Entertainment

World's most frequently stolen piece of art gets a facelift

Belgium's 600-year-old Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most cherished pieces of art in the world and made up of several wooden panels, is undergoing a major restoration, thanks in part to a Canadian art history professor.

Ghent Altarpiece is undergoing a major restoration - with Canadian help

Bart de Volder, pictured above, is part of the international team undertaking a multimillion-Euro facelift for the 600-year-old Ghent Altarpiece in Belgium. CBC (Bart de volder)

Five years ago, Ron Spronk dropped into Saint Bavos Cathedral in the small Flemish town of Ghent.

This week on The Sunday Edition

  MICHAEL'S ESSAY: Burying Jimmy Corrigan 

On Thanksgiving weekend, Michael remembers Jimmy Corrigan, a gentle fisherman who grew up on a small island in Placentia Bay, N.L.

CONCERT ETIQUETTE

Join Michael Enright and his guests soprano Tracy Dahl, violinist James Ehnes and music critic William Littler for a lively discussion about how to behave at a concert.

  MICHAEL'S ESSAY DEDICATING THIS WEEK'S SHOW TO ALICE MUNRO 

There was a front-page story in The New York Times the other day that reported on a scientific study, proving that reading literary fiction teaches us about human empathy. We don't need studies, we don't need scientific experiments to tell us that. We have Alice. 

  DOCUMENTARY: EYE OF THE BEHOLDER 

An art history professor from Queen's University in Kingston is overseeing the massive facelift of the Ghent Altarpiece.

  CRAIG DAVIDSON 

Craig Davidson's writing is fueled by testosterone; it's unabashedly male and often graphically violent. It has also just been nominated for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize.

  SUNDAY SCHOOL: MATERIALS SCIENCE 

Michael's Sunday School teacher is Mary Anne White, who has written more than 150 research papers and the popular science textbook "Physical Properties of Materials. 

  THE MUSIC OF MARIO LANZA 

Mario Lanza's soaring tenor, dashing good looks and flashing smile shot him to the top. He died at the age of 38. Now Sony Masterworks and Turner Classic Movies have released Mario Lanza: The Toast of Hollywood; we sample three songs.

  CANADA'S NATIONAL SPORT -- LACROSSE 

The story of lacrosse embodies a secret history of our country and its First Nations, for whom lacrosse remains a vital part of culture. Michael talks with Allan Downey, former Senior A lacrosse player and member of the Nak'azdli First Nation.

The canon of the cathedral took him aside. His pride and joy, the Ghent Altarpiece, part of the cathedral for nearly 600 years, was not in good shape. It was warping, the paint was lifting. The priest was not happy.

“It was not just the canon,” says Spronk, a professor of art history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “The entire town really cares about this painting.

“It really is part of Ghent, part of the community.”

The Ghent Altarpiece has been labelled a Flemish cultural icon. It is venerated by art historians and a mainstay of Belgium’s tourist industry. Visitors climb off tour buses every day and line up for their 10 minutes with a guide in front of the altarpiece.

Painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, it was completed in 1432. Art historians consider it one of the first and finest examples of realist painting in northern Europe, but it has had a rocky history. The Ghent Altarpiece has been looted by armies, stolen by thieves and dragged across Europe.

Belgium was in danger of losing it. Experts from all over the world pored over the altarpiece, and the decision was made to undertake a multimillion-Euro facelift.

And Ron Spronk, a man with an international reputation in the technical examination of paintings, became part of the restoration team.

A technical miracle

Comprised of 20 wooden panels 17 feet wide by 15 feet high, the altarpiece is a series of portraits of saints and biblical scenes.

At the time it was completed, it was considered a technical miracle. The realism of the images makes it seem as though Adam is about to step into the world of the viewer; God appears to be staring the viewer right in the eyes.

“Even for us, it is a complete revelation,” says Spronk. “Just imagine how it would have been for the people in the 15th century. They must have been blown away.”

Ghent's sense of attachment to the altarpiece is so strong that it needs to be kept in public view during the restoration. CBC (KIK-IRPA)

The alterpiece sat quietly amazing people in Saint Bavos Cathedral for a century. Then came the wrath of the Reformation. Newly minted Protestants rioted against the opulence and corruption of the Catholic Church. They built a bonfire of church art that could be seen for 10 miles, but the people of Ghent had hidden the altarpiece safely in the town hall.

Later on, it was looted by Napoleon’s armies and taken to the Louvre in Paris. The new French king gave the altarpiece back, but then the church sold off the side panels to pay for repairs to the roof of the cathedral.

Those side panels, which amount to more than half of the altarpiece, ended up in a museum in Berlin for a century.

Belgium got them back as reparations from Germany at the end of the First World War; the Ghent Altarpiece is specifically included in the Treaty of Versailles.

Germany never got over the loss, and Hitler targeted the altarpiece. The church spirited all 20 panels away through France en route to the Vatican. But the government of Vichy France gave up the hiding place and the Ghent altarpiece joined thousands of pieces of art hidden by the Nazis down in the salt mines in Austria.

It was recovered by the American army in 1945 and helicoptered back to Belgium.

Ravaged by history

The altarpiece was battered but had survived the ravages of history. Ironically, it was the attention of well-meaning caregivers 25 years ago that nearly destroyed it completely.

In the interest of security, it had been placed behind thick bulletproof glass in the cathedral. Spronk calls it a bunker; others call it “the aquarium.” At any rate, the condensation caused the wood to warp and the paint to lift.

Ron Spronk, an art history professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., is known for his technical examination of paintings. (Supplied by Ron Spronk)

Major restoration work was essential. But Ghent’s sense of attachment to the altarpiece was so strong that it had to be kept in public view even while it was being restored.

In the dead of night, under police protection, the first few panels were moved from the cathedral to the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. The canon watched them go.

“He was crying,” says Bart de Volder, the on-site coordinator of conservation.

Now, De Volder and the seven other restorers work behind a glass wall in the museum, where the public can watch them as they wipe away centuries of grime and coats of varnish and touch up the spots that previous restorations have destroyed.

“Art historians used to keep everything to themselves. Here, we decided to open it all up,” says de Volder.

But despite these efforts, it’s likely no one will ever see the Ghent altarpiece in its entirety again. Back in 1934, two of the panels were stolen. Only one was recovered.

“Up to this point, police are still looking for it,” says de Volder.

While there is currently a copy in place of the missing panel, Spronk says that “every year, there are rumours that the original is going to resurface, and that creates a real buzz.”

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now