By Noah Charney
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Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, hidden, attacked by iconoclasts, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.
In this fast-paced, real-life thriller, art historian Noah Charney unravels the stories of each of these thefts. In the process, he illuminates the whole fascinating history of art crime, and the psychological, ideological, religious, political, and social motivations that have led many men to covet this one masterpiece above all others.
the love of my life,
the love of my life,
HUBERT VAN EYCK,
who taught me the joys of gnawing on one's own foot
who taught me the joys of gnawing on one's own foot
The Wolves and the Lamb
They found him in a whitewashed cottage nestled in a dark German forest. Hermann Bunjes was an art expert who had been an SS officer until he deserted the Nazi army. Gaunt and pale, Bunjes was hiding from three antagonists: the Allies, the Nazi army, and the German people, who feared and hated the SS to such an extent that his greatest worry was falling victim to their vigilante justice.
Captain Posey and Private Kirstein surveyed the small refuge where Bunjes lived with his young wife and baby. Though the front line raged mere kilometers away, the cottage was a tranquil contrast to the chaotic final months of the Second World War. It was full of flowers and art history books. Photographs were pinned to the walls—black-and-white prints of French Gothic art and architecture: Notre Dame de Paris, Cluny, La Sainte Chapelle, Chartres.
Posey and Kirstein, American officers of the Monuments and Fine Arts Division, a group of art historians, architects, and archaeologists charged with protecting art and monuments in conflict zones, were war-zone art detectives. They were assigned to General George Patton's Allied Third Army, gathering clues as to the whereabouts of stolen art. Since the start of the war, they had heard rumors of the wholesale looting of artwork from Nazi-occupied territories. It was clear that thousands of works of art had been seized by Nazi troops, but they did not know whether there was an overall plan or destination for the loot.
They had been given a list of major artworks that had disappeared since the start of the war. The list included the masterpieces from museums such as the Louvre and the Uffizi: Davids from France, Botticellis from Italy, and Vermeers from the Netherlands. These works were symbols of state, of empire, of patrimony. Their value was incalculable, their destruction irrevocable. At the head of that list was The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.
Also referred to by the subject of its central panel, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," The Ghent Altarpiece was perhaps the most important painting in the history of art. It was certainly the most frequently stolen and, it could be argued, the most desired. It had proved particularly elusive. Posey and Kirstein had been seeking it since rumor of its theft reached them in Paris, more than a year before. Through their research, they had learned of the many crimes involving van Eyck's masterwork. It had been the victim of every conceivable transgression that could imperil a work of art. Over the course of five centuries it had been involved in thirteen crimes, both attempted and successful, and had rarely remained intact in its place of origin for more than a few years at a time.
Its history of disappearances was all the more amazing considering that the Renaissance altarpiece consisted of twelve painted oaken panels that combined to weigh around two tons. An enormous triptych the size of a barn wall (14.5 by 11.5 feet), it had been painted for a church in the city of Ghent by the young Flemish master Jan van Eyck between 1426 and 1432. It was the first major oil painting in history, and it inspired centuries of artists to take up oil as their preferred artistic medium. It was also considered the fulcrum between the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the origin of artistic realism.
The Ghent Altarpiece was the coveted trophy of both Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Both men sought to outmaneuver one another to capture it for their personal collections. Its fame and beauty aside, they saw the work as a symbol of Aryan supremacy and idolized the artist who created it as an exemplary figure in Teutonic history. They were undoubtedly aware of its recent past. Panels owned, question-ably, by the king of Prussia and on display in Berlin before the First World War had been returned to Ghent under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, a source of outrage to the German people. If Hitler could recapture the altarpiece, then he would right a perceived wrong against Germany.
Rumor had it that Hitler was also convinced that the painting contained a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, the so-called Arma Christi, or instruments of Christ's Passion, including the Crown of Thorns and the Spear of Destiny. Hitler believed that the possession of the Arma Christi would grant their owner supernatural powers. Hitler and other Nazi officials were fascinated by the occult and assembled a research group, the Ahnenerbe, to study and seek out supernatural phenomena and magical objects. Hitler financed expeditions into Tibet to capture a yeti (the so-called abominable snowman) for military use; to Iceland to look for the entrance to Thule, a mythical land of giants and telepathic faeries, which was the real place of origin of the Aryans, according to Hitler's belief; and in search of religious relics whose magical properties could ensure Nazi triumph, including the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant. As the prospect of a Nazi victory looked more precarious, Hitler escalated his efforts to find supernatural means to turn the tide.
