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.
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…