How Jan van Eyck’s Masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece, Became the Most Stolen Work of Art in History

It’s a little miraculous that so much European art and architecture survives, given how often the continent has erupted into wars that burned down nearly everything else. The Ghent Altarpiece, or Adoration of the Lamb, may be the most famous case in point. It is also, by far, the most stolen work of art in history, the victim of 13 different crimes over the past 600 years. Completed in 1432 by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, and considered one of the world’s greatest treasures, the huge, multi-paneled painting (a polyptych) has weathered it all.

The altarpiece has “almost been destroyed in a fire,” Noah Charney writes at The Guardian, “was nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, it’s been forged, pillaged, dismembered, censored, stolen by Napoleon, hunted in the first world war, sold by a renegade cleric, then stolen repeatedly during the second world war…. Göring wanted it for his private collection, Hitler as the centrepiece of his citywide super-museum.”

In the short TED-Ed lesson above, Charney, author of the book Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, sketches the history of the final theft in 1934 by the Nazis of a lower panel that has never been recovered. “This may sound very silly,” Charney tells NPR, “but in fact, the Nazis and Hitler in particular were absolutely convinced that the occult and the supernatural was real.” They thought of the Ghent altarpiece as a map to the relics of Christ’s crucifixion.

The case of the missing panel remains open to this day “and new leads are followed all the time,” Charney writes. It is a story full of “many bizarre twists,” and just one of many in the altarpiece’s long history. But why? What is it about the Ghent Altarpiece, besides occult fascination, that has drawn so much unwanted attention? Eleven feet high by 15 feet wide and made up of 24 panels (originally), the work “redefined art and became instantly famous,” notes New Statesman’s Michael Prodger. In his masterpiece, Jan van Eyck, who took over for his older brother Hubert, “created a series of firsts in art.”

The Ghent altarpiece is “the first realistic interior, the first genuine landscape, the first proper cityscape, the first tangible nudes, the first lifelike Renaissance portraits. [Van Eyck took oil paint to unprecedented levels of sophistication—with glazes and transparent layers giving depth and undreamed of effects of light—to match his preternatural powers of observation.” In the video series above and below by art historians Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, you can learn much more about the qualities that have made the Ghent Altarpiece irresistible.

Related Content: 

Listen to Last Seen, a True-Crime Podcast That Takes You Inside an Unsolved, $500 Million Art Heist

Anatomy of a Fake: Forgery Experts Reveal 5 Ways To Spot a Fake Painting by Jackson Pollock (or Any Other Artist)

Meet Notorious Art Forger Han Van Meegeren, Who Fooled the Nazis with His Counterfeit Vermeers

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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