The Cathedral of Ghent — St. Bavo’s — is not exactly the home of the legendary Holy Grail, but it is the starting point of a story of almost similarly mythical proportions — the story of the lost painting of the Just Judges.
The Just Judges is a panel within a polyptych known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Collectively, the paintings and decorations which were painted in 1432 by Van Eyck is regarded as one of the defining works of art of Western civilisation. After surviving centuries of war and fire, the Altarpiece appears to have been rendered permanently incomplete, finally, by the theft of the left panel known as the Just Judges, in 1934.
The site of a legend
The Cathedral, also known as Sint Baaf’s or Saint Bavon’s, is the dominant architectural landmark of the city of Ghent (pictured above). Located in the part of Belgium once known as Flanders, Ghent became a prosperous town in the medieval ages as a result of their mastery of the production and trading of cloth. The rising civic pride and affluence meant that a proper church ought to be built to reflect the glory of the town. On the site of the present cathedral, a wooden church was believed to have been built in 942, and this was replaced by a Romanesque church in 1038. By the later years of the middle ages it was clear that a new and larger church had to be built. By stages, the old Romanesque structure was extended in the Gothic style, upwards and outwards, until, by 1569, the present structure was completed.
The original name of the church was St. John’s. In the early days, it served as a normal church as Ghent was not a Diocese. The name change came about as a result of the closure of the Abbey of St. Bavo. The home of the canons of Saint Bavo was thus relocated to the church, and it was renamed after the local Saint, a rich donor who had forsaken his wealth in order to join a monastery. In 1561, Ghent obtained recognition as a Diocese, and the church was summarily renamed a Cathedral.
The cathedral today is a very impressive building. Dominated by a high central tower built on a square plan, the lines of the cathedral are very vertical, and the naves and aisles appear narrow. The imposing grayness of the exterior gives way to a well-lit and whiter interior. The long and tall nave is punctuated by small windows which bring in light into the vast chamber. The main attraction, however, is indisputably the altarpiece.
Which van Eyck painted the Masterpiece of St. Bavo?
Jan Van Eyck was attached to the court of the Duke of Burgundy, and plied his trade in that part of their domain known then as Flanders and is today a part of modern Belgium. This was an important piece of artwork, as it introduced the increasingly sophisticated techniques in oil painting that was coming into fashion, into Northern Europe.
Collaborating with his brother Hubert, the Ghent Altarpiece is a signature piece from the Northern Renaissance. It is a complex series of paintings, with two doors and a central piece. Both doors hold paintings on both sides, and the character of the paintings inside contrast with those on the outside.
Officially, the title of the piece is “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. This is in reference to the central painting which can be seen, when opened. The lower center panel shows a congregation of saints and apostles adoring the “Mystic Lamb”, symbol of Jesus Christ in this allegory. The panels to the left show the advance of the Just Judges and Holy Knights towards the ceremony in the middle, while approaching from the right are the pious hermits and pilgrims.
The upper panels are not part of the narrative, depicting Jesus flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, and to the far sides, Adam and Eve naked. On ordinary days, the polyptych is closed and you will only be able to see the outer panels. Featuring markedly less colour than the inner panels, the outer panels display remarkable technique in the depiction of realistic looking statues and the incorporation of the Ghent skyline of the day into the scenery (pic above). On the upper panel, the annunciation is made to the Virgin Mary by the Gabriel Angel, while the center of the lower panels depicts statues of Saint John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, an appropriate theme for at the time the Ghent church was still dedicated as St. John’s. The lower panels flanking the center show the donors of the altarpiece, wealthy citizens Jodocus Vijd and his wife Isabella Borluut.
Much mystery has surrounded the altarpiece for centuries. One of the oldest mysteries is: who should the artwork be accredited to? The inscription credits both Jan and Hubert, but in later centuries, writings such as those by Durer attribute the painting solely to Jan. Based upon what is known, the painting should be attributed to both brothers, but the lively dispute over authorship of the concept and sketching and the painting will likely remain irresolvable for centuries to come.
A painting of such size and complexity would likely have a very complicated story to tell, and it does indeed. It shows us Adam and Eve, unclothed and perhaps unaware of their nakedness, as they have not yet fallen. It shows us the annunciation, a key event in the Catholic Faith, establishing the miracle of her immaculate conception of Christ. It displays the world’s Christians and wise and great men, paying tribute to a sacrificial lamb which in turn evokes memories of the planned sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as well as the first Passover in Egypt.
Stolen… and never returned
The theft of the Just Judges panel was carried out in 1934, together with the panel of St. John from the front panel of the polyptych. A ransom note was sent to the Bishop of Ghent, with the thief demanding 1 million Belgian Francs for the safe return of the panels. The note suggested that the St. John panel would be returned if a coded advertisement were placed in a newspaper. The Bishop did as instructed, and received a baggage claim ticket from the Brussels North railway station. The St. John painting was recovered safely. The Bishop, however, refused to pay the ransom. A series of 13 messages in total was sent by the alleged thief.
Then, a 57 year old man died, and proclaimed to his attorney that he alone knew the location of the painting before he had expired. The Police investigated and found in his home carbon copies of the 13 messages that had been sent to the bishop, and another typed message not yet posted. The initials of his name, Arsene van Damme, was a close match to the anagram of the extortionists’ given initials, DUA, as U stood in for V in Latin writing.
A theory developed that it had in fact been the Nazi organization that had commissioned the theft, but the thief had then decided not to cooperate. This theory arose because during the German Occupation of Belgium, the remaining panels were removed to a salt mine near Salzburg, along with many looted treasures, and the chief of the SS Secret Police actually dispatched a special agent entrusted with the task of finding the missing altarpiece in Belgium. Hitler was believed to have been thinking of seizing the iconography of the Mystic Lamb and incorporating it into the Holy Canon of his Aryan supremacy religion. While the Nazi’s interest in the painting appears genuine, they also appear to have made about as much headway in the search for the missing panel as all of the investigators prior to their search and since. Whether they were the ones who had instigated the theft of the Just Judges is again a question that remains unanswered.
A recent attempt by an amateur sleuth named Gaston de Roeck brought some public attention to the missing painting by proclaiming that, at last, he had the location. After years of painstaking searching and analysis of the clues known about the case, he led police to the parish church of the town of Wetteren on October 4, 2002. Alas, when he ceremoniously opened up the wooden panel behind the altar, he was empty handed, just as the others on the quest for the Just Judges had been.
So, today, if you do visit the city of Ghent, you must make it a point to see the Cathedral and its most treasured work of art. And then, if the painting is open on the day of your visit, you may stare at the replica of the missing panel that stands today as an announcement of the mystery that still prevails.