Ghent Altarpiece

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, The Lamb of God, Agnus Dei or in other languages: Het Lam Gods, Der Genter Altar, L'Agneau mystique) is a very large and complex polyptych panel painting which used to be in the Joost Vijdt chapel at Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, but was later replaced for security reasons to another part of the cathedral. Commissioned by the wealthy merchant and financier Joost Vijdt, it was executed by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

The altarpiece consists of twelve panels in two rows, eight of which painted on both sides. The upper row on the front shows Christ the King surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The insides of the wings represent angels singing and making music, and on the outside Adam and Eve. The lower part of the front panel shows the adoration of the Lamb of God, with people streaming in to worship, overseen by the dove representing the Holy Spirit. On week days the panels were closed, showing the Annunciation of Mary and portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut.

There used to be a notice on the altar stating that Hubert van Eyck "maior quo nemo repertus" (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck - calling himself "arte secundus" (second best in the art) - finished it in 1432.

The masterpiece of the brothers Van Eyck has an eventful history. Some panels were once sold, stolen, cut lengthwise or even kidnappped. In 1919 with the treaty of Versailles it regained its final destination in the church in the meantime renamed as St. Bavo Cathedral, after a stay of more than a century in Germany. It is a miracle that the whole , with the exception of one copied panel, can be visited in its original state.

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

  • 1417: Beginning of the work.
  • 1432: the painting is finished, and placed in the then called St Jans church.
  • 1566: during a protestants revolt it is hidden in the tower until 1569.
  • 1578: During the calvinistic regime the painting is moved to the city hall of Ghent
  • 1781: The panels Adam & Eve are stored in the archives of the chapter house.
  • 1792: French soldiers take the central pieces with them to Paris
  • 1815: at the collapse of Napoleon those panels return to the cathedral
  • 1816: the wings, except for Adam and Eve, are sold to become the property of the king of Prussia
  • 1822: the remaining panels escape from a big fire
  • 1861: sale of the panels Adam and Eve to the Royal Museums of beautiful art of Belgium
  • 1894: the six side wings are cut lengthwse in Berlin.
  • 1914: the painting is hidden in the surroundings of the cathedral
  • 1920: all panels are united (Treaty of Versailles)
  • 1934: the panels of the Just Judges and of St. John the Baptist are stolen
  • 1940: at the German invasion the painting is brought to Pau (France) from where German troops take it away
  • 1946: the painting returns to Ghent
  • 1986: it is moved to the Villa chapel, its present location.

just judgesSaint John the Baptist In the night of April 10th and 11th in 1934 the panels The Just Judges and St John the Baptist are stolen. After negotiations with the unknown "D.U.A." the panel Saint Jhon the Baptist was recovered end of May. The Just Judges remain missing.

The Thirties

The art robbery of 1934 reflects the turbulent time climate. The thirties begin with an economical depression that comes from the United States. The position of the Belgian industry staggers and the unemployment assumes vast proportions. No government is able to improve the situation. The upheaval plays into the hand of the extreme right wing and makes the establishment capsize.

In 1934 the crisis came to a head. On February 18th the country woke up with a start because of the message of the strange death of King Albert I at the deserted rocks of Marche-les-Dames. A couple of weeks later two spectacular bankruptcies rocked the foundation of the political world. On March 28th the socialist Bank of Labour had to close its counters. Thousands of little savers are the victims. Also the General Bank Union, the biggest Flemish Bank, has suffered enormous losses en threatens to sweep the Belgian Farmer's Union along.

The individual seeks protection, comfort or diversion in mass events, in the spectacle shown in cinemas, in the radio programmes of the new national broadcasting system.

The feeling of despair takes, also for the Church, bizarre forms : in 1932-33 the country is flooded with a wave of apparitions of Mother Mary a.o. in Beauraing. They tempt masses of pilgrims and create a flood of devotion and mysticism.

The theft of two panels of the unquestioned masterpiece the Mystic Lamb is the final attack on hierarchy and legal order. If this criminal act was not put in the shade by the threat of a holocaust.

Alarm in the cathedral

St. Bavo Cathedral - Ghent In the early morning of Wednesday April 11th, 1934 the second sacritan of the Ghent St. Bavo cathedral was terror-struck : in the left wing of the closed Mystic Lamb alterpiece two panels are missing. Beacuse of the opening he discovers the bright green and red of the middle panel, that represents the Adoration of the Lamb. Both panels are painted on oak and have the following dimensions: height 1,49 m, width 55,5 cm and thickness 4 à 5 mm (without the parkettage at the back).