But Göring outmaneuvered Hitler's agents and reached The Ghent Altarpiece first. Against the führer's direct orders, one of Göring's henchmen had stolen van Eyck's masterpiece from a castle in the south of France, at the foot of the Pyrenees, and brought it to Paris. Then it disappeared. The whereabouts of The Ghent Altarpiece were unknown to both Allies and most Nazi officials. Posey and Kirstein had gathered frustratingly contradictory tidbits of information on its location—until now.
A Harvard-educated scholar of thirteenth-century French sculpture, Hermann Bunjes had worked as an art advisor to Alfred Rosenberg, chief of the ERR (Einsatzstab Rosenberg), the Nazi art-looting division—the existence of which, at this point, was still unknown to the Allied army. He had also been a personal art consultant to Göring, who had used the disorder of war to steal thousands of works for his private collection. Bunjes had deserted the Nazi cause in disgust. The tipping point had been a dinner at the elite Aeroclub in Berlin, when Bunjes realized that his meal was being served on silver stolen from the Jewish baron Edmond de Rothschild.
Bunjes had records of what art had been stolen by the Nazis and where it was hidden. Drinking cognac in his cottage, he shared all he knew about the Nazi art-looting program and Adolf Hitler's master plan to steal the world's art treasures. For the first time, the Monuments Men had a sense of what they were up against—and of the fate of tens of thousands of the world's most important and beautiful works of art.
Bunjes began to tell Posey and Kirstein about the citywide supermuseum Hitler was planning in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria, which was meant to house every masterpiece in the world. Aside from a place to view and study art, this museum would function as a gallery of defeated nations, their treasures stripped from them as countries fell before Hitler's storm troopers. In lieu of the severed, pike-pierced heads of deposed and decapitated rulers, Hitler would fill his supermuseum with the artistic masterpieces that Europe had been unable to defend.
Bunjes seemed to think that the Allies already knew of Hitler's dream to create this supermuseum. He thought that Posey and Kirstein were aware of the lists of masterpieces sought by the führer, by Göring, and by the ERR. Posey and Kirstein tried to disguise their surprise as the revelations kept flowing.
Finally, Bunjes revealed the secret hiding places of the stolen Nazi art. On a map of Europe, he indicated scores of secret Nazi art depots in castles, monasteries, and mines throughout Nazi-occupied territory. The biggest cache of all, he said, was in an abandoned salt mine in the Austrian Alps, at a place called Alt Aussee. It had been converted into a high-tech underground storehouse for all of the looted art destined for the supermuseum at Linz. The stolen collection already numbered over 12,000 works, including masterpieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Titian, Breughel, Veronese, Dürer, and Leonardo. Among the works in the mine was, it seemed, Leonardo's Mona Lisa. A mystery remains to this day as to whether it, or an exact copy, was stolen by the Nazis and stored in the mine. But the work that the Nazis prized above all was Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece.
Bunjes knew the local SS gauleiter, August Eigruber, who was in charge of the Oberdonau district, which included Linz and Alt Aussee. Eigruber was an exceptionally ruthless and fanatical Nazi. An ironworker before the war, he was a founding member of the Upper Austrian Hitler Youth, rising to become its head by the age of twenty-nine. Early in the war Eigruber had served with wild enthusiasm as an executioner at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, which he had helped to establish. His complete loyalty was to Hitler—he sported an identical smudge moustache—and he mistrusted the commands of intermediaries and emissaries, whom he considered weak, hesitant, and overly merciful. He saw his appointment as head of the Oberdonau district, which encompassed Hitler's own hometown, as a reward for his staunch, iron-stiff commitment to the führer.
Hitler had declared that under no circumstances should the art under Nazi control ever return to the Allies. Eigruber had received a direct order from Hitler's secretary, Martin Bormann, instructing him to prevent the Alt Aussee treasure house from being captured by the Allies, if necessary, by sealing the mine shaft, locking the art inside but not damaging it. However, Eigruber willfully and secretly misinterpreted this order. He was determined to prevent the Allies from recovering the art—at all costs. Bunjes worried that he would blow up the art in the mine, despite his orders, if a Nazi defeat looked imminent. Messages relayed from Austrian Resistance members in Alt Aussee confirmed these fears.
