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The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was born around 1390 in Maaseik, now Belgium, and died in Bruges in 1441. Jan van Eyck was buried in the Sint-Donaas church. He is considered the most important representative of Old Dutch painting. Because of his perfect technique and his understanding of naturalism, he is also called "King among the painters". Only a few works of art by Jan van Eyck have survived.
When the duke died three years later, van Eyck became the burgundian duke Philip III. employed at the court of Lille as court painter and decorator. In addition to his painting activities, he was also responsible for the design of court clothing and court jewelry. Jan van Eyck was also politically active at the court of Philip the Good: As a diplomat, he was traveling all over Europe.
Jan van Eyck established with the contemporary painters Rogier van der Weyden and Robert Campin a new, realistic painting style that was groundbreaking for future generations of painters. The paintings by these painters in the early 15th century gave the viewer direct access to church symbolism and meaning using the realistic and naturalistic painting technique.
Jan van Eyck also popularized the use of oil paints on paintings. He was the first painter to use siccated and bleached oils. The Ghent Altarpiece is not only an important work in the history of art, but also an important contemporary document on the relationship between politics and art. It represented the interface between theology, politics, society and art in the early 15th century.
The main work of Jan van Eyck - and probably his brother Johann van Eyck - is the Ghent Altarpiece, a winged altar with a painted closed side (everyday side) and a painted open side (festive side). The polyptych is also the best known work of old Dutch painting. It is in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. When closed, the Ghent Altar measures 375 x 260 cm, when open it is 375 x 520 cm. The work was probably started around 1425 and completed in 1427. Around 1435 it was installed in the Ghent Sankt-Bavo cathedral.
The subject of the winged altar is the adoration of the Lamb from the Revelation of John with angels and saints. To date it is not entirely clear whether the masterpiece of old Dutch art was created jointly by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. The latest findings assume that Jan van Eyck created the Ghent altar alone without the help of his brother Hubert van Eyck. Around 1950, X-ray examinations showed that the second inscription with a reference to Hubert van Eyck was subsequently applied. It reads: “Painter Hubert van Eyck, there was no bigger one, this work began, and his brother Johannes, the second in this art, completed the difficult task on behalf of Jodocus Vijd. Through these verses he entrusts to your care what happened on May 6th. ” Albrecht Dürer, who visited the Ghent Altarpiece in 1521, then only spoke of Jan van Eyck, “from the Johannes taffel; this is a delicious, highly sensible meal, and especially Eva, Maria and Gott der vatter are almost very good. ”
After the conquest of Flanders by Napoleon Bonaparte, the central part of the Ghent Altarpiece was brought to the Louvre in Paris. The church was able to hide the side panels in good time. In 1815 the central part of the Ghent Altarpiece was returned to Ghent, Belgium after the Battle of Waterloo. However, the side panels - including the later stolen work “The Just Judges” were sold to a dealer and passed on to the English merchant Edward Solly. In 1821 Solly sold the side panels for 400,000 guilders to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. In 1830, the wing parts acquired by the Prussian king were exhibited in the newly opened Old Museum in Berlin, later in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, then in the north wing of the then German Museum and today's Pergamon Museum.
By the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was asked to return the side parts of the Ghent Altarpiece to Belgium after the lost World War I, although they were legally owned by Friedrich Wilhelm III. were acquired. The sawn-up parts of the Ghent Altarpiece were reassembled in Ghent and exhibited in the St. Bavo Cathedral. During the Second World War, the Ghent Altarpiece was hidden in Pau Castle in southern France, where the Nazis were found after the conquest of France. They first brought the Ghent Altar to Neuschwanstein Castle and later to the salt mine on Altaussee. After the war, the Ghent Altarpiece was brought back to Brussels, where it was extensively restored. Since 1989, the Ghent Altarpiece has stood in the hermetic chapel of the St. Bavo Cathedral in a hermetic armored glass display case in the daylight-free area. Since September 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece has been restored in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), which visitors can watch live behind a glass wall.
In 1934 the altar pieces “The Just Judges” and “John the Baptist” were stolen. The latter was returned a short time later. A ransom of 1 million Belgian Francs was probably requested from Arseen Goedertier, which was not paid. Since then, the painting "The Just Judges" with the dimensions 145 x 51 cm has been lost. The value of the altar part is invaluable. The picture plate “The Just Judges”, which is on display today as part of the Ghent Altarpiece, is a copy and was made by the restorer and painter Jozef van der Veken.