At 8h35 sacristan Van Volsem and canon Van den Gheyn, custodian of the the art collection in the cathedral, inform the police of the theft. Chief of police Patijn of the first police district makes the first enactments on the spot. The public prosecutor is notified.

teft of the just judges That same day the theft is passed on to Scotland Yard and the main police services in Europe. There is also a special edition of the Belgian Central Description Paper.

The first missing request mentions only one panel! A more often made mistake, because the two panels once formed the front and back of one single panel, but were separated by the Germans in 1894.

The news traveled fast in the city. Immediately there is a flood of people. The federal police, led by chief of police Luysterborgh, also comes to the spot, but returns empty-handed because they think it impossible under the circumstances to start a thorough investigation. The next day mouldings in plaster are made of the damage on the window of the painting. However those conclusive pieces will not be kept for sixty years...

The condition of the chapel can only be deducted from press photographs and articles in the newspaper which report eagerly about the theft.

The police and press receive plenty of leads about 'suspicious' persons or situations.

Thirteen letters

On May 1st, 1934 Monsignor Coppieters, bishop of Ghent, receives a pale greeen envelope of the most standard make, with in it a letter that seems to deserve more attention than the other letters with alleged information or threats. Ad in newspaperThe author, who signs with D.U.A., demands 1 million francs ransom. All together he sends 13 letters to the bishop, who is supposed to answer in the colums "Avis Individuels" of the Brussels liberal newspaper La Dernière Heure.

The diocese passes all the letters on to the public procecutor. They do not come to an agreement about the ransom. The judicial authorities want at all cost catch the offender(s), the diocese declares themselves rather prepared to raise the ransom.

The thirteenth letter was posted at October 1st. No other D.U.A.-letters will follow. We soon know why.

You can read those 13 letters here.

Trainway station Brussels-North (1934)

Brussels

In the third letter there is a deposit receipt of the luggage office of the railway station of Brussels North.

There was great tension when chief of police Luysterborgh, accompanied by canon Standaert and some police officers of the Brussels federal police,recieved a package wrapped in a black wax cloth with the size of the panel. When it was opened carefully at the court of Brussels, one discovered under a thin brown paper the undamaged grisaille of St John The Baptist.

The panel was taken secretly to the episcopal palace of Ghent and they agreed to keep silent about the return of the panel. The railway station employee Alex Puissant declared that the unknown who had deposited the board was about 50 years old, but could not describe the person in detail.

 

Antwerp

Vicar Henri MeulepasThe fourth letter specifies that the ransom for the Just Judges has to be delivered to the priest Meulepas of the Saint-Laurence parish in Antwerp. Why specifically to him? There is no logic explanation for this, but we see that a close relative of the presumed blackmailer lived in the neighbourhood and had a shop there.

The package that the court gave to the priest Meulepas some days before the collection, contains instead of the demanded million, only two notes of 10.000 and five notes of 1.000 frs., of which the numbers have been noted down carefully. With the 25.000 frs there is a letter, in which the demanded amount and the procedure is totally changed.

In the afternoon of June 14th a taxi driver rings at the door of the vicarage of priest Meulepas at the Markgravelei. In exchange of a torn piece of newspaper, he accepts the 'package' and crosses slowly the street to the waiting car. The housekeeper of the priest sees someone in the back of the car whose glasses reflect in the sun...

D.U.A.

initiaal D.U.A.About the mysterious abbreviation D.U.A. there will be many speculations, never anyone will know for sure what it means. Are it the initials of the suspect(s)? Does it refer to an assignment: 'Door U Aangesteld?' A French reference to the hiding place: 'Dans Une Armoire', 'Derrière Un Autel', etc.? 'Deutschland Über Alles?' The cynical signature 'Devotus vir Arsenius?' Or is it the abbreviation of a Latin saying/proverb ...


This time bar serves as navigation, go with your cursor over the items (where necessary; click) to see more details.



The revelation

On November 25th, 1934 there is a political meeting in the hall of the Holy Mary college in Dendermonde. Arsène Goedertier there, one of the speakers, had a stroke. He is transferred with all speed to the house of this brother-in-law (Ernest Van Den Durpel) in Dendermonde.

Face to face with death he is just able to reveal to an agent, lawyer Georges De Vos, that he was the only one who knew the hiding place of the missing Just Judges.


 
" I called for a priest, but my conscience is clear. Listen; I am the only one who knows where the Mystic Lamb is ...

I alone know this. You will find the complete file in my small desk
in the right drawer of the bureau is an envelope "Mutualité" ...

