a difficult job, requiring the thief to balance on a narrow ledge, high above the ground in order to remove the five feet tall panels, set back to back in heavy oak frames braced top and bottom by iron bars. And, of course, all done in darkness, to avoid detection.
Once the theft had been discovered, the chapel was inundated with sightseers. The police failed to close the chapel, thus making the task of recovering the items even more difficult as valuable clues and forensic information had been lost.
Three weeks later, Monseigneur Coppieters, Bishop of Ghent, received a letter, written in French, stating that, “It is our privilege to let you know that we have at our disposal the two van Eyck paintings which have been taken from your town’s main church.”
Signed ‘DUA’, it also contained a demand for one million Belgian francs for the return of the two panels along with the ominous warning of ‘the irrevocable destruction of these jewels’ if the money wasn’t paid.
The letter was the first of 13 to be sent to the church authorities and the Bishop quickly agreed a deal. The full ransom would only be paid when both panels were returned safely and, after following instructions contained in the third letter, ‘St John The Baptist’ was found, undamaged, in a left luggage office in Brussels.
But then, the politicians became involved.
They claimed that, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the panels belonged to the State and not the Church. The Bishop had to renege on his earlier promise because, according to the Minister of the Interior, “We are not in America, we do not deal with gangsters.”
As only 25,000 francs had been paid, ‘DUA’ refused to reveal the whereabouts of ‘The Righteous Judges’ in any of the remaining letters.
The next ‘break’ came six months later, in November. Arsene Goedertier, who lived in Wetteren, ten miles from Ghent, died of a heart attack. A boyhood friend of Bishop Goedertier, he was a devout churchman having served as both Verger and organist at St. Gertrude’s church in Wetteren.
At the time of his death he was worth some three million francs and, despite the fact that he and his wife owned over 40 properties, there were many who were suspicious of the origins of this wealth.
What made things even more intriguing though was that Goedertier’s last words, spoken to his solicitor, were “I alone know where ‘The Righteous Judges’ are……in my study……key…….cupboard.”
When the solicitor found the key, he opened a cupboard in the study and discovered, not the picture, but carbon copies of the 13 letters sent by ‘DUA’ along with a draft of another which had not been posted. But, once again, the police appeared to have bungled things. They never carried out a full search of Goedertier’s house or any of the properties he owned and they even gave his wife permission to burn all his private papers.
Many believe Goedertier was the thief and have put forward several theories as to where the painting is hidden. The idea that it is actually in the cathedral is quite plausible. Despite claims to the contrary, one area of the building hasn’t been searched, that beneath the floor boards of the organ loft where a second floor was laid to accommodate new pipes and bellows.
Goedertier was an organist who had played this organ several times and knew this area of the church well. Also, a key fitting the door of the organ loft was found amongst his possessions. No doubt he would have found it ironic to have been paid money for something that had never left the cathedral.
Others agree the painting is in a church – but the church at Wetteren. As verger, Goedertier had access to all the keys and many have suggested that both paintings were originally hidden here prior to being transferred to an agreed pick up point
Another story claims that both items were put in the left luggage offices but when things began to go wrong, ‘The Righteous Judges’ was moved to a permanent hiding place.
The Town Hall and Art Gallery at Wetteren have both been suggested as possible hiding places along with any of the properties Goedertier owned, not all of which had been searched after the theft.
Wherever the paintings are, two things are certain. Goedertier gained more fame and notoriety after his death than he ever did whilst alive and, as yet, no one has claimed the ten million franc reward that was offered when the painting was stolen.