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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