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Where are the Just Judges?

Updated on December 26, 2016

Located in the part of Belgium that is known as Flanders, the Cathedral of Ghent - St. Bavo's - is something like Loch Ness, or the castle where the legendary Holy Grail or the Treasure of the Templars was hidden. Here, in other words, starts a true crime story of mythical proportions, the tale of a lost painting called The Just Judges...

The Just Judges is a panel within a polyptych known as the Ghent Altarpiece or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers (Hubert & Jan) and regarded as one of the artistic highlights of Western civilisation. Jan Van Eyck was attached to the court of the Duke of Burgundy. Collaborating with his brother Hubert, he made of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb a complex series of paintings, with two doors and a central piece. The title of the piece is a reference to the central piece, showing a congregation of saints and apostles adoring the "Mystic Lamb", the symbol of Jesus Christ in this allegory. The panels to the left show the Just Judges and Holy Knights who are coming to the ceremony in the middle, while approaching from the right are some pious hermits and pilgrims. Both doors also hold paintings on both sides. The upper panels depict Jesus flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, and to the far sides, Adam and Eve naked.

The polyptych was kept since the 15th century in the cathedral, a very impressive building, dominated by a high central tower. The Ghent Altarpiece, surrounded by much mystery, is - and was for centuries - the main attraction of cathedral. One of the oldest mysteries was who should the artwork be accredited to. Inscriptions credit both Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, but in later centuries, writings such as those by Durer, attribute the painting solely to Jan. And what are Cathars and Templars doing here in a catholic piece of art? What do we have to think about the Grail, indisputably in the center of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb? Some panels of the masterpiece were sold, stolen, cut lengthwise, kidnapped... But in 1919, with the treaty of Versailles, the polyptych regained its final destination in St. Bavo Cathedral after a stay - for most of the panels - of more than a century in Germany.

The copy of the Just Judges by Vanderveken

During the night of April 10, 1934, the greatest mystery of all came with the theft of the panels called the Just Judges and St. John the Baptist. Both panels measured 1.49 m by 55.5 cm. On May 1, the bishop of Ghent received a letter, signed ‘D.U.A.' and stating that the unknown sender possessed both panels. This person proposed to return the St. John without any charge, provided he would receive a ‘commission' of 1 million Belgian francs for the return of the Just Judges. He called for an answer via an advertisement in a newspaper. The authorities decided to give in to his commands and St. John was delivered at the railroad station Brussels-Nord on May, 29. But instead of the requested 1 million, the bishop only would pay the thief 25.000 francs... and the Just Judges seemed to be lost forever.

Then, on Sunday, November 25, one Arsène Goedertier, a broker in Wetteren, aged 57, suddenly died. He collapsed after a speech at a political rally. Before succumbing, he informed Georges de Vos, a lawyer, in private of how he not only knew where the stolen painting was situated, he even had a file on that crime at his home. He tried to say more... but finally took the secret to his grave.

The police investigated and found in his home carbon copies of the 13 messages that had been sent to the bishop by D.U.A., and another typed message not yet posted. The initials found here, Arsene van Damme, were a close match to the anagram D.U.A., as U stood in for V in Latin writing. Only a single cryptic line hinted at the whereabouts of the Just Judges: "... in a place where neither I nor anyone else can recover it without drawing attention."

In his article In Search of the Just Judges Michael S. Rose described the months afther the death of Goedertier like this: "Journalists and amateur investigators gleaned plenty about the life and personality of Arsène Goedertier. Relatives indicated that he was a megalomaniac who always made a point of emphasizing how wealthy he was. His wife also revealed that, much to her annoyance, he was an avid reader of detective novels. Most telling, perhaps, is the fact that Goedertier was a fan of Arsène Lupin, the "gentleman thief" of Maurice LeBlanc's mystery novels. Arsène, of course, was also Goedertier's first name, and for him it seemed to be a coincidence with a meaning."

He had read the novel L'aiguille Creuse (The Hollow Needle) several times. The book is about art thefts. I believe that Goedertier found some inspiration in the novel. Just as Lupin would always leave a trail of coded messages after his thefts, Goedertier used similar coded language in his ransom notes.

"By all accounts, Goedertier was an eccentric character who apparently wanted the world to know that he was clever enough to have pulled off the art crime of the century. But some researchers suggest that, although Goedertier definitely typed and mailed the ransom notes, he was not the original thief - or that if he did steal the Just Judges, he did not act alone. One aspect of the puzzle that still baffles most detectives is the absence of a clear motive for Goedertier to steal the panel. Records indicate that he was in a very secure financial position, with than 3 million francs in the bank at the time of his death. So it is doubtful that money was his motive. Some analysts suggest instead that Goedertier was intent on extracting a sort of symbolic revenge. He is said to have been angry at the Catholic Church, because when Goedertier was a boy his father resigned from a high-paying job in the Church for ideological reasons and ended up as a sacristan, earning a mere pittance. This turn of events prevented his father from sending the young Arsène to a good school. According to this hypothesis, Goedertier held a grudge, and eventually took his revenge against the bishop with this elaborately staged art theft."

My "Nazi Plot" theory, first developed in 1991 in my book Mysteries van het Lam Gods (Mysteries of the Mystic Lamb), says it were the Nazi's who commissioned the theft, because of the mystic and heretic connotations of the Mystic Lamb. Hitler was thinking about seizing the iconography of the Mystic Lamb and incorporating it into the Holy Canon of his own Aryan supremacy religion. He dreamed of an Arian religion that could compete with Christianity and he could use the Mystic Lamb in this context. The thief of The Just Judges, however, decided at last not to cooperate... and was killed together with his accomplices De Swaef and Lievens when they hid the stolen panel for the Nazis.

The fascination of the top Nazis for the Mystic Lamb is a matter of record. During World War II, the Mystic Lamb was stolen by the SS and hidden in a salt mine near Salzburg along with many looted treasures. The chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, send a special agent to Belgium in order to find the lost Judges. SS-officer Kulturforscher Henry Koehn had the sole task of locating the missing Just Judges panel. But he also did not succeed...

If you do visit the city of Ghent today, you sure must see the Cathedral and its most treasured work of art, the Mystic Lamb... and the replica of the Just Judges.


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    • The Lost Dutchman profile image

      Patrick Bernauw 9 years ago from Flanders (Belgium)

      Thank you for your nice comment!

    • drgratton profile image

      drgratton 9 years ago from United Kingdom

      A fascinating article that is both insightful and skillfully written.