Posey and Kirstein knew that General George Patton's Third Allied Army was making its way towards Alt Aussee, but it might arrive too late. They were unaware that a parallel, secret operation was under way. A courageous Austrian double agent was about to lead a team of covert operatives on a daring mission to stall the Alt Aussee mine's destruction. It was feared that if the Allies failed to reach the mine in time, every one of the thousands of artistic masterpieces stored inside would be destroyed.
The ability to defend art has been seen as an indication of a nation's strength or failure since biblical times. Great artworks have been the battle flags of warring factions, captured and recaptured by individuals and armies. During the Second World War, an unprecedented number of these battle flags simply disappeared from the homes, castles, churches, and museums of Europe. It was the job of the Monuments Men to find these works of art and, above all, one monumental twelve-panel oil painting.
Since its completion in 1432, The Ghent Altarpiece has disappeared, been looted in three different wars, and been burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, attacked by iconoclasts, hidden away, ransomed, rescued, and stolen time and time again. For some of its admirers the treasures hidden within The Ghent Altarpiece were tangible. For others, the treasures were of a more ethereal nature, revealing hidden truths about philosophy, theology, the human condition, and the nature of the Godhead. The altarpiece has been seen as so symbolically powerful that it must be destroyed and so literally powerful that its possession and deciphering might change the course of world wars.
This is the story of the most desired and victimized object of all time.
The Mysteries of the Masterpiece
As the oak door to the chapel swings open, one is first struck by the scents: the cool, ancient stone of the walls of Saint Bavo Cathedral, the smell of frankincense, and then the surprising notes of old wood, linseed oil, and varnish. The cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, abounds with stunning religious art, but one artwork stands out among the rest. After six hundred years of nearly constant movement, The Ghent Altarpiece is at last back in the cathedral for which it was painted.
Jan van Eyck's masterpiece has been involved in seven separate thefts, dwarfing the next runner-up, a Rembrandt portrait, lifted from London's Dulwich Picture Gallery on a mere four occasions. From enduring questions surrounding the movement, through theft and smuggling, of the altarpiece as a whole to the mystical symbolism of its content, the altarpiece has haunted scholars and detectives, hunters and protectors, interpreters and worshippers.
It is one of art history's great unsolved mysteries.
Those who stand before the altarpiece cannot but feel overwhelmed by its monumentality. The Ghent Altarpiece comprises twenty individual painted panels linked in a massive hinged framework. It is opened on its hinges for religious holidays but remains closed for most of the year, at which point only eight of the twenty panels, which were painted on both recto and verso (front and back sides), are visible. The subject matter of the verso panels, visible when the altarpiece is closed, is the Annunciation: The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Portraits of the donors who paid for the altarpiece, and their patron saints, also grace the back.
The altarpiece has a puzzle-box appearance, and inside its treasures lie patiently in wait for decipherers. When open, the altarpiece's center displays an idealized field full of figures: saints, martyrs, clergy, hermits, righteous judges, knights of Christ, and an angelic choir, all making a slow pilgrimage to pay homage to the central figure—a Lamb on a sacrificial altar, standing proudly, while it bleeds into a golden chalice. This scene is referred to as "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." The precise iconographic meaning of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel and the meaning of the dozens of obscure symbols within it have been the subject of centuries of scholarly debate.
Above the vast field of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, in the upper panels, God the Father sits enthroned, with Mary and John the Baptist on either side. The figure has a hand raised in blessing, a hand painted with an astonishing realism: veins bulge and tiny hairs curl out of the pore-scored skin. At his foot, a crown is clustered in light-reflecting jewels; the fringe of his cloak is woven in gold threads, and above his head arch rune-like inscriptions. Individual hairs were lovingly painted into his beard, and his almond eyes express a power and a weariness that are altogether human.
The level of minute detail in so enormous an artwork is unprecedented. Until the altarpiece was painted, only portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts contained such detail. Nothing like this intricacy had ever been seen before on such a grand scale, by artists or admirers. The great art historian Erwin Panofsky famously wrote that van Eyck's eye functioned "as a microscope and a telescope at the same time." Viewers of The Ghent Altarpiece, Panofsky explained, are privy to God's vision of the world, capturing "some of the experience of Him who looks down from heaven, but can number the hairs on our head."
