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The Exploits of The Ghent Altarpiece

In addition to its canals, the dockside in the old harbour, the Gravensteenor Castle of the Counts of Flanders, the City Hall and the Korenmarkt, one of Ghent’s major attractions is an altarpiece. Granted, it might not sound overly exciting or novel at first glance. If we add that it is one of the masterpieces of Flemish painting and the cornerstone in the transition from medieval to Renaissance art, it might start arousing some interest. And, that it is one of the artworks which, in the course of history, has been stolen most often, as well as having travelled through many countries, you are bound to see it in a different light.

The masterpiece in question is the Polyptych of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, the work of the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It is located on the high altar in St Bavo Cathedral and was executed in 1426, commissioned by Joost Vijdt and his wife, Lysbette Borluut. The altarpiece consists of 12 panels painted in oil on both sides and measuring 3.5 m high by 4.6 m wide. It remains closed most of the year, and is only opened on festive holidays, revealing all its splendour. The paintings on the outer panels are more sober, with a marked sculptural air, the central theme being the Annunciation. A noteworthy highlight of the inner panels is their colouring, with a Deësis of Christ the King, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist as the prominent upper feature, and the Adoration of the Lamb in the lower centre. Without going into the subject, the symbology and details behind the scenes of the altarpiece would fill a whole book.

The startling vicissitudes affecting this artwork date from 1566, when the retable had to be dismantled and concealed in the City Hall to preserve it from an assault by Calvinist iconoclasts.

In 1781, the two upper panels, depicting Adam and Eve, were removed from the ensemble, as Joseph II of Bohemia and Hungary found the nakedness of the figures disagreeable. In the 19th century, the panels were replaced with clothed versions of Adam and Eve, executed by the Belgian painter, Victor Lagye.

In 1800, the Napoleonic troops regarded it as the spoils of war – the wings were sectioned off and sold, while the central panels ended up in the Louvre. Once Napoleon had been defeated, the panels were restored to their rightful place in Ghent. But not for long.

In 1816, the vicar of St Bavo sold several of the side panels, which passed through a number of hands before coming into the possession of Wilhelm II, King of Prussia. They ended up being displayed at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. To provide a better view of them, the panels were sectioned lengthwise to reveal the obverse and reverse sides in the same plane. At the end of the First World War, among the multitude of artworks Germany was forced to return were these panels, which were again replaced in their original site.

In 1934, the panel of The Just Judges was stolen and a ransom of one million Belgian francs was demanded for its safe return, but the deal was rejected. It is still missing to this day and has been replaced by a copy, the work of the Brussels Fine Arts Museum curator, Jef Van der Veken.

Needless to say, the altarpiece was not left unscathed by the Second World War either, forming part of the large-scale plunder perpetrated by the Nazis. After a complex hunt for stolen art undertaken by the so-called “Monuments Men”, it was located in the Altaussee salt mine in the Austrian Alps.

The altarpiece is currently being restored, so not all the panels are on display in St Bavo Cathedral. To make up for this, those interested can follow the restoration project live in the Ghent Fine Arts Museum (MSK).

Now that you’re up to speed with all the ins and outs behind this marvellous artwork, we recommend you get hold of a Vueling and see it for yourself. And, don’t leave it too long, in case it gets stolen again!


Text by ISABELYLUIS Comunicación

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