A 1550 restoration had obscured the original, human-like eyes of the Ghent Altarpiece’s Mystic Lamb, now revealed after nearly 500 years
A 1550 restoration had obscured the original, human-like eyes of the Ghent Altarpiece’s Mystic Lamb, now revealed after nearly 500 years

If a work of art can be said to have a life, which it surely does, then few can have had a life as eventful as the Ghent Altarpiece.

A monumental work of religious devotion, painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck三级成人视频, and completed in 1432, the altarpiece – more properly known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – is one of the world’s greatest art treasures. In its almost 600-year history, it has been stolen several times; passed through the hands of a king, an emperor and Adolf Hitler; parts of it have been sawed in half; it has survived a fire; been carted halfway across Europe and back; and been hidden in cupboards, bell towers, cellars and a salt mine in Austria.

That it should have survived at all defies belief, yet there it stands in its original home in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, protected behind a screen of glass – its luminous, glowing beauty a testament to the latest twist in its extraordinary history.

The altarpiece is a triptych, measuring 11ft 5in x 15ft 1in, composed of 12 separate panels, including hinged doors on either side. When closed, the doors show largely monochromatic images of the prophets and the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. During Mass, these doors would have been opened, revealing an extraordinary tableau of Catholic symbolism and mythology. The upper panels show vividly coloured images of Christ, the Virgin and John the Baptist, flanked by a choir of angels and an assembly of musicians, and meticulously rendered portraits of a naked Adam and Eve.

Below, a host of the righteous assemble around the central figure of the Mystic Lamb. Blood flows from the latter’s pierced chest into a golden chalice – a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for the world. Now, following an eight-year programme of restoration, much of the work that had been degraded by centuries of varnishing and overpainting has been restored to its original, stunning condition.

Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece

The revitalised altarpiece forms the centre of a year-long celebration in the city of Jan van Eyck’s life and art (there are no other known surviving works by his less famous brother, Hubert), which also includes a landmark exhibition, Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts. This features the newly restored outer panels from the altarpiece, alongside 12 other van Eyck paintings – more than half of the artist’s 23 extant works – alongside pieces from other artists of the same period, including Masaccio and Fra Angelico.

三级成人视频What it doesn’t include, however, is a door panel known as The Righteous Judges, which was stolen in 1934 and never recovered, remaining one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in art history. 

The theft of the panel raises one of the imperishable questions around the theft of any great work of art: not just who took it, but why? Philip Hook, a senior director at Sotheby’s, and an authority on the subject of stolen art, says that any thief trying to sell on a well-known painting would likely be disappointed, so attuned are dealers, galleries and auction houses to any stolen artworks they might be offered. The primary clearing house for information is the Art Loss Register, which claims to be the world’s largest database of stolen art, providing "due diligence" for the art market; it is largely funded by dealers and auction houses. 

The register lists more than 700,000 objects, from paintings to jewellery to silverware. The most represented artist is Picasso, and among the most valuable missing works are Raphael’s Portrait of A Young Man三级成人视频, stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War, and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which was stolen from a museum in Boston in 1990. The missing Ghent panel is also listed.

The popular idea of great works of art being stolen to order by "Mr Bigs" for their private collections can be discounted as "a wonderful myth", Hook says. "It presupposes that these people would be the greatest art lovers of all, to be acquiring great art with no possibility of reselling it or cashing in – but rich people just don’t work like that."

Stolen from a Boston gallery in 1990, Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) is one of the most valuable paintings never to have been recovered – it is estimated to be worth at least £75 million  Credit: Alamy

A more likely scenario is ransom, or "artnapping" as it’s called. Owners of stolen artworks tend to keep quiet if they have privately negotiated to pay a ransom to get it back. It is insurance companies who are most likely to take the hit – but it is not always to their disadvantage. Hook gives the hypothetical example of a stolen painting with an insured value of £10 million. Offering a reward of £1 million may result in the painting being found and returned to its rightful owner – saving the insurers £9 million.

