Hitler, the Ghent Altarpiece and the Holy Grail

Hitler, the Ghent Altarpiece and the Holy Grail
Hitler, the Ghent Altarpiece and the Holy Grail

April 10, 1934 – the night in which one of the 12 panels of Jan van Eyck’s famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, more commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece was stolen from Ghent. Belgium’s Saint Bavo Cathedral.

This said oil painting is believed to be the most influential painting ever made throughout history. Unarguably, it is also the most stolen piece of artwork – burglarized a few times, some of its panels or the entire piece itself which is quite an accomplishment since the whole 12-panel piece is as big as a barn door.

Most importantly, the Ghent Altarpiece was the Nazis’ most wanted art piece – Hitler was very desirous in getting it as well as his second-in-command, Hermann Göring.

In fact, the two Nazi chiefs raced one another on who would get the altarpiece first. the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) got it first for Hitler from where it was placed by the Belgian government for safekeeping in  Chateau de Pau, a manor located in southern France. 

But an ambassador from Göring stole it for the Luftwaffe head and placed it among the items in his huge collection of stolen artworks which numbered to about seven thousand and were placed in his country estate on the outskirts of Berlin. When this news reached Hitler, his men short-stopped the altarpiece and sent it to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria for restoration after which it was ultimately shipped off to a salt mine in the Austrian Alps near Altaussee, the hiding place of over twelve thousand art masterpieces taken from European countries occupied by the Nazis. These were meant to be showcased in Hitler’s planned “super museum” – a city-sized exhibit edifice meant to display every valuable artwork found within the world’s four corners.

The Ghent altarpiece was finally rescued, along with the other art pieces, through the combined attempt of a number of Austrian miners along with two Monuments Men – Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein – who found out about the hoard in Altaussee because of a random toothache that led them to an SS officer who was an art historian in hiding as the war was closing in favor of the Allies.

Ghent Altarpiece, the Icon

Ghent Altarpiece with (Left) Wings Closed and (Right) Fully Opened
Ghent Altarpiece with (Left) Wings Closed and (Right) Fully Opened

The symbolic representation of the Jan van Eyck work has long been a fascination of art scholars. For one, the painting’s popularity immediately soared after it was finished in 1432. It was also the first painting to be painted with oil as its primary element. Of course, oil’s use as paint binder go way back in the Middle Ages but Jan van Eyck was the first to show the power of the substance – how it allows far greater distinction and detail compared to tempera paint, the kind of paint widely used before van Eyck’s painting, which was egg-based and had an opaque characteristic.

The work itself contains over a hundred figures – an intricate shrine devoted to the mysticism that shrouds Catholicism – and centers on a bleeding sacrificial lamb which is the representation of Christ. This lamb stands on an altar and its blood flows into a chalice – the equally mysterious Holy Grail. Uniquely-portrayed figures surround the lamb amidst a heavenly backdrop.

Why Hitler Wanted It

Hitler’s fascination with the Ghent altarpiece is attributed to these reasons.

For one, it is one of history’s most famous artworks and was done by a Germanic artist in a style which the Third Reich preferred, the realistic Northern Renaissance style.

It was also compulsorily returned to Belgium after WWI; before it happened, some of its panels were in display in Berlin. The treaty of Versailles singled out four cultural heritage works and topping that very short list was the Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Getting the artwork was Hitler’s way of saving the German people from the humiliation inflicted by the said treaty.

But above these reasons, there was one acumen that stood above the rest as to why Hitler wanted the Ghent altarpiece.

He believed it was the key to his victory during WWII.

Nazis, the Occult and the Holy Grail

Arma Cristi or Instruments of Christ's passion as depicted in this Middle Ages image
Arma Cristi or Instruments of Christ’s passion as depicted in this Middle Ages image

Hitler was very convinced the Ghent altarpiece, with its lost panel, contained a coded map to Roman Catholicism’s lost treasures so-called Arma Cristi – the instruments during the Passion of Christ which included the Crown of Thorns placed on Christ’s head, the Holy Grail used during the Last Supper and the Spear of Destiny, the head of the spear used to pierce his side while he hung on the cross.

Hitler believed that if he got these treasures into his possession, these will give him supernatural powers that will eventually lead to his winning the Second World War. He even anted up his efforts into searching for this supernatural help as WWII wore on in favor of the Allied Forces.

Impossible, right? This knowledge may sound more like an adventure movie plot but this idea is the truth. The Nazis did have a team of researchers which looked for treasures of the supernatural realm and religious relics that would eventually show the path to a certain magical land. However, only a few knew about this Nazi arm – the Nazi Ahnenerbe or Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization (“Ahnenerbe” literally means inheritance of the forefathers).

