Ghent altarpiece : a trio of mystery and suspense

It is known for many things; not the least being that it is the most stolen piece of art of all time.It represents the first really ambitious and consummate use of oil paint and it marks the birth of realism as a guiding principle in European painting. Also, it almost dwarfs the interpretation potential of the Mona Lisa. The painting is surrounded by mysteries concerning, possibly, the Holy Blood line of Christ,  as well as more ancient traditions from Mesopotania,Babylon and Egypt. It is a summary of  spiritual evolution with multiple themes all of which are plausible. It is like a tower of Babel, with all the experts speaking in tongues in an argument about god, inclusion and exclusion.

The Ghent Altarpiece consists of a complex series of twenty-four scenes, with two doors and a central piece which is showing some saints and apostles adoring the Mystic Lamb, or the symbol of Jesus Christ.Strangely, for a Catholic piece, there are Knights Templar in one panel along with Cathars which recalls a Dan Brown Da Vinci code type of mystery. It is hard to believe that Van Eyck could have conceived this entirely on his own. His phantom brother Hubert, has never really been brought to light which has only added to the mystique. It seems that the  “occult” themes of the Ghent Altarpiece were – for obvious reasons – hidden in a cryptogram.

…The Getty conservators, in a new project have tested the stolen and missing, now replaced “Judges” panel and concur with the previous report — this is, indeed, the van der Veken copy. The original is somewhere but where? The Vatican? Jerusalem?  What do we have to think about the Grail, indisputably in the center of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb?Secondly, the standard medieval structure of which this seems to be an obvious example, depicts Mary and John the Baptist flanking not the Father, but Christ. In addition, the evidence that there are no hand wounds on Jesus can be  contested by suggesting that the way Christ’s fingers fall perfectly conceal the wounds. Finally, there is inscription evidence to suggest Christ as well. Directly to the left of the figure is a picture of a pelican pecking its chest to feed its young, a possible reference to Christ which is further solidified by the  Greek inscription, IHESUS XPS. Its a labyrinth without end.

A central mystery is the identity of the illusive figure in the middle? Christ or the Father? It is perhaps the most difficult question among many…

"According to the Dutch scholar and artist Peter Voorn, the famous Ghent Altarpiece - also known as the Mystic Lamb - painted by Flemish Primitives Jan and Hubert Van Eyck is filled with crypto-iconography. Instead of a portion Catholic mysticism, the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece give us an idea of what was going on at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Peter Voorn's theory dates from 1999 and was partly published in the Jahrbuch der Oswald von Wolkenstein Gesellschaft (Germany). " read more:

“Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has disappeared, been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, painted over, censored, attacked by iconoclasts, hidden away, hunted by Nazis and Napoleon, prized by The Louvre and a Prussian king, damaged by conservators, returned as war reparations, stored in castle vaults and secret salt mines, used as a diplomatic tool, nearly been blown up, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.” ( Noah Charney ) Read More:

"Koekelberg spent seven years searching, and came to the conclusion that the missing panel was buried in a cemetery in Laeken, a north-western suburb of Brussels. He cites references in ransom letters sent to the Bishop of Ghent by a Belgian stock-broker called Arsène Goedertier, who is widely considered to have been the mastermind behind the theft, and who died soon after. The ransom letters mention that the stolen panel is hidden in a public place, where it cannot be removed without attracting public attention. Koekelberg emphasizes that Goedertier refers to the hiding place of the panel as its “resting place” and “among the angels” which suggested to him a tomb or cemetery." read more:

Hubert van Eyck was indeed a painter and brother to Jan. He was commissioned to paint the Ghent Altarpiece, but he died so soon after having received the commission that his presence is all but inarticulate. The painting as we see it is therefore wholly the work of Jan.
· Jan did not invent oil painting, but did bring it to an unprecedented level of excellence, turning the mere binding of pigments with oil into a masterful medium that would be preferred by every painter from his day forth.
· Along with Giotto in Italy, Jan may be considered the first Renaissance artist.
· In his unprecedented realism, Jan may be considered a forefather of Realism as an artistic movement.
· The Ghent Altarpiece being Jan’s premiere major artwork may be seen as the first instance of his many “firsts” as an artist.
· Because it is the most frequently stolen painting in history, it follows that the Ghent Altarpiece is also the most desired painting in history.
For historians of art and art crime, the Ghent Altarpiece should be number one on the list of what must be seen. Read More: a

"Although this may offend come sensibilities, the ultimate Christian “hero,” Jesus of Nazareth, bears a direct descent from the from the heroic archetype stretching from from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece and Rome. It must be noted, however, that despite the many parallels with prescribed formulas and motifs, the Christian epic not only takes on new twists, but also infuses a more profound significance to certain particulars. Thus, in accordance to the traditional formula, Jesus bears an impeccable lineage–a direct descent from the House of David. More importantly, He is also Christ the Messiah and the “Son of God,” the unprecedented (at least in the Hebrew experience) incarnation of God Himself. However, unlike the archetypical hero, he is essentially pure and good, devoid of some great flaw in character or judgment (hubris), unless, of course one may so consider his most human sense of uncertainty..." Read More:

Michael S. Rose: Bernauw leans toward an explanation of the crime that has come to be known as the “Nazi plot” theory. Adolph Hitler, who came into power in Germany just a year before the theft, was interested in the Mystic Lamb for occult reasons. “Hitler dreamed of an ‘Arian religion’ that could compete with Christianity,” explains Bernauw, “and he used the Mystic Lamb in this context.” He says: “I believe that the true reason for stealing the Just Judges had something to do with the fascination of the top Nazis for the Mystic Lamb.” The Nazi fascination with the altarpiece is a matter of record. During World War II, the remaining panels of the altarpiece were captured by the Nazis when they invaded Belgium, and taken from the cathedral. Heinrich Himmler sent high ranking SS-officer Kulturforscher Henry Koehn to Belgium with the sole task of locating the missing Just Judges panel. The Nazis held the Mystic Lamb in custody in the salt mines of Alt Aussée, near Salzburg, until 1945, when General George Patton’s troops uncovered the cache propped up against crates in a room deep underground, where the mineshafts were filled with dynamite….

"Thus, it incorporated the vast and readymade array of symbols, codes and sacred rituals from pre-Christian antiquity and allowed this antiquity to survive into the present. Generations of Christian believers, detached from this pagan antiquity, embraced these symbols and codes unquestionably and rendered them into manifest Christian piety and faith. Van Eyck’s magnificent Ghent Altarpiece stands as a supreme testimon

this...." Read More:

…Bernauw’s theory is that Goedertier and his accomplices, De Swaef and Lievens, worked for a Nazi agent, and were later killed when they hid the stolen panel for him. The Nazi-plot hypothesis, sensational as it sounds, is one of the more plausible theories put forth to explain the theft. One book on the crime lays out a remarkable theory involving the Knights Templar and the quest for the Philosophers Stone. Another describes the painting as a secret map leading to the Holy Grail.Read More:

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As executed, van Eyck’s polyptych represents a masterful symbiosis of artistry and faith, a visual polyphony of dogma and symbolic visualization, encompassing a unified totality of the entire Christian cosmos. Like the medieval gothic cathedral, which was meant to be a tangible representation of the entire “Great Chain of Being”–the material and immaterial reality stretching from the base to the divine, from the earth to Heaven and, thus, from man to God–van Eyck’s altarpiece also symbolizes the hierarchical unity between man and God, between faith and reason, and between the material and the immaterial….

"But to whom is John the Baptist pointing in the Ghent Altarpiece? Who is the central figure in the central upper panel? In seeking to answer this long debated iconographical question, and its relation to the lower panel, we will find just how much promise for Barth’s theology the Ghent Altarpiece contains. At the considerable risk of weighing down a masterpiece of art with theological jargon, for my purposes the upper central panel and its mysterious central figure will be assumed to correspond to the immanent Trinity (who God is “in Himself”), and the lower to the economic Trinity (who God is “for us”). The intimate connection between the two spheres is a point made as forcefully by this altarpiece as it is by Barth." Read More:

…Van Eyck still lived in a culture that emulated the medieval scholastic tradition, which believed that all true knowledge derives fromRevelation rather than empirical reasoning, and thus all knowledge is authoritative and finite. In this environment, truth proceeds from the general to the particular in a coded (symbolic) fashion. It is up to the believer, therefore, to find the keys to unlock true knowledge. Although not everyone could, the manifest reality still had to be accessible, albeit in its simplest form, even to the common unlettered folk by means of literal visualization. Hence, both the lettered and the unlettered were presented with both a coded and a representational image of the Christian cosmos. Read More: a

