Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece Paperback – Apr 3 2012
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Kirkus, July 15, 2010
Charney unsnarls the tangled history of Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century The Ghent Altarpiece (aka The Mystic Lamb), 'the most desired and victimized object of all time.' With a novelist’s sense of structure and tension, the author adds an easy familiarity with the techniques of oil painting and with the intertwining vines of art and political and religious history . A brisk tale of true-life heroism, villainy, artistry and passion.”
Christian Science Monitor, August 30, 2010
"[A]ction-packed . In scrupulous detail, Charney divulges the secrets of the revered painting’s past, and in doing so, gives readers a history lesson on art crime, a still-prospering black market.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 14, 2010
Well-written and thorough, this book reminds us of the influence and fragility of art, our veniality and heroism, and the delights found in both the beautiful and the strange.”
Maclean’s, October 14, 2010
In Charney’s hand, the story of the various heists often reads like a political thriller.”
Catholic Herald, December 13, 2010
Charney’s wonderfully learned and entertaining book tells us about all the indignities this famous image has endured through the centuries but the book also has some much broader point to make about the cultural significance of important paintings Charney tackles some important subjects (the creation of the modern art-stealing industry, our sensible obsession with almost burglar-proof museums) but he wears his learning lightly and the next extraordinary tale is only ever a few pages away. Best of a very good bunch must be the account of the Monuments Men: the highly qualified people who followed in the wake of the liberating armies at the end of World War Two It is good to hear their story and all the other bizarre tales this innovative and elegant book has to tell.”
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Stealing The Mystic Lamb is one of the most readable historical novels I've ever come across, (it helps that two of my favorite topics were already Art History and European history.) I have been studying many of these art pieces personally while an art student in Europe and America, but this book was able to set itself apart for me by really tying together the world and events simultaneously taking place.
Charney has written some of the most enjoyable and certainly most modern descriptions of these priceless art works, a true feat given the volume of descriptions already out there. I also highly recommend this book to anyone looking to jump into Art History, as it is explanative enough for the absolute beginner...but it also thorough and expansive enough for an avid art history student like myself to enjoy.
This book may not be as in depth and detailed towards individual pieces or artists as other art history books by more academic sources (art journals, etc.) but that is not the point of this book. This book is about the history of one piece of art and how that piece's history has influnced not just other artist's but the political, religous, and military superpowers in each century since.
This book is an knockout!
The subject matter was fascinating, I would recommend it to anyone, but what might have been a great book was reduced to be just a pretty good book by the sloppy repetitions.
The Mystic Lamb is not really a single work, but a series of panels painted between 1426-32 by Jan Van Eyck, the great painter of Ghent. The panels make up the altarpiece of the cathedral of Saint Bavo. It has been described as the last great painting of the Middle Ages or the first great painting of the Renaissance. It features 24 panels including portraits of the Virgin Mary, Adam and Eve, John the Baptist, the two donors, and an annunciation scene. At the center of the altarpiece is an allegorical series featuring a lamb sacrificing itself to save humanity.
The most interesting portion of the book deals with the actual construction and execution of the altarpiece. Van Eyck, though not the inventor of oil paint, he was probably the world's first master of this medium. The vivid colours of the Ghent altarpiece are a testimony to the skill and imagination of the artist that painted it and the revolutionary techniques that Van Eyck perfected that still resonate to this very day.
The altarpiece had numerous second lives after it had become an object of religious veneration primarily as loot for numerous armies, emperors, and even was the subject of a bizarre competition between Hitler and Goering. It survived campaigns by Reformation Protestants who wanted to burn it as idolatrous, the theft of its left and right panels, which were only returned after WWI as well as concealment in an imperfectly bomb rigged salt mine in Austria.
Unfortunately Charney goes into too much detail at times, particularly when describing the 1930s theft of one of the panels, a yet to be solved mystery. The tendency of this particular work to become stolen and threatened so many times is probably due as much to its portability and that it is housed in a church instead of highly guarded museum. Charney finds some apparent enjoyment in going into excruciating detail here. The theft of the lost panel gets a thorough going over and in the end despite all the crazy conspiracy theories it remains lost and no closer to being restored than it was when originally stolen.
I thought Charney went into too much detail when the painting was stolen by the Nazis. This is all old ground and covered in "The Rape of Europa." For all the detail Charney provides, there is nothing that Lynn Nicholas did not provide in her more general history of Nazi artistic looting.
This book is a very interesting one, but because of the author's fascination with the criminal aspects of the painting's history, the story of this important work of art is sometimes lost. Another irritating tendency is Charney's tendency to insist on the importance of the Ghent Masterpiece (as though there could ever be any doubt). It is all a bit too breathless at times. Despite these failings, however, Charney has written an interesting book, it could have been a better one with a better editor.
Some claims are misleading or inaccurate: for example, early on we are told that artists of this time and place in history only executed commissioned works. But we know that annual art markets flourished in Antwerp in the 15th century (we have detailed financial records from one market in particular, the Pand, operated by The Church of Our Lady of Antwerp) which suggest artists were painting on speculation for these open markets.
Other claims seem curious: for example, Eve (upper right panel) is described as having a "blank look," when in fact her expression seems to be one of deep remorse.
The book would also benefit from some careful editing. There is a tendency to begin discussing a particular panel, move the discussion on to another panel, and then return to the earlier discussed panel, and with a bit of repetition.
Still, a good general introduction to a fascinating work.