In The Ghent Altarpiece jewels shine with refracted light. One can see individual hairs on the manes of horses. Each of the altarpiece's hundred-plus figures have been given personalized facial features. Each figure's face is unique and retains the detail of a portrait—sweat, wrinkles, veins, and flared nostrils. Details range from the mundane to the elegant. 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 secret weapon that permitted such detail was oil paint. Because oil paints are translucent, artists can build up layer upon layer, without covering up what lies beneath. The preferred medium before van Eyck's time, egg-based tempera, was essentially opaque. One layer blotted out the previous one. Oil allowed for a great deal more subtlety and was also easier to control. Van Eyck used some brushes that were so small as to contain only a few animal hairs for bristles, permitting an entirely new level of intricacy. The result is a visual feast, a galaxy of painterly special effects that at once dazzle and provide days of viewing interest, prompting viewers to examine the painting from afar and up close, to decipher as well as to bask in its beauty.
The Ghent Altarpiece, the young van Eyck's first major public work, was also the first large-scale oil painting to gain international renown. Though he did not invent oil painting, van Eyck was the first artist to exploit its true capabilities. The artistry, realistic detail, and use of this new medium made the artwork a point of pilgrimage for artists and intellectuals from the moment the paint dried and for centuries to come. The international reputation of the painting and its painter, particularly taking into account its establishment of a new artistic medium that would become the universal choice for centuries, makes for a strong argument that The Ghent Altarpiece is the most important painting in history.
It is a work of art that centuries of collectors, dukes, generals, kings, and entire armies desired to such an extent that they killed, stole, and altered the strategic course of war to possess it.
Both the art and the artist are cloaked in mysteries.
The Ghent Altarpiece has been known by various names since its creation. Artworks were rarely given specific titles until hundreds of years later. Most of the titles by which artworks are known today were given by art historians to facilitate reference. In Flemish, the altarpiece is known as Het Lam Gods, "The Lamb of God." It has also been referred to by nicknames, such as The Mystic Lamb or simply and perhaps perceptibly, considering the frequency with which it has been imperiled, The Lamb.
Jan van Eyck painted The Mystic Lamb between 1426 and 1432, a tumultuous time in European history. King Henry V of England married Catherine of France, then died two years later. Joan of Arc was executed in the midst of the raging Hundred Years' War. Brunelleschi began to build the dome of the cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore. Donatello's marvelous Saint George statue had recently been completed, a work that would influence sculpture much as The Ghent Altarpiece would influence painting. The very year that The Lamb was begun, Masaccio painted his celebrated Brancacci Chapel in Florence, which became a pilgrimage point for artists in subsequent centuries—what van Eyck did for panel painting, and Donatello did for sculpture, Masaccio did for wall painting. Soon after the completion of The Lamb, Leon Battista Alberti wrote his influential Treatise of the Art of Painting, mathematically and theoretically codifying the artistic rendition of perspective. A decade later, Gutenberg invented printing with movable type.
The fame of the altarpiece comes from its artistic beauty and interest—and also its importance to the history of art. This importance was constantly reasserted through the centuries, as one generation after another of artists, writers, and thinkers extolled the virtues of the painting, from Giorgio Vasari to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing to Erwin Panofsky to Albert Camus.
The painting both enchants the eye and provokes the mind. Elements of the work, such as the microscopically detailed crown that sits at God's feet, are painted with raised, textural strips of real gold leaf, which catch the light like sparks on the painting's surface. Beyond the dazzle, the painting is filled with disguised symbols linked to Catholic mysticism. It exhibits detail far greater than any of the works of van Eyck's painter predecessors. The personalization of human figures, the stark naturalism of inanimate objects like that gilded, jewel-encrusted crown, forecast movements such as Realism by four hundred years.
In considering how to situate The Ghent Altarpiece in the history of art, one might pursue two different arguments, each of them convincing. One might argue that The Ghent Altarpiece was the last artwork of the Middle Ages, or one might state that this was the first painting of the Renaissance.
