The Ghent Altarpiece is no ordinary work of art.
Created in the 1430s, it barely escaped destruction by a Calvinist mob a century later. Napoleon appropriated it and hauled it back for display at the Louvre (where it was a big hit). It was returned to Belgium after Waterloo, but a portion of it was stolen a year later, bought by the King of Prussia, and displayed in Berlin (but returned according to a stipulation in the Treaty of Versailles). It was nearly burned in a church fire in Ghent in 1822, secreted in a confessional as soldiers searched for it during World War I, then stolen by the Nazis during World War II and hidden in a salt mine in Austria, where resistance fighters came to its rescue in the nick of time.
Said author Noah Charney ’02, “Anything bad that can happen to a work of art has happened to this one.”
The Ghent Altarpiece was an irresistable subject for Charney, a Rome-based art historian, an expert on art theft, and founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, a think tank and academic institution. But Charney says that it was Colby Jetté Professor of Art David Simon, in an offhand remark during a lecture, who first informed his then-student that The Ghent Altarpiece was the most frequently stolen art work in history. Add to that distinction its status as one of the most sought-after objects and you have the ingredients for a fascinating tale, one that blends art history, political intrigue, and thriller-worthy suspense.
“When I really delved into it, it was much more intriguing and multi-layered than I had thought,” Charney said.
The focal point of the story is an assembly of panels painted mostly by Jan van Eyck but likely begun by his brother Hubert. The paintings, among many others, include the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Adam and Eve (whose privates were painted over in the 19th century), and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a subject taken from the New Testament. The wall-size masterpiece “really takes on a life of its own,” Charney said. “I like the fact that you can follow the biography of an object through these points of history. Someone mentioned that it was like Forrest Gump.”
Charney compellingly describes the work’s beauty and importance, its symbolism and extraordinary detail. “Details range from the mundane to the elegant,” he writes. “Viewers can make out tufts of grass, the wrinkles in an old worm-eaten apple, and warts on double chins. But they can also see the reflection of light caught in a perfectly painted ruby, the folds of a gilded garment, and individual silvery hairs amid the chestnut curls of a beard.”
“The painting,” writes Charney, “both enchants the eye and provokes the mind.”
The result of that enchantment and provocation is the tumultuous history that has seen the painting buffeted by wars—and has even affected their course. If a painting, like a cat, can be said to have nine lives, The Ghent Altarpiece has few left.
In fact, the intrigue and destruction recounted in the book lead you to wonder that any artwork can survive for 600 years and to lament the fate of those works that have not. “Artworks resemble lambs in an open field by night,” Charney writes. “The nations are the shepherds.”
After reading his book, that’s a scary thought.
—Gerry Boyle ’78