Is This The World’s Most Coveted Painting?

220px-Recto_and_verso.svgAt 7.09am this morning, I was searching for a title for a new piece of graphic artwork. Into my brain dropped the words: Verso Panels. So I hit Save As… and typed in versopanels.jpeg.

Tonight, I started thinking… what is the dictionary definition of verso? And, if so, why had the words “Verso Panels” come through immediately: and I’d added the title to the artwork, without a second thought.

To settle the matter, I typed “verso panels” into google.


First, I got the definition of verso… so far, so good.

The recto and verso are respectively the “front” and “back” sides of a leaf of paper in a bound item such as a codex, book, broadsheet, or pamphlet. In languages written from left to right (such as English) the recto is the right-hand page and the verso the left-hand page.

The use of the terms ‘recto’ and ‘verso’ are also used in the codicology of manuscripts written in right-to-left scripts, like Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew. 

Fine, but where do the panels fit in with this definition?

What if I type in “verso”, “panels”, and “mystical”. Would that combination of words bring the answer to light?

Here’s what I found… The subject matter of the verso panels — Is This The World’s Most Coveted Painting?


It is one of art history’s great unsolved mysteries…

Those who stand before the altarpiece cannot but feel overwhelmed by its monumentality. The Ghent Altarpiece comprises twenty individual painted panels linked in a massive hinged framework. It is opened on its hinges for religious holidays but remains closed for most of the year, at which point only eight of the twenty panels, which were painted on both recto and verso (front and back sides), are visible. The subject matter of the verso panels, visible when the altarpiece is closed, is the Annunciation: The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Portraits of the donors who paid for the altarpiece, and their patron saints, also grace the back.

Charney’s new book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, traces the painting through six centuries of war, theft and intrigue.

150 Years Of Peace

The altarpiece was painted for the cathedral of St. Bavo, in Ghent. And during the first century of its existence, nothing much happened.

Then, in 1566, all hell broke loose. Protestant militants broke down the cathedral doors with an improvised battering ram, intending to burn the altarpiece, which they considered to be an example of Catholic idolatry and excess. But alert Catholic guards had disassembled the enormous work and hidden it in the cathedral tower, where it survived unscathed.

Over the next few centuries, the Ghent Altarpiece was taken as booty in the Napoleonic Wars and then returned to Ghent. Parts of it were stolen by a vicar at St. Bavo and ended up, after several sales, in a Berlin museum.

When World War I broke out, a brave cathedral canon hid the painting away in a junkman’s wagon for safety. It took the Treaty of Versailles to finally reunite all the panels in their original home.

Enduring Mystery

The Ghent Altarpiece didn’t stay safe for long. Thieves broke into the cathedral one night in 1934 and made off with the lower left panel.

“This is the enduring mystery that really is part of the popular cultural awareness of the people of Ghent still to this day,” Charney says.

The theft has never been solved. Visitors to St. Bavo Cathedral today will see a copy of the missing panel, painted during World War II. The copy is so good that many people thought it might be the original, hidden in plain sight, though recent conservation work has disproved that theory.

Raiders Of The Mystic Lamb

Missing panel and all, the Ghent Altarpiece was stolen one last time during World War II, on the orders of Nazi Gen. Hermann Goering.

“This may sound very silly,” says Charney, “but in fact, the Nazis and Hitler in particular were absolutely convinced that the occult and the supernatural was real,” and the Ghent Altarpiece was thought to be a sort of mystical treasure map showing the location of relics of Christ’s passion.

The altarpiece ended up hidden with thousands of other looted artworks in a converted salt mine in Austria. The local SS commander had wired the mine with dynamite, determined to destroy all the art as the Allies began closing in.

Charney says the Ghent Altarpiece was eventually saved through the heroism of salt miners who disabled the bombs, and the work of local Austrian resistance fighters and Allied “monuments men” whose job it was to hunt for stolen art.

“There was this race,” Charney says, “with the Allies trying to get to the mine before the SS could blow it up, and it was very close to every one of those works being completely destroyed.”

But the painting was saved, and you can see it today at the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.

“Each time I see it, I notice something new,” Charney says. “For instance, I think it may be the first work of the pre-modern period to show someone laughing.”

Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece has been involved in seven separate thefts, dwarfing the next runner-up, a Rembrandt portrait, lifted from London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery on a mere four occasions. From enduring questions surrounding the movement, through theft and smuggling, of the altarpiece as a whole to the mystical symbolism of its content, the altarpiece has haunted scholars and detectives, hunters and protectors, interpreters and worshippers.

It is one of art history’s great unsolved mysteries.

Your guess is as good as mine…


39 thoughts on “Is This The World’s Most Coveted Painting?

  1. Michele: I hope you pay attention to your intuitions; they are obviously coming in strong and clear. Good for you! Never doubt that inner voice when you hear it. Nice work. Thanks for breezing by my post. Cheers!

    1. Dear Office Diva! Your words have inspired me today. I am listening to my inner voice and re-calibrating my heart to receive divine truth. Thank you for caring about my journey. May your journey be filled with light and great love. Michele

  2. Michele, THANK you for this! It stretch es the imagination and rational mind in all directions…recto, verso, etc. Very interesting research and extrapolation. nNow I’m waiting for you to do a similar post on DaVinci’s Lady With An Ermine. I’d love to read your thoughts on that portrait. Keep up with these. I appreciate your writings.—M.

    1. Melissa, THANK you! I love your suggestion to do a similar post about DaVinci’s Lady With An Ermine. That’s going to be quite a challenge 🙂 You inspire me Melissa and the journey that you’re on is extraordinary. I look forward to every new post. Have a beautiful day. Michele

  3. There is a beautiful synchronicity to life that goes unnoticed unless noticed 🙂 I love the stories that art tell. In every brush-stroke there is sentiment and intent, almost as if the artist is painting the history into the picture before it has even had a chance to breathe. Makes me wonder what the real story behind the Verso Panels is and how that ties in with the missing panel? Nothing is ever accidental from my experience, but that’s just my take on things. Great post. I like a good mystery!

    1. Many thanks, Ishaiya, your comments touch me deeply. You made me see and think about the picture in a different way. But then you have the extraordinary gift of seeing the bigger pictures in the realms of the unmanifest! I have so much to learn from you.

      1. Thank you Michele for your amazingly kind words. I am passionate about art so your article piqued my interest. As I say I like a good mystery, particular when it involves missing paintings. There is something very special about the style of paintings that were produced at the time of the Verso Panels, something that has never since been reproduced. I remember being in Venice last year at the Accademia and being astonished at the sheer scale of the paintings, paintings of a similar time period as the Panels. They were truly breathtaking. Wishing you a wonderful day, Ishaiya

      2. You’re very knowledgeable about art and it’s wonderful to hear of your journey to Venice and your thoughts on the mystery of the Verso Panels. I wonder if, in days, weeks or month to come… you will intuit some new information that resolves the mystery. Wouldn’t that be something!!

      3. It would indeed be something if I could help resolve the mystery of the Verso Panels! My impressions so far are a narrow wooden door leading down into a crypt in a church or cathedral somewhere, France possibly. And there is also a clue in all of the towers present in all of the panels. Though I shall have to devote some time on focussing on it without distraction, which I know I shall because I’m interested to know for myself! Thank you for gracing my afternoon with your gorgeous energy. Ishaiya

      4. Wow, I feel a shiver of resonance reading your words about the Verso Panels. The clues are there to be solved! Thank you for gracing my day with your loving energy 🙂

      5. Thank you Michele. I’m guessing you must have your own intuitive thoughts on the panels judging by the way your were drawn to them. It’ll be interesting to compare notes some time, but perhaps when I’ve got something more concrete so that I can’t be unduly influenced! 🙂

  4. What an incredibly fascinating story! I’m going to have to suggest this book for an upcoming book group discussion!!

  5. Wow, Michele, thank you so much for sharing this! And thank you Ishaiya, also! It reminds me of a book by a friend of mine (… Donna has studied this for years, and altho I haven’t read her book yet (oops! I will!), based on the review on Amazon, I wonder if she shared her intuitions fully. The intuitions are what I hear in conversation, and they are fascinating… So much is available to us, it’s really wonderful! 🙂 (And I’m so glad to see you here, Michele!)