It was the last artwork of the Middle Ages because the form of the frame, the painted architecture, and the figures are Gothic in style. The extensive gilding, an effect added later by a gilder after the artist had completed his work, is also a Gothic characteristic. The gold makes the painted figures leap off the panels, lending them a halo of light and a striking delineation against the gilded sea behind them. Actual gold leaf, pounded so thin that it would disintegrate if touched by an oily fingertip, was applied by static electricity. A badger-fur brush was rubbed in the gilder's own hair, creating static strong enough to pick up the gold leaf, which was affixed to the gesso by egg-white glue. Gilding would be dropped in favor of naturalistic landscaped background later in the fifteenth century, so its selective presence suggests an allegiance to the medieval style. The mastery of perspective, as well as the integration into the painting of Neoplatonic artistic theory, the preferred philosophy of the Humanists who sparked the Renaissance, are all absent. This was, therefore, the last major artwork of the Middle Ages.
And yet one might easily argue that the masterpiece represents the first painting of the Renaissance. Though there is gilding, the work also abounds with naturalistic landscapes and backgrounds, characteristic of postmedieval painting. The altarpiece was created during the height of Humanism: the rediscovery of classical Hebrew and Greek texts, and the particular idolization of the ancient Athenians. Its realism, unprecedented in the Middle Ages, was inspired by this Humanism. Part of the Renaissance Humanist philosophy was an empowerment of human capability and human lives. Only someone who embraced the value of humanity would bother to create an artwork full of such loving detail. During this era of the Christianization of pagan art and ideas, works of art reflected an attempt to reconcile the dominant Catholic religion with the contradictory philosophies and science expressed in newly discovered and translated classical texts. This Christianization of pagan imagery is integral to The Mystic Lamb. The fact that this painting was, in the decades after its creation, the most famous painting in the world among painters, and the fact that it effectively established the new artistic medium of the Renaissance, oil painting, demonstrate how it directly shaped Renaissance art and iconography.
Both cases are sound. There is a scholarly tendency to want to categorize at all costs, inserting artworks into particular "-isms" and overlooking the organic history of art, the way various styles overlap and intertwine. But part of the pleasure and wonder of great art is its mystery, its elusive qualities that haunt and intrigue us. Rather than relegating The Ghent Altarpiece to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the painting can be viewed more accurately as the fulcrum between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in art as well as thought—and it is all the more interesting because of its hybrid nature.
What is it a painting of? This seemingly simple question has a complex answer. Most religious paintings of the fifteenth century were inspired by, or precisely illustrated, a particular passage in the Bible, the Apocrypha, or biblical commentaries. The Ghent Altarpiece refers to many biblical and mystical texts, but is a synthesis rather than a precise illustration of any one of them. One must excavate the various layers of theological references and iconography before linking together the individual pieces into a constellation.
Pictures of this period were often puzzles. They led the viewer through a maze and only hinted at what lay at the center. It has often been said that a great portrait should reveal a hidden secret about the person portrayed that the person would prefer remained secret—the artist is privy to it and weaves the secret into the pigment, hiding it in plain sight for determined viewers to find, if they know how to look.
What is subtle and enigmatic in portraiture is magnified in religious painting. The subtlety of the theme on which knowledgeable viewers may meditate was also considered an advantage. Mystical secrets of Catholicism were not for novices, but rather for those with extensive knowledge of the Bible and commentaries and also Greek and Latin pagan sources. For example, van Eyck's contemporary, the Italian monk Fra Angelico, painted a small fresco in each cell in the monastery of San Marco in Florence. The cells for novice monks contain simple biblical scenes, easy to understand, provoking more of a gut reaction, such as sympathy, with a Crucifixion or a Pietà. The scenes depicted are increasingly complex in the cells that Fra Angelico painted for the elder monks. The levels of theological complexity culminate in difficult concepts such as the Holy Trinity, images that would require wisdom, experience, and extensive reading in order to understand fully.
In religious paintings for public spaces, too, what one might describe as "mystery paintings" were favored. They would often include varying levels of complexity, depictions of biblical scenes that are easily recognizable for the simpler viewers, alongside erudite images, which often contained hybrids of various theological texts, references to mythology or pagan ideas, and time-and-place-specific references, what we might call "inside jokes" today, which were obvious to contemporary viewers but are like a foreign language to a twenty-first-century audience.
There was also a pleasure in deciphering. In a time before the printing press, one of the great pleasures of an educated life was to contemplate pictures over the span of hours, months, or years. Works such as The Mystic Lamb had a religious function, decorating and referencing the Mass that took place in the church at the altar beneath it. But they were also sources of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, something to be debated with friends. Viewers showed their erudition by noting references
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- Oct 5, 2010
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