"Insurance companies," Hook says, "will tell you that such "ransoms" are rewards payable to anyone providing information leading to the return of the picture, and that they never knowingly deal with criminals. They make a very strong moral point of that."

三级成人视频Sometimes such a transaction might not take place for a number of years, during which time the insurers will have paid the full £10 million to the owner, at which point the painting passes into the ownership of the insurance company. Meanwhile, its value will have increased, meaning the insurers now possess a work worth, say, £30 million to take to auction. At such times, as Hook puts it, "the joy among the insurance brokers is unconfined".

三级成人视频There is some evidence that stolen works are sometimes traded between criminal organisations, as collateral in drugs or arms deals. In 2016, Italian police discovered two Van Gogh paintings that had been taken in 2002 from a museum in Amsterdam, during a raid on a house near Naples associated with an international drug trafficker. Recovery after such a long period of time gives hope for other works. Last December, a Gustav Klimt painting, Portrait of a Lady, that had been stolen in 1997 from a gallery in the northern Italian city of Piacenza, was found in a cavity in a garden wall of the same gallery, by workmen clearing ivy.

三级成人视频The Ghent Altarpiece was originally commissioned around 1420 by a wealthy wool merchant named Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lysbette, to stand in a chapel that Vijd had bequeathed to the cathedral. (Portraits of Vijd and his wife are seen on two of the outer panels of the work.) The painting was begun by Hubert, but in 1426 he died, and over the next six years the work was completed by Jan. 

US Army specialists, known as ‘the Monuments Men’, discovered the Ghent Altarpiece in an Austrian salt mine at the end of the Second World War  Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo 

三级成人视频Jan van Eyck was already a renowned figure when he painted the altarpiece – a court painter for Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, for whom he also served as an envoy, travelling through Europe on what historical records describe as "secret" commissions. He was a highly educated man, a scholar, who understood science, botany and optics, and who revolutionised the techniques of oil painting.

For more than 300 years, the altarpiece stood in its chapel in St Bavo’s Cathedral, surviving the Great Iconoclasm of the 16th century – when Catholic churches across Europe were ransacked and destroyed by Protestant mobs – by being dismantled and hidden in the cathedral tower.

三级成人视频Then, in 1795, French revolutionaries occupied Flanders and moved the central panels to Paris, to be exhibited in the Louvre, but they left behind the doors, which were deemed to be of no value and hidden away in the cathedral basement. In 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, the central panels were returned to Ghent. But in order to pay for repairs to the cathedral, the doors were sold off, except for the panels showing the naked images of Adam and Eve, which were considered improper and hidden away.

The buyer was an English dealer named Edward Solly, who paid £4,000 for the doors, before selling them on for the enormous sum of £16,000 to the King of Prussia. Meanwhile, those panels remaining in Ghent were damaged by fire, and the paintings of Adam and Eve removed to a museum in Brussels. Copies were made of the couple, clothed in the interests of decency, to be displayed in the cathedral.

During the First World War, the central panels were again stolen from the cathedral, this time by German forces, but they were returned in 1922 under reparations agreed at the Treaty of Versailles, along with the doors that had been sold by Edward Solly. At the same time, Adam and Eve were also returned to the cathedral, bringing together the complete altarpiece in its original home for the first time in 100 years.

Restorers carefully removing centuries-old layers of overpainting from the Ghent Altarpiece Credit: Katrien Van Acker for KIK-IRPA 

三级成人视频But more upheaval was to come with the 1934 theft of The Righteous Judges panel. Its place was filled by a copy made by picture restorer and (it later transpired) professional forger Jef Van der Veken, who in a jeu d’esprit designed to distinguish the copy from the original gave one of the horsemen the face of the then Belgian king, Leopold III.

