The Ghent Altarpiece hung undisturbed for 140 years and then became the target of Protestants eager to destroy graven images of God. The first attack in 1566 was repelled by the outer doors of the cathedral; by the second assault with a battering ram, the altarpiece had been hidden in one of the towers and it escaped the wrath of the mob.
In 1794, the French Republican army invaded Flanders and began a campaign of looting artworks and sending them to France. On Aug. 20, 1794, the central panels were taken from the St. Bavo Cathedral and transported to Paris and put on immediate display at the Louvre. It is not clear if the side panels had been hidden or were ignored by the invading army, but they remained in Ghent. A few years later, the director of the Louvre would ask the Ghent authorities if they would consider giving over the side panels, so the altarpiece could be whole again, albeit in France, not Belgium.
With Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the monarchy was restored in France. But, when Napoleon escaped from his first exile on Elba and amassed another army and marched on Paris, King Louis XVIII fled from France and found refuge in Ghent. After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, King Louis, in gratitude to the city that had sheltered him, arranged for the return of the central panels to Ghent. The painting was once again a complete work for a year until the side panels were severed from the central panels and stolen on Dec. 19, 1816.
The side panels ended up in the collection of Edward Solly, an Englishman based in Berlin. In 1821, the Prussian emperor, Frederick William III, bought Solly’s collection and used his legitimately purchased works of art as the core of the collection for the newly established Prussian national gallery, the Berlin Museum. In a move that would horrify art conservationists today, the side panels were split vertically, so both sides could be viewed by museumgoers at once. The side panels remained until 1920 on Museum Island in Berlin. The side panels were returned to Ghent in one of the most humiliating and painful reparations inflicted on the defeated Germany by the Allies.
The Ghent Altarpiece was whole again for 20 years until the Nazis stole it during the Second World War and placed it, along with hundreds of other major paintings, in the Alt Aussee salt mine in Bavaria. Adolf Hitler had planned to build a vast museum in Linz, Austria, his birthplace, to house the thousands of artworks that had been looted from the defeated nations of Europe. The story of how these precious artworks were rescued from almost certain destruction by a zealous local official determined to carry out Hitler’s “scorched earth” policy is one of the most fascinating sections of the Ghent Altarpiece’s complicated history.
It is a reminder that our art treasures that hang quietly on museum walls or in apses of cathedrals were probably stolen from someone at some time. Most European museums are filled with artworks taken in one invasion or another. More chilling is the thought that a work as singular and beautiful as the Ghent Altarpiece could be destroyed in a few seconds by a frustrated criminal who did not get the ransom he expected or a passing soldier eager to avenge his fallen comrades. The Ghent Altarpiece has endured these calamities and many more, a glowing tribute to the genius of the brothers Van Eyck and the God who inspired them.
Yearley is a graduate of the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.