Steve Berry’s ‘The Omega Factor’ involves ninja-like nuns, a religious mystery and the Ghent Altarpiece – Morning Journal

Steve Berry didn’t plan to write “The Omega Factor” or create the character of Nick Lee, a United Nations office investigator who protects the world’s cultural artifacts.

But when he moved to a new publisher, Berry says they asked him if he had anything different before publishing the finished manuscript he arrived with, the latest in his Cotton Malone series of thrillers.

“They wanted to start with a standalone,” he says. “They wanted something fresh and different. I said, ‘OK, no problem with that.’

It was easy, Berry laughs. Hard was coming up with a new character and a new story as quickly as the publisher hoped.

  • Steve Berry’s new thriller ‘The Omega Factor’ is set in France and Belgium and involves an age-old secret about the Catholic Church and the masterpiece of real art known as the Ghent Altarpiece. (Photo by Carey Sheffield)

  • A photo taken on January 24, 2020 shows the 15th century...

    A photo taken on January 24, 2020 shows the 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece with the central painting “The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb” (1432) by Flemish brothers and artists Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck during the opening of the exhibition titled ‘The Return of the Lamb’ at St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. – The central panel of the 15th century Ghent Altarpiece – a panel known as the Adoration of the Mystical Lamb – emerged refreshed from a three-year renovation. Author Steve Berry drew inspiration from the altarpiece story for his 2022 thriller “The Omega Factor.” (Photo by DIRK WAEM/Belga/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Steve Berry's new thriller

    Steve Berry’s new thriller ‘The Omega Factor’ is set in France and Belgium and involves an age-old secret about the Catholic Church and the masterpiece of real art known as the Ghent Altarpiece. (Book art courtesy of Grand Central Publishing)

  • A mechanism closes a panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, by...

    A mechanism closes a panel on the Ghent Altarpiece, by Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, Monday, March 22, 2021. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral will open a new visitor center where the The restored Ghent altarpiece will be the focal point. The 1934 theft of one of the panels, The Fair Judges, and the restoration of the work bear witness to perhaps one of the greatest unsolved artistic crimes of all time. Author Steve Berry was inspired by the altarpiece and the mystery of the panel theft to write his 2022 thriller “The Omega Factor.” (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

  • A restorer inspects one of the 24 framed panels of...

    A restorer inspects one of the 24 framed panels of the Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, at the museum of fine arts in Ghent, Belgium, Thursday October 11, 2012. The painting, considered one of the masterpieces work of Belgium and one of the treasures of the world, was completed in 1432 by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Author Steve Berry drew inspiration from the altarpiece story for his 2022 thriller “The Omega Factor.” (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

  • An archived police file containing documentation of the theft of...

    An archived police file containing documents on the theft of the “just judges”, a panel of the Ghent altarpiece by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, is marked with a note reading “Never destroy the file” at the archives of the State in Ghent, Belgium, Monday, March 22, 2021. The theft of the panel in 1934 is perhaps one of the greatest unsolved artistic crimes of all time. Author Steve Berry used the altarpiece’s real-life story as inspiration for his 2022 thriller “The Omega Factor.” (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

  • Visitors attend the restoration of the 24 panels framed in...

    Visitors look at the restoration of the 24 framed panels of the Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, at the museum of fine arts in Ghent, Belgium, Thursday Oct. 11, 2012. The painting, considered one of the masterpieces he work of Belgium and one of the treasures of the world, was completed in 1432 by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Author Steve Berry was inspired by the altarpiece to write his 2022 thriller “The Omega Factor.” (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

  • Steve Berry's new thriller

    Steve Berry’s new thriller ‘The Omega Factor’ is set in France and Belgium and involves an age-old secret about the Catholic Church and the masterpiece of real art known as the Ghent Altarpiece. (Photo by Carey Sheffield, book art courtesy of Grand Central Publishing)

Lee, an investigator with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO as it is commonly known, was a figure he had been thinking about for years.

“Luckily it was in my brain,” Berry says. “At least the nuts and bolts of him were there. I just started fleshing it out.