    1. Hi leslee, thank you so much for your contribution to the mysterious tale of the missing panels! I’m fascinated to read your friend’s book about the reverse facade of Reims cathedral. And also to eavesdrop on her intuitions 🙂 Wonderful to meet you here, and now I’m going to pop by your blog in anticipation of yet more fascinating stories. Peace and blessings to you, Michele

  6. Well, I have now a tale to tell about the missing panel. It is a highly entertaining one, but many of the clues I was given seem to check out after having done a little bit of research. I think I may know where the hidden panel is 🙂

      1. I don’t know, but I have an urge to go and pay it visit in southern France, just to see if my impressions match up. Besides the Medieval town of Lagrasse in the Longuedoc region looks fascinating. Apparently it has a real bohemian vibe, the kind of place you might expect famous paintings to be hidden! 🙂 The tale I was told sounded like a bit of a yarn, however as I say there were a number of historical details that I had no prior knowledge of as far as I’m concerned, but that I have been able to verify through searches on the internet. There are also bits that don’t make sense, but perhaps the most fascinating and amusing part of the tale is that the missing panel is the only existing piece of the true original, and that the alter-piece in Ghent is a forgery, a very old one at that, but a copy nevertheless.

      2. There are so many important elements to what you’re saying and I have complete faith in all that you speak about here. But the part that resonates the most is this… “perhaps the most fascinating and amusing part of the tale is that the missing panel is the only existing piece of the true original, and that the alter-piece in Ghent is a forgery, a very old one at that, but a copy nevertheless.” I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate you. When I find the words I write again! Thank you and much love, dear Ishaiya.

  7. What I might do is to write up my findings and post it on my blog and link it to this post if you’re ok with that. Enjoy your day Michele.

  8. Michele,
    Thank you so much for following my blog Aspiring to Inspire. I am fascinated with this discussion here and I had to pause regarding Ishaiya’s comment, “perhaps the most fascinating and amusing part of the tale is that the missing panel is the only existing piece of the true original.” How intriguing. I too look forward to hearing more about this amazing tale. WoW!

  9. hey Michele!
    really incredible shots..and wonderful post 🙂 thanks for sharing this amazing piece 🙂

  10. Intuition led me to the lady who painted Jim in London in 1984 and also the thoughts ‘Go To The Science Museum’ for my proposed artwork (for a single) ..turns out that The Doors were heading just there for their next artwork before Jim passed on I read somewhere…albeit many years later…However I decided to only use my music now for blogs and have it on file in some T.V. Channels…Also the most amazing reconciliation transpired when my intuition led me five counties away one dull wet day in the middle of nowhere…The other person had also been led there ‘intuitively’…..If we all listened to this inner voice we would never go wrong but in life we sometimes don’t take it seriously enough…I do now and this is a great story up here…Wish I could re-blog it with the art too…Lots of Love and Healing…Thanks for this post and for liking some of my own…

  11. I am a simple man. I lead a very solitary simple life. I am certainly not an iota close to answering the question at hand, but I can say with all sincerity, your mind & your soul are most definitely fathoms ahead of any tempest foolish enough to follow the breathless winds of your soul: Is MICHELE D’ACOSTA’S mind the most coveted ‘whirlwind wonder’, a marvel to be sure, for it’s ability to keep our mothership Earth spinning safely on her axis?

  12. Good history lesson to be had here. Van Eyck was a superb master, but every single Christian work of art, particularly in the Renaissance, has me pining for Heironymous Bosch. Probably because I’m wired a little loosely, lol.

  13. LOL, true that Bosch was feared as much as he was respected in his time. As a former Catholic, even I could only hack so many “Madonna and Child” paintings and murals, even if they’re masterworks. I always think about how many artists were commissioned back then for Madonna and crucifixion works from the ascent of Christianity. It’s not so much that Bosch went against the current; he was able to translate humanity’s fears and fallacies into his surrealist works. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych is so fascinating in his depictions of Heaven, Hell and Earthly time of humans. In Washington, DC near me, the National Gallery has one of Bosch’s paintings called “Death and the Miser,” and it predates Dickens and “A Christmas Carol.” There’s something that Bosch was able to capture and send back to the viewer which puts more humanity into his pieces, even with the overt aura of the divine ruling his and the other Old Masters of the time.

    My loose wiring…I’ll consider it subjective, LOL!

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