Time.news – TheAdoration of the Mystical Lamb, one of the greatest masterpieces of Flemish painting, was returned to the world in all its glory in a new exhibition space in the Ghent cathedral. The twelve panels of the altarpiece, completed in 1432 by the brothers Jan e Hubert van Eyck, have now been set up in one of the main chapels of the church, behind a reinforced fireproof glass, after being herded into a small, dimly lit chapel near the entrance during the ten years of a € 30 million restoration.

A troubled history

It is the happy conclusion of a troubled history that has seen the panels repainted, seized, damaged by the iconoclasts, separated and stolen several times, overwhelmed by war events. They were the first to appropriate it French revolutionary armies, who brought the work to Paris to exhibit it in the Louvre. It was only the defeat of Napoleon in Waterloo which forced France to return it to Belgium, in 1815. The diocese of Ghent, in serious economic difficulties, immediately afterwards committed the wings of the altarpiece, excluding the panels with Adam and Eve, without being able to redeem them in time. In 1816 the panels were then sold for 4,000 pounds to the English collector Edward Solly, who in turn gave them, five years later, to the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, which had them exhibited in Berlin.

The Germans attempted to complete the collection by requisitioning the missing parts during the invasion of Belgium in the First World War, with the exception of the panels of Adam and Eve, which were secured in a Brussels museum after the central part of the polyptych it had been scarred by yet another fire. The Treaty of Versailles however, he forced the defeated Germany to return not only the stolen sections but also those that had been purchased by the King of Prussia.

© Olivier Matthys / Belgamag via AFP

Matilda and Philip, King of Belgium, pose in front of the restored masterpiece

Between two World Wars

However, the recomposition of the polyptych would not last long. In 1934, unknown thieves took away the panels of Giovanni Battista and the Giudici Integri. The first was returned, the second has never been found and is still replaced by a copy today (the fate of the original was imagined by Albert Camus in ‘The Fall’, whose protagonist, Clamence, keeps it in his Amsterdam apartment).

With the Second World War, the work ended up in German hands again. The military emissaries of France, Belgium and Germany had undertaken, in the midst of hostilities, to keep the altarpiece in the museum of Pau where it had in the meantime been moved but in 1942 Adolf Hitler he ordered its transport first to the Bavarian castle of Neuschwanstein and then to an Austrian salt mine, to prevent it from being damaged by bombing.

Found in 1945 by the allies, and unfortunately ruined by the underground stay, the polyptych was brought back to Belgium in 1945 at the end of the war. A first restoration, which took place in the 1950s, was followed by the one just completed. Visitors to the Cathedral of San Bavone can now access the work by passing through the crypt, accompanied by a virtual reality tour that tells the genesis of the masterpiece and its eventful vicissitudes. With the hope that Clamence, or whoever for him, will sooner or later sting conscience.


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