One of the world’s greatest masterpieces, and surely the most stolen piece of art of all time, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has a new €30m (£26m) glass-case home.
While remaining within St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, for which it was painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, the 12-panelled polyptych will be located in the Sacrament chapel, the cathedral’s largest and most easterly chapel, within a bullet-proof display case that is 6-metres high with an interior of 100 cubic metres.
The advantages of the new arrangements are said to include an improved visitor experience and better climatic conditions for the work, which has been meticulously restored to its former glory over the last seven years. The indoor temperature in the unheated cathedral drops to 2C in winter and the cathedral is at times filled with sunlight via its coloured, stained glass windows.
But, somewhat understandably, a top priority for those involved in the project has been the masterpiece’s security. During its 588-year history, the Ghent Altarpiece has been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.
It has not survived entirely unscathed. One of its 12 panels remains missing after a daring heist on the evening of 10 April 1934, which has since baffled police detectives, bemused amateur sleuths and driven to despair the Nazi agents ordered by Goebbels to find it as a gift for the German Führer.
In its new display case the artwork will be positioned above an altar in the Sacrament chapel where it will hang from a pneumatically controlled steel supporting frame, to allow unencumbered movement of its side panels, avoiding the need of vergers to physically access the display case. Every morning and evening, the polyptych will be gently opened and closed. But large security doors have been installed in the cathedral to enable the easy evacuation of the wooden panels in the event of emergency.
To allow access to visitors, while maintaining high security, there has been significant demolition and redesign of some of the cathedral’s ancient stone walls, which accounts for the significant bill footed by the Flemish government and other sponsors. The high-security translucent glass case itself cost €5m.
At the formal opening on Thursday, Jan Jambon, the prime minister of Flanders, said he hoped tourists would in time come in greater numbers than ever before. Due to Covid restrictions visitors will be invited to book a viewing of the masterpiece from 29 March. “Jan van Eyck was a genius who has been astonishing the world for more than five centuries with his innovative techniques,” Jambon said. “Both the magnificent restoration and the circumstances in which the Ghent Altarpiece can now be admired are astonishing.
“The splendour of colours, the details, the lighting: everything is perfect. That makes us proud. We are pleased that the Flemish government was able to contribute to this and that we can show this masterpiece to our children and grandchildren and hopefully soon to many tourists.”