The Ghent Altarpiece [Jan van Eyck]

Lucy Portnoff


Marguerite Elliot


Buckle your seatbelts. The story of the Ghent Altarpiece is a wild ride.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, Jan van Eyck painted one of art history’s most famous treasures - the Ghent Altarpiece. More precisely from mid-15th century Flanders, this polyptych spans 15 feet and weighs a little more than your average elephant. It has been the victim of 13 crimes and stolen 7 times, making it the most stolen painting in history. The Ghent Altarpiece certainly puts the runner-up to shame; Rembrandt’s Jacob de Gheyn III has only been stolen four times, and it’s tiny.

In the early 1420s, Jan’s brother Hubert designed an altarpiece for the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The twelve panels chronicle your classic Biblical stories from A to Z. Unfortunately for Hubert, most of the credit now goes to his brother for actually painting the thing. Jan van Eyck was already famous across Europe for pioneering the use of oil paints, which allowed him to render every hair strand, grass blade, fabric fold, and jewel glimmer with acute precision. If you have some serious time on your hands, this fancy science tool digitally documents the entire work at 100 billion pixels for you to peruse every detail. Despite his impressive feat, Jan van Eyck underrated his contribution compared to his brother’s; his inscription calls Hubert “greater than anyone” and himself “second best at art.” Humble.

For one boring century after completion, the Ghent Altarpiece hung in the Cathedral as not much more than a particularly exquisite outcome of brotherly collaboration. You can think of this wholesome tale as the calm before the storm.

Around 1566, all hell broke loose. Calvinists were getting really into destroying symbols of Catholic excess, and with its elaborate frame and gilded pigments, the Ghent Altarpiece was an immediate target. But when the rioters stormed the Cathedral with torches alight, the altarpiece was gone. Guards had quickly disassembled the panels and hidden them away at the top of the tower. The work was safe again… for the moment.

It was Napoleon who started the trend of political leaders stealing the altarpiece. The French army ran wild through Europe in the late-18th century, picking up foreign treasure as they went. The Ghent Altarpiece was snatched up and carted back to the Louvre in Paris, where it was displayed as a symbol of the Republic’s might. Napoleon was eventually defeated, and his successor was a little less flamboyant about his kingly power. He returned the panels to Ghent.

This work cannot catch a break. Shortly after, a vicar of the St. Bavo Cathedral stole the panels and sold them to a collector while his boss was out of town. Apparently he got away with it, since there is no record of any punishment. Then, the Prussian king bought it off the collector to add to his new national museum. The altarpiece was stuck there until World War I. Nice job, vicar.

The work spent World War I hidden in a junkman’s wagon for safekeeping and returned to Ghent when the war ended. You might think that by this time, the St. Bavo Cathedral had really upped its security. Nope. Thieves broke in just sixteen years later and stole one of the panels. It is still missing to this day, and detectives are making little progress on the investigation. The replica that now hangs in its place is so good that some think it’s the original, hidden in plain sight.

Unfortunately for the Ghent Altarpiece, the world had another war. One popular account posits that Hitler thought the work some kind of treasure map showing the locations of religious relics. The more boring and likely possibility is that he just wanted to acquire the world’s greatest treasures. Either way, the Nazis stole the remaining eleven panels and hid them in a salt mine in Austria alongside many other priceless artworks. They were ordered to blow up the entire mine should they lose the war, but thanks to an Allied team tasked with its preservation, the Ghent Altarpiece survived the Nazis’ defeat. We can consider the 2014 George Clooney film “The Monuments Men” a thank-you card.

At last, the work returned to the St. Bavo Cathedral for good, where it continues to hang happily ever after.

The End. We hope.


The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck is the most stolen work of art ever. 

A victim of 13 crimes and 7 thefts.

One of the most important highly coveted artworks in Europe. It has been dismantled, defiled, pawned, damaged by fire, forged, and stolen many times. It was hauled around from country to country- in constant motion for 600 years. It's a miracle it has survived at all.

We think Jan’s older brother Hubert van Eyck worked on the altarpiece, but no one has been able to say for sure which part he did.

The thing is loaded with dozens of obscure symbols.  Some believe there's a secret map, others believe it can bestow everlasting life. In the center, there is lamb standing on an altar nonchalantly gushing blood into a chalice.

What's amazing to me is the amount of minute details...from individual strands of hair, to warts, wrinkles, veins and sweat, to beautiful translucent jewels.

Napoleon stole it.

Hitler and his second in command General Hermann Goering fought over it.

Nazis and Allied troops raced each other to get to its hiding place deep in a hidden salt mine. Miners and resistance fighters saved it. Monuments Men returned it to Ghent and is the main storyline of the 2014 film.

As you can imagine, after all the traumatic adventures and crimes, the beautiful altarpiece was in desperate need of restoration.

The Getty Foundation stepped up and has been instrumental in restoration. Check out the website. You can see thousands of images in extreme detail. 


The Ghent Altarpiece [Jan van Eyck] is mentioned on Sartle Blog -