The Ahnenerbe was the Nazis’ paranormal research team established in July 1, 1935 by the orders of SS head Heinrich Himmler. During WWII, it was further developed in response to the Fuhrer’s commands.

Hitler as well as the Nazis’ other top leaders’ interest in the occult was no secret, it was well documented among the annals of history. For a fact, the organization itself had started as an occult fraternity before it was modified into a political  party.

Ahnenerbe Symbol and the SS Ring with Rune Lettering
Ahnenerbe Symbol and the SS Ring with Rune Lettering

The Schutzstaffel’s design itself, Himmler’s SS, was even modeled after occult beliefs. The SS’s castle headqurters, Wewelsburg, was the usual location of the initiation rites of twelve SS “knights” based right directly from legends regarding King Arthur. During these rites, the magical powers of the rune were called upon. Even the Ahnenerbe’s logo featured rune-styled writings.

Even More Amazing Stories

The Nazis fought WWII with psychics and astrologers – they were hired to examine the alignment of the stars and based war tactics and offensive attacks using these readings. The organization even tried to to create a line of super soldiers based on Nietzsche’s übermensch and even planned to bring back dead German warriors at the end of WWII as evidenced by the corpses of great Germanic warriors found hidden in a mine.

The Ahnenerbe 

As for the entrance to this magical land, the Nazis supposed the secret to the entrance is contained within an Icelandic saga way back in the Medieval Ages, The Eddas.

They hold on to the position that if they did find Thule, they would be able to ante up their Aryan breeding program as well as reclaim the lost powers of telepathy, flight and telekinesis that their supposed Aryan ancestors had but had lost due to interbreeding with “lesser” races.

Crazy but Possible

All these may be absurdly sounding but these were firmly believed by most Nazi followers and a large part of their finances had been placed to support these endeavors – invested into a number of studies and employing of hundreds of scientists and workers to do these works.

The pseudo-scientific arm of the Nazi organization was responsible for looking for supernatural advantages connected to the efforts exerted by the Nazis during WWII and for supporting their propaganda regarding the beliefs they stood by like the superiority of the Aryan race.

With these in mind, it very much possible that Hitler did thought that the Ghent altarpiece held the secret to the path into finding the supernatural religious relics that would eventually empower him to win WWII.

Art scholars might argue with this line of thinking but with the unique creatures depicted in Eyck’s painting, it is really tempting to interpret them as something more exotic and mystery-laded than what an average art textbook might put them to be.

Adding Wood to the Fire

Ghent Altarpiece's Righteous Judges panel
Ghent Altarpiece’s Righteous Judges panel

This theory is even more fueled by the theft of the single panel that fateful night in 1934.

There never was any single reason convincing enough to support the motivation behind the stealing of the Righteous Judge panel, so-named because it showed a band of Biblical wise men hiding other portraits including one of van Eyck.

Arsene Goedertier had been pinpointed as the master of the thievery and was believed to have acted with a number of accomplices but his reason behind stealing that certain Ghent altarpiece panel is still uncertain until now. The panel was said to have been stolen to ransom it back to Saint Bavo’s diocese but Goedertier ‘s bank account had contained a greater sum than the ransom asked. Because of the deficiency  of clear motives, several other have risen up including one which involved Heinrich Köhn’s visit to Ghent to look for the stolen Judges’ panel a number of years before the Nazis looted the eleven other panels from the cathedral – Köhn was an art detective working for the Nazi organization.

He investigated throughout the city even taking apart sections of the church as one theory had held that the lost panel never really left Saint Bavo but was hidden in one of the secret compartments within the cathedral.

Why would the Nazis go on such extreme lengths just to find that lost stolen panel? Surely they had designs of taking the whole altarpiece. not leaving even one panel behind.

Stories have risen since then that the coded map to the Holy Grail hidden within Eyck’s masterpiece was missing a vital element and this could only be found within the Judges’ panel. It was needed for the map to be complete. Therefore, it was stolen in 1934 to keep it away from the Nazis’ hands and from its then blossoming leader, Adolf Hitler.

Yes, a number of logical, un-Da Vinci Code-like reasons are available to explain away Hitler’s obsession with the Ghent altarpiece but its connection to the Holy Grail really seems plausible given the German dictator’s background, passion and beliefs including those crazy notions about the supernatural powers of the Aryan race, Thule and The Eddas.

Besides, Hitler and the Nazi party are not the first to this possibility.

– The Daily Beast Reports

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE