The Mystery of the Missing Lamb
About two weeks ago now I was perusing the website of a rather wonderful person and fellow blogger called Michele. I came across an article she had written concerning a very famous painting by Renaissance artists the brothers van Eyck, known as the ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, a magnificent alter-piece painted for the Cathedral of St.Bavo, in Ghent in around 1432. Michele’s original article can be found here: ‘Is this the world’s most coveted painting?’. The crux of the story is that the painting, consisting of a number panels painted on both sides ‘verso-recto’ has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue since it’s very conception, not least because of its subject matter, but also because it stands as a seminal painting in the history of modern painting. It saw a change in the application of oil colours on canvas and the observation of subject matter with a depth and photo-realism that had not been observed since the time of the Romans (Treasures of Ancient Rome, BBC, 2012), nor was it to be repeated post Renaissance until the Pre-Raphaelite movement during the 1800’s. The alter-piece has also been subjected to a lot of theft, damage, and re-housing over the centuries due to civil unrest and world wars.
Controversy still shrouds the alter-piece however. There is the outstanding matter of the missing original lower left panel entitled ‘The Just Judges’ stolen in 1934, with its replacement at St.Bavo being a copy reproduced after WWII when the recovered painting in its entirety was returned to its rightful home in Ghent.
On reading this article my interest was piqued, it was the kind of mystery that I love to challenge my intuitive resources with. Michele had put the suggestion to me that I might like to intuit something about it, and perhaps even attempt to solve the mystery. So I set my mind to the task, and last Sunday night I heard a very interesting tale.
A French Odyssey
My initial impressions two weeks ago when I was introduced to the Verso Panels (I was sure I’d heard that term before, so that’s how I’ve been referring to them) was that there was a connection with France. Béziers, in Southern France to be exact. As I studied the image of the painting above I was instantly drawn to the towers and tall poplars visible in many of the panels. There was something important about the significance of these towers and the fact that, to my eye at least the same piece of scenery had been repeatedly painted from different perspectives in a number of the panels.
This may well have been a stylistic feature employed by the artist, however my concern here was how the painting spoke to me on an intuitive level, putting my academic and artistic hat to one side. At that time I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the towers were telling me. Sometimes it’s a case of waiting for the right context for the penny to drop.
As I studied the bottom left panel in the image, I could see it overlaid by a narrow wooden doorway, painted black. The kind that I could imagine leading down to a crypt in a church or cathedral. It was a notion I kept coming back to, that the panel was hidden in the crypt of a church somewhere in France. My instincts were telling me that the painting had travelled a lot, being hidden from church to church throughout France, beginning just south of Paris in the region of Troyes, then on to Jura near the Swiss border, then to the region around Béziers. Various names of churches popped into my mind, such as Saint Jean, Saint Jura and Jura L’Auspice. These may have also been reference to place names. Anyway I left it on a back burner, intending to spend some quiet time on the subject where I might channel something more substantial.
Back to last Sunday evening. As I sat engrossed in a book my mind began to wander and I began thinking about the panel again, so I put my book down and asked my intuition the question: “Where is the missing Verso Panel?”.
I got an immediate response: “Under a church in Béziers” and then, “Under the forefront of the chapel of Santa Maria de la Cruz”.
All of a sudden I heard a male voice repeat the same again, but in spanish this time. He sounded like a mature man, friendly and familiar like an old uncle of mine I imagined. What ensued was a quick-fire question and answer dialogue with me frantically transcribing it in an attempt to keep up with him.
He told me that the missing panel was to be found beneath the chapel of Santa Maria de la Cruz, at the far end where the tombs of the Moorish Kings are to be found (that detail in particular struck a very profound chord in me). He went on to tell me that above it (the area where the panel lay) up on the ceiling of this section of the chapel was a depiction of a cross. Almost like an X marking the spot I thought!
He continued to explain how a group of people he referred to as “Los Misteriosos” the mysterious ones were on the search for the missing panel, but implied that because it lays buried, they can’t and won’t find it. He also explained how the chapel had belonged to the Spanish during the ‘Great War’, although he wasn’t specific as to which war this was or in which era it had taken place. I assumed he was referring to WWI, but this is vague. However, he lamented that the chapel is now in the hands of the French, and that its name was changed by some-one he refers to as San Jacobeo, or Saint Jean.
“There it lays obscured and protected” he said in conclusion. It was an odd statement. His grammatical reference to the panel up until that point had been in the feminine, now he was referring to it in the masculine. So I quizzed him about it just to make sure that I’d got it right, and he answered by telling me that the panel had been referred to as ‘el gubernu’ by the people under whose guard it was. A sort of code name that wouldn’t arouse suspicion outside of the circle of those ‘responsible’. It was an odd name, at a guess I thought it sounded either Catalan or Basque, though I’m not really that familiar with either.