So you know where the file is ... "
 


house Goedertier In the house of the deceased De Vos finds in a drawer the damaging documents, a.o. the duplicates of all typed threatening letters and a fourteenth hand-written, unfinished letter. All these documents are enclosed in the envelope with the title "Mutualité" ...

There is also a deposit receipt of the luggage centre of the railway station of Ghent Saint-Pieters, where the typewriter is found. The typewriter with which the treatening letters to the diocese are written: a portable Royal, hired at Ureel, a shop in the Vlaanderenstraat (in the immediate surraoundings of the Saint Bavo cathedral) in Ghent.

Furthermore at the house of Goedertier they also find a number of strange drafts, which can be a clue to the hiding place, as well as three keys: a key to the garage where he stations his car, a key of the safe at "Crédit Anversois" in Ghent (which does not contain anything important) and a small key that will only be identified much later as one of the entrances to the rood loft of the Saint Bavo cathedral. Seen the nature of the keys they can also be used at other places.

Lawyer De Vos informs the office of the public prosecutor immediately, but for some obscure reasons the public prosecutor decides to keep the investigation secret. The direct witness of Goedertier's last moments, lawyer Georges De Vos, doctor Romain De Cock and father Libertus Bornauw,are not heard by the court. That is the reason why several versions of Goedertier's laste words are going around.

Only on May 9th 1935, almost six months after his death, the public prosecutor makes some details public by a first notice board. A premium of 25.000 frs is promised to whom can give a lead to the revelation of the missing planel. Shortly after this some newspapers publish the name and the portrait of the deceased blackmailer.



Arsène Théodore Victor Léopold Goedertier

Arsene Goedertier 
Arsène Goedertier is born in Lede on December 23th, 1876. He is one of the 12 children of the family of Emile and his wife Maria Wandels. In 1934 only two of them are still alive: Arsène and his youngest brother Valère, jeweller in Sint-Niklaas.

On November 3rd, 1915 Arsène marries Julienne Minne, born in Parijs on May 6th, 1884, but raised at the house of an aunt and uncle (a stockbroker) in Ghent. After seven years of marriage they get a son, Adhémar, "Dédé" for the parents and the friends.
It became a problem child, with a serious eye disease that aggravates more and more. In the summer of the negotiations between Arsène alias D.U.A. and the diocese, the family celebrates the solemn Communion of Adhémar and the boy is confirmed by the addressee of his father's threatening letters, Monsignor Coppieters.

A year and a half after the involvement of his father is revealed the boy will die, rambling about "police" and "thieves".

 

Certified as sacristan and of irreproachable behaviour

Emile Goedertier, father of Arsène, was headmaster and inspector of a primary school, until he resigned as a result of the school funding controversy of 1879-1884. By way of 'compensation' the diocese of Ghent offered him the job of sacristan. In a later letter of this elder son Edmond, who was a judge at the court of first instance in Antwerp, we learn that the education of the childres was paid with the help of a scolarship and with "great financial sacrifices".

On July 14th, 1896, a month after the death of his mother (June 6th, 1896), Arsène Goedertier becomes sacristan-organist. Succeeding his father he becomes sacristan of the Church Saint-Gertrude of Wetteren in 1911. He remains this until in 1919. Arsène resigns himself from his sacristan job: "The biggest mistake my father made, was turning me into a sacristan."

 

He had the soul of an artist

Goedertier The man who sends the 'polite' threatening letters to the diocese, is an artist of some distinction. He followed the art of paint at the Royal Academy for Art in Dendermonde and teaches himself in the art academy in Wetteren. He even becomes managing director. His family still has many paintings of him. It are mostly interiors of churches or portraits. In the hall of the town hall in Wetteren there is still a big portrait of the chief of the vigilante patrol of Wetteren dating from 1913.

The creative Arsène also knows how to rattle about technical inventions and visions of the future. With his design of an aeroplane model (bearing a resemblance to the German Fieseler Storch) he knows to work his way to the manager of the Bréguet factories in Paris. However the aircraft constructor does not think the plans progressive enough what speed is concerned.

Goedertier owns a whole library of detective novels. Does he feel related to the gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin, the hero of author Maurice Leblanc? Several times he plays the detective and when he also comments on the theft in the Saint Bavo cathedral, his wife protests resentful: "Tu ne vas pas encore commencer avec cela" (you are not going to start with this again).

 

President of the 'Maatschappij van Onderlingen Bijstand de Eendracht'

Arsène Goedertier is one of the founders of the christian National Health Service 'De Eendracht'. It is founded in 1909 and is located in the 'Werkmanshuis'. In 1920 he is one of the initiators of "De Volksmacht", a Catholic "co-operative" organisation. In 1932 he becomes president of the 'Davidsfonds' in Wetteren.