"Several people are walking away. With the help of other paintings, Peter Voorn succeeded in identify the heretics John Wycliff and Jan Huss, the latter wearing a "heretic's cap" - but with precious stones on it. The scene also reflects Easter, with angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion (the Arma Christi: nails, scourge, spear, crown of thorns,...), saints who are approaching the Lamb as in a procession and a few people kneeling in adoration before the Lamb. Peter Schmidt notes a parallel between the Mystic Lamb and the Jewish Paschal lamb, which is eaten during the ritual of Passover: "The Gospels report that Jesus was crucified during the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, and according to a long tradition his last supper was a Passover meal." "Yet another question is how to understand the function of Adam and Eve on this altarpiece," states Peter Voorn. "With Adam and Eva mankind became sinful and was banned from paradise. The early Church fathers interpreted Adam as the first Christ, whereas Eve was understood as the first Mary. On the altarpiece, both are standing a bit lost on the outermost edges of the wings, but when both side wings are closed, they come together in Christ, just above Paradise!" Read More:

….Again, who is the figure? Christ or the Father? After summarizing the centuries long debate, the eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky suggested a solution:

From the dogmatic point of view this figure belongs in the same class as its forerunners, its parallels, and its Flemish derivatives: it fuses the three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost into one image which is dogmatically equivalent to the whole Trinity.

But Panofsky’s tidy iconographical resolution – that the figure simply represents the Trinity – may be more than the Ghent Altarpiece wants to give. What if the tension between Christ and the Father is not meant to be resolved? Perhaps the aim of the altarpiece is to keep us guessing, and perhaps the point of the guessing is to drive home the idea that we cannot think of God the Father at all apart from the form and figure of Christ….

"In 1456, Facius, an Italian historian wrote that Van Eyck had drawn a map of the world which was perfect, displaying the continents and on which distances could be measured. This is also where we find ourselves back in Satan’s Song. After a lot of research into the archives of Henry Koehn and interviewing nazi party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg before his trial in Neurenberg Tom R. learns a staggering truth. A group called the Allahists had hidden the Arma Christi. These Arma Christi are the instruments used during the passion of Christ. There is among other things the Crown of Thorns and the Nails of the Cross. Jan van Eyck was a member of this group and has used his skills as an artist to code the hiding place into his masterpiece, the key being in the Just Judges. Tom R., who claims not to be too interested himself is than summoned by the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) to trace the Arma Christi and deliver them to the Americans. The quest leads him to Rennes-le-Château and eventually to the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Marceille in Limoux. The book ends after a group called the ‘Ebionites’ shows the Arma Christi to Tom R. in 1974. The “logo” of the Ebionites is a circle with a palm leaf. They also use the Tau cross. Hammer was given a wooden Tau cross with the Ebionites emblem on it, that he wears on several photos....Read More:

…In The Humanity of God, Barth declares that there can “be no theological visual art. Since it is an event, the humanity of God does not permit itself to be fixed in an image.”However, the Ghent Altarpiece, with its spring-loaded tension between Father and Son, perhaps avoids Barth’s critique that theological visual art must be static.

A figure that preserves a holy ambiguity between Christ and the Father illustrates, in a theologically appropriate way, Christ’s statement that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And when this mysterious figure is seen in context with the adoration of the Lamb in the panel below, the key Barthian theme emerges: That the God who ventured below into the far country has always been anticipating, by His Trinitarian nature, this very outpouring of love. The crown laid down at the foot of the God above declares that self-emptying kenosis is intrinsic to Christ’s very nature. The Ghent Altarpiece illustrates, better than any work of art that I’m aware of, that “the One who reconciles the world with God is necessarily the one God Himself in His true Godhead.”(23)Read More: a

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2 Responses to Ghent altarpiece : a trio of mystery and suspense

  1. diane folkins says:

    Hi’ve done it again….very interesting piece….leads to alot of thought….I for one would not like to have ben around in those times……nothing changes but it stays the same….df

  2. Keith says:

    Wonderful!!! Thanks David!!!

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