By what measures do we assign “greatness” to artworks? The word of experts? Public acclaim? Monetary value? By these standards, Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, surely warrants a place in the firmament. There is, however, a gauge of desirability by which the 1432 artwork stands alone: It is the most oft-stolen painting in history. The altar, or parts of it, has been stolen about 13 times according to Noah Charney in “Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.” Even today, the status of one of its 24 oak panels remains a mystery.
Charney delivers, essentially, a biography of the altar. As his narrative plainly illustrates, he is only the latest in a long line to find himself consumed by the altar’s beauty, obscure meaning and strange history.
The mysteries enveloping the altar begin with its origin. Though it is generally assumed most of the work was done by Jan, an inscription, possibly forged, discovered in 1823 suggests that Hubert either started it or designed the frame. Whatever the case, the precision with which the altar was painted was something previously unseen on a work of comparable scale. To stand before it in the side chapel of Ghent’s St. Bavo Cathedral is to be entranced by its jewel-like radiance. In its famous central image, a stream from the Fountain of Life spills out toward those who stand before the altar. Some believe that in its arcane symbolism, the altar serves as a secret map to the location of fragments of the True Cross.
Beyond its aesthetic glory and the potential, believed by many, of its ability to confer everlasting life, the altar’s status as a religious and national symbol has made it an appealing target over the centuries. During the counter-reformation, it was hidden in the cathedral attic to protect it from rioting hordes bent on its destruction. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II had its panels depicting Adam and Eve removed on the grounds of indecency. Just a few years later, in 1794, the French had its central panels taken to Paris as war booty. They were returned upon Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but soon after, six of the panels were sold off, eventually finding their way to the collection of Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia. Those six panels were returned yet again as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles — a testament to the altar’s status as a national treasure of Belgium.
Alas, it did not remain in Ghent for long. As Charney deftly narrates, the altar’s guardians at St. Bavo worked heroically to keep the altar from the acquisitive hands of the Nazis, shipping it to a remote location in France, where it could be kept safe with masterworks from the Louvre. Hermann Goering wanted it for his collection of plundered masterpieces, but Adolf Hitler, a failed painter intrigued by the altar’s occult reputation, requisitioned it for the titanic museum he was planning for his home city of Linz.
Hitler brought the altar to the Bavarian palace of Neuschwanstein, but with the war tide turning it was removed with other Nazi loot to a salt mine in the Austrian alps. It was there that the story of the altar almost came to an abrupt end. A fanatical SS officer, bent on keeping it from allied hands, tried to incinerate the entire contents of the mine, and was stopped only by the heroic action of Austrian partisans and American soldiers. Charney’s dutiful retelling of the conflicting accounts of this operation make it difficult to figure out who was responsible for what, but it’s hard to fault his diligence.
The altar was returned to Belgium with much fanfare by American forces, but it was not intact, and hadn’t been for more than a decade. On an unusually dark night in April 1934, two of the altar’s panels had been stolen from St. Bavo. When an inexperienced detective arrived the next morning, he was so frustrated by the rubberneckers rummaging through his crime scene that he left to investigate the robbery of a cheese shop.
One of the stolen panels was returned as part of a ransom exchange with authorities, but the other has never been recovered, and a reproduction now occupies its place. The whereabouts of the missing panel has inspired no end of amateur conspiracy theorizing. Albert Camus used the theft as a plot device in his 1956 novel, “The Fall.” Charney, who runs a nonprofit think-tank on art theft, speculates that the reproduction placed in the altar is actually a touched-up version of the stolen panel, returned by the thief. But a recent restoration of the altar, sponsored by the Getty Foundation, has allowed historians to debunk this theory. Other investigators have fared no better: For 50 years, the crime has been the obsession of Karel Mortier, a retired police chief of Ghent, one of Charney’s heroes. But he too has come up empty. In a sense, this is only fitting: A sense of mystery has always drawn people to the altar. It’s not about to give up its secrets.
Lamster is the author of “Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens.”