Without a doubt he wants to gain more policital importance. He is seen regularly in Ghent in the premises of the catholic party at that time and is well known in the clerical parties and even at the episcopal palace...

 
Aandeel plantexel

Do you eat herring? You can eat a steak every day. Give me your money.

Together with his wife, Arsène Goedertier starts a broker's office after the first World War, as there are many in those years. They gain a lot of money in little time. In their comfortable office and house, near the parish church, furnished with central heating, two telephone lines, personnel and - as the most beautiful status symbol - a Chevrolet motorcar parked in front of the house, she administers meticulously the money that he attracts with his class and power of speach.

In 1928 Goedertier is fellow founder of the Congolese society "Société de Plantation et d'Exploitation de l'Elaeis au Kasai", in short "Plantexel". The principal goal is the building and exploitation of plantations for palm oil and coffee. A couple of days before the death of Goedertier, the society goes bankrupt. There is no proof of a possible connection between this bankruptcy and the theft.


plan Goedertier

The further investigation

Neither a thorough house search at Goedertier, nor the interrogation of his widow, brought anything. However after the publication some important testimonies appear. There is the statement of a lady who had walked pass the cathedral the night of the theft together with her sister and a niece. She remembers almost the complete number plate of a car that was parked at the corner of the Lange Kruisstraat. She was surprised to have seen a pencil of light in the Vijd Chapel. The car has not been tracked down, apparently.

Also the bright servant of Goedertier understands now why her employer was so angry when she 'caught' him at the end of May 1934 while wrapping up a long black object.

There is also the question of complicity. There is an investigation against Achiel De Swaef, an acquaintance of Goedertier from Ghent, who died shortly after him, and against Oscar Lievens, a mysterious man who lived in a villa in Wetteren and was supposed to be a spy during the first World War.

During a house search at the house of Goedertier some documents are found who could be related to the theft, the extortion or the hiding of the panel. You can take a look at these documents here; The letters, The little notebook and The draft

 

The German investigation

From the beginning of the Second World War Oberleutnant Koehn, who was sent to Belgium by Goebbels, showed great interest in the "Genter Altar" and more specifically in the theft of April 11th in 1934. He finds Max Winders as an ally, who is an Antwerp architect and advisor of the General Board of Art at the Ministry of Education. Koehn is surprised not to find the testimonies of the direct witnesses of the death of Goedertier in the judicial file. Therefore he decides to interrogate himself doctor De Cock, who assisted Goedertier medically, father Libertus, who was there as priest and lawyer De Vos, who shared Goedertier's secret.

Also the church council of the Saint Bavo cathedral and the relatives of Goedertier he approaches again. At the end he also contacts the widow of Goedertier, which seems to pass more smoothly than with the first investigators.

The German officer searches big parts of the cathedral, without any result. During the war two important witnesses decease. Lawyer De Vos, who has become a senator in the meantime, dies in 1942 in a cinema in Ghent. And the widow of Goedertier dies in 1943 in Sint-Niklaas. She blames the loss of her only child and the loss of her reputation to the lack of indiscretion of "that lawyer".



The replacing work

Grave GoedertierFrom September 1939 till the middle of 1941 painter and restorer Jozef Vander Veken works on a copy of the Just Judges - on a two hundred year old cupboard shelf. It becomes an unlikely good replacement for the lost panel. Some details show, however, clear differences with the original:
  • The face of one of the Judges is no longer hidden behind a fur coat;
  • an other face represents now the profile of king Leopold III;
  • the ring in the hand of one of the original Judges has disappeared too.
Only in 1959 Vander Veken receives a compensation of 225.000 frs (with subsidies of the city, the province East-Flanders and the Belgian nation).

 

Copyright 2007 - No part of this World Wide Web site may be reproduced, by any method, without written permission.
Letter 1 - 30.04.1934 (Click !) Letter 2 - 19.05.1934 (Click !) Letter 3 - 28.05.1934 (Click !) Letter 4 - 31.05.1934 (Click !) Letter 5 - 04.06.1934 (Click !) Letter 6 - 09.06.1934 (Click !) Letter 7 - 19.06.1934 (Click !) Letter 8 - 05.07.1934 (Click !) Letter 9 - 23.07.1934 (Click !) Letter 10 - 02.08.1934 (Click !) Letter 11 - 07.09.1934 (Click !) Letter 12 - 20.09.1934 (Click !) Letter 13 - 01.10.1934 (Click !) Letter attached to ransom (Click !) Non-sent letter (Click !) Letter sent to Goedertier Arsène (Click !)