The Ghent Altarpiece: The Most Stolen Artwork of All Time

One of the world’s greatest artistic treasures, the Ghent altarpiece is believed to have been completed by brothers Jan van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck, (two important founders of the Early Netherlandish painting school of the Northern Renaissance) in 1432 for its installation at St. Bavo’s Cathedral in the Flemish city of Ghent. It had been commissioned by merchant and mayor Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lysbette.

The work is so rich – both thematically and stylistically – that I have no idea how to begin (or finish) talking about it (the page on Wikipedia is excellent). The Ghent altarpiece is a most ingenious unfolding of the Biblical drama – right from Genesis till Revelation, containing a large cast of characters – sinners, saints, angels, soldiers – amid the best possible greens, blues, reds and golds.

Portrait of Jan van Eyck, National Gallery, London, Wikipedia

Art historian Noah Charney – author of a book called Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (2012) – explains the significance of the artwork in an article on the Guardian:

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece by Noah Charney (2012, PublicAffairs)

Just about everything bad that could happen to a painting has happened to Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece). It’s almost been destroyed in a fire, 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, before being rescued by The Monuments Men, miners and a team of commando double-agents. The fact that it was the artwork the Nazis were most desperate to steal – Göring wanted it for his private collection, Hitler as the centrepiece of his citywide super-museum – has only increased its renown.

It’s easy to argue that the artwork is the most influential painting ever made: it was the world’s first major oil painting, and is laced with Catholic mysticism. It’s almost an A to Z of Christianity – from the annunciation to the symbolic sacrifice of Christ, with the “mystic lamb” on an altar in a heavenly field, bleeding into the holy grail.

Three photos below. If you want to see every bit of it in high definition, check out this website: Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece set up by the Getty Foundation.


The Ghent Altarpiece, Closed, Wikimedia Commons


The Ghent Altarpiece, Open, Wikimedia Commons


Ghent Altarpiece Detail – “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, Wikimedia Commons



Good books on art history (and art theft) for the general reader:

A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming (1980s/2009, Laurence King Publishing)

Art: Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary by  Iain Zaczek and Mary Acton (2008, DK)

The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick (2009, Harper Perennial)

The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore (2015, St. Martin’s Press)