Last October, I took a train from Brussels, Belgium to Ghent. After my train arrived, I immediately took the tram to Saint Bravo’s Cathedral in Sint-Baafsplein. There was only one reason I was traveling there, and it wouldn’t take long. The Ghent Altarpiece. A relic of my desire; a polyptych of Hitler’s desire. But we’ll get into that part later. My interest in this object blossomed two years ago, as I took a liking to Early Renaissance oil paintings. I’ve always been a bit of an art fanatic, and this particular piece peaked my interested instantly.
The Ghent Altarpiece took over ten years to paint, started by Huber van Eyck and later completed by his brother Jan van Eyck, after his untimely death. After it’s completion in 1432, a time between the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance, it became an immediate success. For starters, it was the first major oil painting of the time. The detail was immaculate and at a time of particular religious infatuation, the biblical altarpiece became almost an obsession. To this day, it remains one of the most successful and important works of art in Europe, centuries after completion.
The Ghent Altarpiece is massive in size and very elaborate. The painting presents a variety of prominent religious figures including Adam and Eve and Saint Michael, and background figures such as divine singers and the knights of Christ.
Though the Altarpiece is truly a wondrous feat in itself, my attention was drawn to the center panel, named The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. For starters, it is the most stolen painting of all time. That’s a pretty dubious title. However, my interest goes deeper and combines my interest in the Third Reich.
As some of you may know, Hitler had an affinity for art. In his early years when he was poor and often homeless, he sold hand-painted, mediocre postcards on a bridge in Vienna. There, Hitler studied fine art and was later rejected multiple times from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. The soon-to-be dictator was pitifully unsuccessful. He later returned back to his late father’s estate in Munich after being rejected by the Austro-Hungarian Army. Not long after, during World War II, Hitler received the Iron Cross and began to rise in the ranks.
As Hitler came into power and the Third Reich was established, and unbeknownst by many, Hitler created a sort of Nazi art theft division. Hitler wanted to create what he would call The Führer Museum, which would be the size of a small city and contain every major piece of art. What would be the crowning jewel of the collection? You guessed it, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
One of the first reasons Hitler wanted it was because the Altarpiece was on a very short list of works of art that the Treaty of Versailles said had to be returned after the war, in reparation for Germany’s role in the war. As many of you may know, Hitler remained bitter and angry about the Treaty of Versailles, feeling Germany had been unjustly punished. So when his time came, he made it his goal to steal back the Altarpiece, specifically, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
However, his desire for the divine liturgy was much deeper and more complex than just avenging Germany. This may sound like just a plot to a Hollywood movie than factual history, but the Nazis, under Hitler’s orders, really did have a research team that sought supernatural and religious treasures that they believed to have magical powers. I’m dead serious.
This division was called the Nazi Ahnenerbe. The Ahnenerbe acted mostly as a paranormal research team. They hunted Yeti in Tibet and searched for the Holy Grail in Ethiopia, among other adventures.
So what was the real reason The Adoration was important to Hitler? Well, Hitler believed that the piece of art contained a map or code which would lead him to the Arma Christi. The Arma Christi is all the objects involved in the story of Christ. They include the burial shroud, the crown of thorns, the cross, the Holy Grail and more.
Hitler believed that if he could acquire said objects, he would attain a sort of supernatural power and proof that God wanted the Nazi race to succeed forever. So he and his right-hand man, Hermann Göring, had a race to the object. Göring stole it from Chateau de Pau in France and then Hitler intercepted it and sent it to Neuschwanstein Castle in deep Bavaria. They went back in forth for a while.
After all the craziness, the Adoration was finally hidden for good, along with other important pieces of art that the Nazis had stolen, in Altaussee, Austria. A few years after, all of the art in the mountain was rescued by none other than members of Monuments Men and a group of Austrian miners. Shortly after that, Germany fell and Hitler, after blaming Germany for losing the war, killed himself along with his longtime lover, Eva Braun.
Since then, the painting has resided in its original home, none other than Saint Bravo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The very one that I so eagerly visited. Seeing the painting in person was honestly magical and I was floored by the sheer size and complexity of the Altarpiece. I stared at it for a long time, pondering the bloody history and divinity of it all.
The Ghent Altarpiece, specifically The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, remains one of my all-time favorite pieces of art. I’m confident that I will return, once more, to that very cathedral in that small town in Belgium just so I could feel the power of the painting again.