三级成人视频In 1940, in the face of the occupying German forces, the decision was made to send the altarpiece to the Vatican for safekeeping. En route, Italy declared war as an Axis power alongside Germany, and the work was stored in Pau, where, in 1942, it was seized by the Nazis under orders from Hitler and moved to Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. Hitler intended it to be the crown jewel in the "Führermuseum" that he planned in the city of Linz, which would contain the world’s greatest – looted and "approved" – masterpieces.

When Allied air raids endangered the painting, it was moved once more, to the Altaussee salt mines in Austria. In 1945, it was found by soldiers from the US Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section –the "Monuments Men" – resting on a pile of empty cardboard boxes. "The Nazis had set dynamite to explode when the American troops arrived," Ludo Collin, the canon of St Bavo’s Cathedral and custodian of the altarpiece, explains. "But the people of Altaussee intervened so that only the entry of the mine was damaged, and the altarpiece survived." 

One of the American soldiers was Lincoln Kirstein, an art connoisseur who went on to found the New York City Ballet. He wrote of the moment when he first set eyes on the work: "The miraculous jewels of the Crowned Virgin seemed to attract the light from our flickering acetylene lamps. Calm and beautiful, the altarpiece was, quite simply, there." In 1946, it was returned in high ceremony to the cathedral. Local residents lined the streets in a guard of honour and waved flags.

Restorers carefully removing centuries-old layers of overpainting from the Ghent Altarpiece Credit: Katrien Van Acker for KIK-IRPA 

The present restoration has proved to be an extraordinary process of artistic archaeology. Costing £1.8 million, it consists of three phases: the doors and the central panel showing the Mystic Lamb have now been completed. Restoration of the upper panels, showing the Virgin, Christ and John the Baptist, will start next year.

Using the latest scanning technique, called macro-X-ray fluorescence analysis, or MA-XRF, in which the painting is bombarded with high-frequency electromagnetic waves, conservators were able to establish that almost 70 per cent of the original paint layer on the outer doors, and significant portions of the central panel, had been overpainted during a restoration in 1550. Painstaking removal of the overpainting has revealed the work as glowingly pristine as it would have been on the day van Eyck completed it.

The accuracy and detail of van Eyck’s work is astonishing: the painting features 75 different kinds of herbs, plants and trees, all of them botanically accurate. A pearl on a costume is depicted with light reflections from a stained-glass window in the cathedral.

The restoration has also revealed hitherto hidden aspects of the work, most sensationally the face of the Lamb itself, originally painted in a distinctly anthropomorphic fashion, with human-like eyes that stare piercingly out of the picture. The unveiling prompted a storm of comment on social media about the "humanoid" Lamb, including suggestions that the 16th-century overpainting had rectified "a mistake" by van Eyck. A more likely explanation is that at the time of the Reformation, a century after van Eyck – who tended not to make mistakes – the "human" eyes were considered sacrilegious, although experts are undecided on the true reason.

Untouched by the restoration is the copy of The Righteous Judges – at 75 years old, it’s a mere blink in the centuries-old history of the altarpiece.

Adam and Eve, after Jan van Eyck, c. 1550, showing in the exhibition An Optical Revolution at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, along with van Eyck’s panels of the same subjects from the Ghent Altarpiece Credit: matthieu litt

Following the disappearance of the original in the ’30s, the Bishop of Ghent received a note demanding a ransom of one million Belgian francs, signed with the initials DUA. The Belgian government refused to pay. Eleven more notes followed, but the ransom was never paid. Several months later, a stockbroker named Arsène Goedertier, who had connections to the cathedral, summoned his lawyer, Georges de Vos, to his deathbed, telling him with his dying breath that he alone knew where the panel was hidden, and instructing the lawyer to search a drawer in his desk.

三级成人视频Following Goedertier’s instructions, de Vos found carbon copies of the ransom notes along with an unsent note saying the stolen panel "rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public". Police concluded that Goedertier had been behind the theft, but despite numerous false leads the panel has never been found. 

