Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Day 33: Where are The Righteous Judges?

The Ghent Altarpiece, otherwise known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was completed in 1432 by the Bros Van Eyck. The polyptych (a painting of many panels) can be viewed in Ghent’s St.Baff’s Cathedral.

The centrepiece of the work, shows the adoration of the lamb of God, with several groups in attendance and others streaming in to worship. One of those groups (on the lower left-hand panel as you look at it) “streaming in”, are The Righteous Judges.

One dark Ghentish night, early in 1934, the panel depicting the arrival of The Righteous Judges, was stolen from the Cathedral. No one knows who stole the panel of how they managed to spirit it away from St.Baff’s, after all, it couldn’t have been carried off alone. Art lovers and detectives alike have puzzled over this 76 year-old mystery with little or no clue as to the whereabouts of the piece. It’s considered one of the art world’s greatest mysteries and indeed, one of the most valuable of lost painting (that’s a copy of the original panel in the altarpiece today).

A few weeks after the abduction, thirteen ransom notes were sent to the Church, but the payment and return of the panel never came to pass. In November of that same year, the only and last, great clue as to the location of the Judges, fell from the lips of a dying man: 58 year-old stockbroker, Arsène Goedertier collapsed with a fatal heart attack whilst addressing a Catholic meeting in Ghent; Arsène’s last words, uttered to his solicitor were: “I alone know where The Righteous Judges are.” Having dripped these tantilising morsels, Goedertier died. Inside his study where he had taken the solicitor, to ensure privacy, carbon copies of the ransom notes were found, along with a set of keys.

In recent years, a policeman from Antwerp’s diamond quarter, has been drawing lines of significance, using the postcodes on the ransom notes to identify three locations which are linked to the painting. Apparently, all three lines intersect at the crypt and grave of King Albert I, where it’s suspected the lost painting lies.

It’s too Da Vinci Code for words?! This most recent theory came to light ten years ago, in 2000, and I don’t believe that anything has happened since. The Righteous Judges remain an enigma, wrapped inside a puzzle, secreted within a riddle.

I’ve been to Belgium - famous for one or two football teams, it’s beers (the pride of which are brewed in monasteries, Hergé and his fictional creation, Tin Tin, and the frites (from pommes frites [ironically, French for French fries??!!])! I’ve worked in Antwerp, caroused in Oostende and touristed in Bruges.

Day #33 Tip: Contain Your Story
In Bruges was the latest ‘cab off the rank’ in that favourite English movie genre: the jokey-blokey-here’s-a -shotgun-in-yer-face-guv’nor.

I was first introduced to the English version of the mob/gangster film via Brighton Rock, then the very gentrified Ealing comedies of The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. That lovable-likeable rogue’ish DNA weaved it’s way down through The Italian Job, The Long Good Friday, The Krays (maybe not so loveable), rose to celebrated heights in Lock, Stock & Two Smokin’ Barrels, then Snatch, Layer Cake and an ensuing procession of crim's from London's east followed onto the screen. We (the Brits) like our thugs spruiking a cock’erney accent and toting a sawn-off.

I drifted away from the genre during the Guy Ritchie period, but last year, playwright-turned film director, Martin McDonagh won me back with his intricate and taught delicacy that is the film In Bruges.

In the very green years of my film writing, I would proliferate characters, locations and time zones in plague-like fashion; the more people, the more places, the merrier. It’s only in recent drafts that I’ve realised that it’s better to ‘go deep’ than ‘go wide’. Playwrights, like Martin McDonagh know this, it’s instinctual to the really good playwrights, not because of the constraints placed upon them by the theatrical canavas, but because they were handed great storytelling skills by those who had gone before and polished those values just like they were their “precious”.

The best films, the films we love the most, generally centre around four, maybe five memorable characters that we get to know really well (deep) rather than a cast of thousands with whom we barely scratch the surface (wide). In Bruges is about four people and really, I could whittle it down to the two Irishmen at the centre of the story.

It’s also about one location: Bruges. If you’ve yet to see this film, let me tell you that, not since New York (in Woody Allen’s Manhattan) has a city become such a loved character in a film. Martin McDonagh goes tight (deep) in on the Belgian, medieval city: it’s architectural, it’s artistic and it’s religious riches. He keeps the story so contained that it truly bursts out of it’s own seems in the Climactic moments.

Whilst I’m on the subject: the score by Carter Burwell (the Coen Bros choice of composer) is worth the price of admission alone AND....it’s a long, long time since a writer has wooed me into thinking and feeling one way about a character, only to rip the rug from under my feet within 30 minutes and leave me reassessing everything I’ve thought about him (if you’ve seen the film, hopefully you’ll know what I mean).

Back to that night I spent “carousing” in the Belgian seaport of Oostende (Flemish spelling). Okay, so I was in my cups and it was 30 years ago. I was in a restaurant with friends and, to take up a dare, I sneakily broke into the display case outside the cinema across the road and, without causing any damage, snaffeled a poster for the movie they were showing: Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.

Oostende could not contain me that night my friends, nor could the cinema's case contain the poster, but, please don’t let the Belgian Gendarmerie know, otherwise they might think I’ve also got The Righteous Judges.


  1. Well I loved today's post - for myriad reasons, it's relevant to my writing, I equally loved In Bruges and I love the way you weaved it - there's always a clue to the end in the beginning! Blogette

  2. You write: "The Righteous Judges remain an enigma, wrapped inside a puzzle, secreted within a riddle." ... untill last week, there are indications that the missing panel is still intact; see http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws.english/News/140329_investigation_started