Years earlier, while on a research trip to Europe for an earlier book by Cotton Malone, Berry stopped in the Belgian city of Ghent to see the Ghent Altarpiece, a 15th-century oil painting on 12 large panels by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

“I always wanted to see it,” Berry says. ” It’s just wonderful. And I wanted a novel based on that. I kept trying to figure out how to make a Cotton Malone book out of the Ghent Altarpiece and couldn’t figure it out.

Now, however, the pieces have slipped into place. Nick Lee, the Ghent Altarpiece, and an elaborate mystery from the historical research that Berry readers have come to expect from his work.

“When this standalone became available, I figured out how to do it,” Berry says. “I was able to bring the altarpiece and create my own secret from it, using real pieces.”

Exciting research

In “The Omega Factor”, Nick Lee travels to Ghent to visit his former fiancée, Kelsey, who left him years earlier when she realized her true destiny was to become a nun.

She restored a panel from the Ghent altarpiece, which itself replaces the one that was stolen in 1934 and never found. (That’s actually true; over the centuries, the altarpiece has been stolen at least seven times, earning it the title of the most stolen painting in the world.)

When that panel is destroyed just as Lee arrives, the thriller takes off with storylines that include ninja-like nuns willing to die to keep a centuries-old secret; a follower of the long-forgotten Cathar religious movement with a deadly grudge; and the shadowy plot of a Vatican cardinal and future pope, and his fellow Dominican brothers. gas lamp

Add to that a mystery relating to the Virgin Mary and “The Omega Factor” offered Berry many avenues of research.

He returned from Ghent with all the English books he could find on the altar. Noah Charney’s “The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb” – the official title the Van Eycks gave to their work – proved the most valuable, and Charney then checked Berry’s manuscript.

There were so many things that fascinated him: the story of the Virgin Mary, the religious sect known as Catharism, the landscapes and history of Ghent and the south of France.

“It was just interesting to me, the whole thing,” Berry says. “I said, ‘Well, there’s definitely a thriller in there if I can figure it out.

“Of course I had to have bad guys, so you always go to the Dominicans,” he says of the Catholic order. “The poor Dominicans are always blamed for everything. I even put that in the writer’s note, apologies to them.

catholic issues

Berry grew up in the Catholic Church, and although he no longer practices, the religion of his youth has not left his imagination.

“I went to Catholic school and the nuns taught me the first seven years,” he says of his childhood in suburban Atlanta. “It was a great education and they taught me things that have served me well all my life.”

During this period of his childhood, he would have preferred to attend the neighborhood school with a friend while avoiding the strict discipline he remembers the nuns imposed.

“Like I say all the time, the things they did back then would get you in jail right now,” Berry laughs.

“The good part is that they were really good teachers,” he says, though some questions still lingered for Berry.

“What’s always fascinated me about the Catholic church is that they’ll tell you the ‘what,'” Berry says, adding that he had different questions he wanted answers to. I was interested in. Why do we do this? Why do we believe this? Why does it matter, and why doesn’t it matter?”

The secrets of the art

When Berry first visited Ghent five or six years ago, the altarpiece was being restored with around 70% of the work completed, something to fascinate the writer and his imagination.

“Now it’s over and you just stand there and watch it,” Berry says. “It’s beautiful, really.”

But some of the best of them are difficult to observe when standing in front of the altarpiece in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

“Really cool stuff is impossible to see by standing there and looking at it,” Berry says. “You must have a magnifying glass to view it in high resolution.”

The Closer To Van Eyck website does even more, capturing the masterpiece in 100 billion pixels and inviting everyone to explore the artwork in detail.

“You can tackle the creases and cracks in the patina of this one,” says Berry. “It’s an amazing site and it’s amazing to see it in its own restored glory.”

The key to the mystery of “The Omega Factor” — the secret hidden in the Ghent Altarpiece on which all other action revolves — was important to be something in the work itself, Berry says.

“I struggled with this art for several months, trying to figure out a secret about it,” he says. “There is a lot of symbolism there. There are a lot of unexplained things about it. But I needed a big secret and I finally found it.

“The secret that is in the book that I designed. But he uses real things that are on the altarpiece itself.

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