April 11th marked the 88th anniversary of the infamous theft that took place in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, in Ghent, where two panels of ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, the so-called ‘Ghent Altarpiece”, were stolen.
The panels were stolen on the night of April 10, 1934. The following morning, the sexton and the custodian of the art collection alerted Scotland Yard, which relayed the message to the main European police services. The thief was an unknown man, who returned the image of St. John the Baptist, but demanded by letter to the Bishop of Ghent, Bishop Coppieters, a ransom of one million Belgian francs for the remaining panel: The Righteous Judges (145 x 51 cm.).
After 13 letters, however, the offer was not accepted. It is believed that the thief was Arsène Goedertier, who on the 25th of November 1934 confessed before his death that he knew where the panel of The Righteous Judges was, but did not reveal it. The only thing that is certain is that the original panel has not yet been recovered. In 1945 it was replaced by a copy made by Jef Vanderveken, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.
The Polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Polyptych or Ghent Altarpiece, is an altarpiece consisting of 12 panels painted in oil on both sides, by the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, for the high altar of the Cathedral of St. Bavo in the city of Ghent. It was commissioned from Hubert by the burgomaster of the city, Jodocus Vijd, keeper of the Church of St. John, and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. When Hubert died in 1426 the work was completed by his brother, Jan Van Eyck.
The Ghent Altarpiece is one of the masterpieces of Flemish painting and signifies a great change in the history of painting: it marked the transition from medieval forms to the modern Nordic Renaissance. The central panel of the open altarpiece shows the representation of the Eucharist, the symbol of Christ. It is the iconographic representation of the biblical quotation of the Adoration of the Lamb [Revelation 7, 9-10]: under the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, the blood flows from the breast of the Lamb into the Chalice, to symbolize the sacrifice of Christ’s death.
During World War II, the Ghent Altar faced Nazi despoilment, the most important test of its long history. The symbolism of the work appealed powerfully to Hitler, who longed to have in his possession the polyptych, as he was convinced that in it was hidden a map to find those known as Arma Christi, the instruments that were used in the passion of Christ, and which he believed were the source of occult and supernatural powers. In fact, in the central panel of the altarpiece we can see that the angels surrounding the throne of the Lamb carry them in their hands: the spear, the cross, the crown of thorns.
In 1940, the so-called Kümmel Report (named after its author, the general director of the national museums in Berlin), established an inventory of the works that the Nazis considered German by right, but which had been taken from them since 1500. This register, commissioned by Hitler, brings together all works by artists of German and Austrian descent, those commissioned or completed in Germany, and those in the Germanic style.
According to Belga News Agency, very few leads regarding the theft have been discovered. In the summer of 2008, a floor in Sint-Jansvest in Ghent was broken into by the police but nothing was found. In 2020, a thorough eight-year-long restoration of the entire Ghent Alparpiece, including the replica panel which replaced the stolen one, was completed.