Also referred to by the subject of its central panel, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” The Ghent Altarpiece is perhaps the most important painting in history. Since its completion in 1432 it has disappeared, been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, attacked by iconoclasts, hidden away, ransomed, rescued and stolen time and time again. During the Second World War, the Monuments Men, a group of art historians, architects, and archaeologists charged with protecting art and monuments in conflict zones, were given a list of major artworks that had disappeared since the start of the war. At the head of that list was The Ghent Altarpiece. 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.
Danny Praet is Professor of Ancient Philosophy & Early Christianity at the University of Ghent in Belgium.
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