Ghent, Belgium

Seeking Ghent’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The name itself is a form of the Celtic word “ganda,” meaning confluence.

By By Renée Gordon

Freelance History Travel Writer


Travel and a good tale in a single destination is a dream come true. Ghent, Belgium, owes its settlement to the fact that it is located at the juncture of the rivers Scheidt and Lys. The first permanent settlement dates from 406 and by the Middle Ages it had grown wealthy from trade and textiles.

Ghent is notable as one of the most historic and beautiful cities in Europe filled with architecture that will take your breath away and artistic treasures that are unique. Everything about Ghent is extraordinary, especially the manner in which the medieval and the modern blend and flow together seamlessly. Our search for Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and the stories surrounding it, will take us throughout the city and into some surprising places.

Our Ghent search is best begun in the Historium. There we embark on an experiential walk through a day in 1435 as seen through the eyes of one of van Eyck’s apprentices. Visitors walk through a series of galleries that spring to life with the aid of modern technology incorporating life-sized dioramas, sight, smell, sound and visuals. In Jan van Eyck’s studio we meet him, see how his workshop functioned and watch as he paints The Madonna of Canon van der Paele. A trip through the Historium gives you an idea of the era and how paintings were accomplished in the workshop of a master artist.

Interior St Bavo CathedralThe Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, aka the Ghent Altarpiece, is actually the work of both Hubrecht (Hubert) and Jan van Eyck. Evidence proves that Hubert began the work and upon his death it was completed by Jan, at the 1432 request of Joos Vijd, and placed in a chapel in the Church of Saint John, currently the Cathedral of St. Bavos. It was dedicated on May 6, 1432 and this monumental polyptich was painted on oak panels with mineral pigments. Jan is best known as the artist who perfected the use of oil paints and this is considered his ultimate work. Internationally it is known as one of the most important artworks in the world, one of the first painted altarpieces and the most stolen.

The work has been involved in no less than seven thefts because of its beauty and religious significance. Twelve panels depict Catholic beliefs, some from the Book of Revelations, starting with the Annunciation and proceeding to the adoration of the Mystic Lamb, symbolic of the blood sacrifice of Christ. Almost from the beginning the work was so famous that there was a fee to see it.

The frames of van Eyck’s works, unlike other painters of the era, were signed and dated. A quatrain discovered on the frame in 1823 confirmed the fact that Jan completed the work after the death of Hubert. On the bottom of one panel there is a chronogram, words symbolizing numbers, that reveal the date the work was undertaken, May 6, 1432.

The Mystic Lamb was on view until 1566 when it was hidden in a tower to protect it from revolting Protestants.

In 1794 the main panels were removed to Paris for Napoleon and not returned for 21-years. Some of the side panels were sold in 1816 and the remainder of this great artwork barely missed being destroyed by fire 6-years later and finally in 1920 it was reconstructed.

The trail and the tale become even more intriguing with the April 11, 1934 theft of two panels featuring “The Just Judges” and “St. John the Baptist.” A $1-million ransom was demanded and “St. John the Baptist” was returned as proof that the panels were really in this person’s possession. Shortly thereafter Arsène Goedertier, a stockbroker, suffered a heart attack and as he was dying he claimed to know where the painting was. The authorities found incriminating information but never located the “Just Judges.”

The case is still an active investigation and the police continue to apply emerging crime solving techniques. In a macabre turn an amateur investigator disinterred Goedertier’s skull in 1995 in order to hold a séance to gain information concerning the heist.

Altar WikiCommons Photo

During WWI neutral Belgium was invaded by Germany on August 4, 1914. They managed to resist for 11-days but were ultimately overwhelmed. Germany invaded the country again at the start of WWII on May 10, 1940. Hitler was set on obtaining the Ghent Altarpiece from the start of the war and in July 1942 he ordered that it be surrendered. It was secreted within the Reich awaiting its removal to Hitler’s planned Führermuseum containing art confiscated from the conquered countries.

The US created the American Committee on the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas in 1943. The Monuments Men and women were supplied with lists of stolen artworks to trace and return to the owners. In 1944 they were given photographs of the altarpiece and were informed that the painting was hidden in an Austrian salt mine.


On May 12, 1945 they recovered The Mystic Lamb and more than 6,500 additional works. Because of its importance to the world in 1946 It was the first artwork to be returned.

Sculpture of BrothersLocated outside of the cathedral is Ghent’s 1913 homage to Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The sculptural monument is a carved diorama depicting a number of people gathered to pay tribute to the artists. The brothers are seated in the center with Hubert, the elder, reading the Bible with the tools of his trade at his feet. Jan looks forthrightly ahead while holding his palette and brushes. The Caermersklooster, Ghent Cultural Center, was originally a Carmelite friary that is now exhibition space. Both permanent and temporary exhibits are presented in the center. STAM, the Ghent City Museum’s highlights include a panoramic view of the city and a maquette of Ghent on a 1:1000th scale. The city’s story is told from the 1400s.


The Ghent Altarpiece has undergone damage, theft and restoration over the course of its 589-year history and in 2012 the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage Museum of Fine Arts began a state-of-the-art $1.4-million-euro ($110-million) restoration. One panel was restored at a time and a replica was exhibited in its place. The work was completed in 2020.

We have reached the end of our search. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is on exhibit, for a small fee, once again housed in St. Bavos Cathedral. The cathedral is not the first house of worship on the site. The earliest church dates from 942 but the earliest archeological evidence on-site is a 12th-century Roman nave that is within the crypt. The structure was started in the 1300s and was completed in 1559. It is virtually a museum of ecclesiastical art.

The 16.5-ft. by 11.15-ft. Ghent Altarpiece is awe-inspiring from the moment you enter the room. Audio guides are available and interpret each individual panel. Moving to the rear of the painting you can obtain a view of the additional panels that were only visible when closed. Of special note is the humanistic gaze of the lamb. There is limited seating for contemplation.

Ghent at NightGhent is charming by day but by night it becomes spectacular. The historic center is illuminated with special architectural lighting until midnight each evening giving the city a glow that will linger in your memory.

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