“Who stole it then?” I asked him.
“The Duke of Saint Gregory” he responded. And as I was about to ask the question silently in my mind, Malta popped into my head with another strong intuitive charge.
“Malta?” I asked out loud, puzzled suddenly feeling like I was being spun a bit of a yarn here!
“Yes!” he said, “The ‘Duke’ of Saint Gregory stole the panel after a fire broke out where it was being kept along with the rest of the painting, but it was the only piece that survived.”
“And the rest of the painting?” I asked.
“The rest was a copy” he claimed, the subtext being his implication that because it was a copy its destruction was incidental. However this too struck a chord with me, and I found myself laughing at the irony of it.
“So how did the ‘Duke’ know that the panel he saved was an original?” I asked thinking that there was something amiss here in his information.
“He didn’t!” he said, “that’s the twist in the story!”
“He took it by chance then?” I asked
“Exactly!” he said
“And who are you?” I asked
Proof in the Pudding
It took me a while to calm down from the hilarity of it all. It had been an immensely entertaining and amusing tale. But the implication still lay waking in my mind, that the rest of the alter-piece to be found at St.Bavos Cathedral is in fact a copy. A very old copy, but a copy nevertheless as I suggested in my correspondence with Michele the following day.
This didn’t strike me as particularly odd that such a significant painting would have been the only one in existence. Copies of such paintings were often made either by the original painters themselves, or were drafted by apprentices, not to mention copies that would have been made throughout the centuries as a matter of repair, or as insurance against replacement of damaged or missing pieces. During the Renaissance jobbing painters were often under the employ of the church, producing paintings for specific churches or cathedrals of note and political importance. It was in many ways an industry, where the artist’s notoriety was secondary to that of the benefactors and was hard-earned. A copy is still a masterpiece in its own right, painstakingly and skilfully produced to an incredibly high standard.
Whenever I channel a piece of information that has specific details such as this I like to research and verify what I can in order to validate my findings, as much for my own amusement as for posterity. A rudimentary search on the internet produced some interesting results.
A search for the name of the Chapel ‘Santa Maria de la Cruz’ in Béziers took me to a spanish Wikipedia entry that referred to a monastery in southern France by the name of Sainte-Marie de Lagrasse, only 40 miles away from Béziers. What really struck me was the similarity between the names. The intonation and stress were exactly the same. This was also the only religious building within the area of Béziers and the Languedoc, as I discovered from further searches to bear the name of Sainte-Marie.
As I read through the Wikipedia entry I realised that the Abbey dating back to 778 had once been defended by three large towers which had made it a very significant landmark. Immediately I made the connection with my initial intuitive impressions of the painting and its many towers.
Also, further searches revealed that during medieval times the village of Lagrasse, then known as La Grassa in the Occitan language was under Spanish rule as was the rest of the region. The name of the Abbey also underwent a change in name from Sainte-Marie de Lagrasse to Sainte-Marie D’Orbieu on account of the river Orbieu that separates it from the village of Lagrasse. This confirmed the details given to me by my spanish informant.
Yet further searches revealed that there was also a church by the name of St.Gregory on the island of Malta, though the reference to the ‘Duke’ is an ambiguous one, despite the fact that there are many establishments on Malta that bear the name ‘The Duke’. Perhaps it was a nick-name with reference to my spanish fellow.Sometimes it is the associative connections that you make that are important, rather than accepting intuitive information as literal.
The name ‘el gubernu’, a code name as suggested above was indeed a Basque word meaning ‘government’, or with reference to government. It only occurred to me after discovering the english Wikipedia entry for the Ghent altarpiece, that it seemed a very apt moniker to give a painting entitled ‘The Just Judges’!
There are of course still many loose ends, that I’m trusting will find ties with time. I am intrigued by the reference to the Moorish kings and wonder what influence the Moors may have had in that area of France. I was also given a further piece of information from ‘El Duque’ just yesterday confirming the resting place of the panel, that a wall studded with deities or figurative carvings of bishops could be found in its location.
It has become a very intriguing story indeed, and I am fuelled by a desire to go to Lagrasse and Béziers to see if I can tie up some of those loose ends. Even if it does turn out to be a wild-goose chase, this may be the beginning of an exciting adventure. Nothing happens by accident in my personal opinion, and I’m looking forward to discovering what my part in this adventure is, whether the missing panel is recovered or not.