三级成人视频Ludo Collin says that almost 90 years after the event he continues to receive four or five letters a year from people claiming to know where the panel is hidden. "It’s the Loch Ness monster of Ghent," he says with a smile. He passes all the letters to the police, who decline to comment on the case, saying it is still open. In 2018, they were obliged to issue a plea to residents not to start digging up paving stones in Kalandeberg Square in the centre of the city, after a new book advanced the theory that the panel might be buried there. Sadly, my own leisurely stroll around the square revealed no sign of it.

There is, as Philip Hook observes, something particularly lowering to the spirit about the theft of a great work of art – a loss that far exceeds whatever its monetary value may be. 

"A painting is a human creation in a very special and personal way," Hook says. "To steal it is almost an abuse against humanity." When, in the most famous art heist in history, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an Italian workman [it was recovered two years later], crowds queued to look at the empty space on the gallery wall where the painting had hung – an act tantamount to mourning.

No price could be placed on the stolen panel of The Righteous Judges. It remains the final missing piece in the divine jigsaw that is the Ghent Altarpiece.

Standing in St Bavo’s Cathedral, I suggested to Collin that, as a religious man, considering the extraordinary history of this masterpiece and all the ordeals it had survived, to see it now restored to its original glory, he must surely believe in miracles.

三级成人视频He smiled. "And now," he said, "we just need one little miracle more."

The Ghent Altarpiece is part of the exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts, open until April 30;

Other stolen masterpieces

by Precious Adesina

1985 - Bather Seated on a Rock by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Bather Seated on a Rock by Pierre Auguste Renoir

At least two of the five gunmen who stole nine Impressionist paintings– including two Renoirs – from the Marmottan Monet Museum in Paris bought tickets and entered like ordinary visitors. They held guards and visitors hostage for five minutes while loading their haul, then worth £9.2 million, into a car. The paintings were traced to a flat in Corsica five years later.

1990 - The Concert by Johannes Vermeer

The Concert by Johannes Vermeer Credit: Alamy

 A pair of thieves dressed up as police officers handcuffed security guards and left them in the basement of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston before stealing 13 works of art valued at around $500 million (£386 million), including several pieces by Rembrandt, a Manet, five drawings by Degas and The Concert by Vermeer. It remains the largest unsolved art mystery.

2000 - View of Auvers-sur-Oise  by Paul Cézanne

2000 - View of Auvers-sur-Oise  by Paul Cézanne Credit: Alamy/Heritage Image Partnership

三级成人视频On New Year’s Day, at the start of the new millennium, two thieves cut a hole in the roof of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and entered into the galleries below by rope ladder.  A smoke bomb ensured  they could foil security cameras. The pair took off with a painting by  Paul Cézanne worth  £3 million. It has not  been seen since.

2004 -  The Scream  by Edvard Munch

The Scream  by Edvard Munch Credit: Alamy

三级成人视频During opening hours, gunmen entered the Munch Museum in Oslo and ripped two of the artist’s most famous works, The Scream and Madonna, from the wall. The paintings – valued at  £10.4 million combined, making them two of the most valuable pieces in the museum’s collection – took two years to recover. Police refused to confirm how or where they were found.

2005 - Reclining Figure  by Henry Moore

It’s hard to imagine how Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure was stolen without a single person noticing – the bronze sculpture weighed a hefty two tons and was 10ft long. Nonetheless, thieves managed to pinch it from the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire 15 years ago. Police suspect the work – valued at £3 million – was melted down for scrap and sold for £1,500.

2019 - America by Maurizio Cattelan

America by Maurizio Cattelan Credit: Leon Neal/Getty

三级成人视频In the early hours of the morning, a fully functioning 18ct-gold toilet was stolen from an exhibition at Blenheim Palace in Oxford. The show had only been open for three days when the artwork by Maurizio Cattelan, worth £4.8 million, disappeared. Despite multiple arrests, the identity of the thief and the whereabouts of the golden loo remain  a mystery.

Sign up for the Telegraph Luxury  newsletter for your weekly dose of exquisite taste and expert opinion.