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Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece [Paperback]

Noah Charney
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

April 3 2012
Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece is on any art historian's list of the ten most important paintings ever made. It is also the most frequently stolen artwork of all time. Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, censored, hidden, attacked by iconoclasts, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times. In this fast-paced, real-life thriller, art historian Noah Charney unravels the fascinating stories of each of these thefts. Charney also explores psychological dramas that lurk within the history of art crime-and the ideological, religious, political, and social motivations that have led many men to covet this one masterpiece above all others.

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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.”

 



About the Author

Noah Charney is the author of the international bestselling novel The Art Thief and is the founding director of The Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international nonprofit think tank. Currently professor of art history at the American University of Rome, he lives in Italy with his wife.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Journey of Art June 25 2013
Format:Hardcover
This book will enlighten art enthusiasts with details about the famous Mystic Lamb altarpiece. The detailed descriptions of the symbols painted might be art overload for some but overall it is a fascinating account of the journey from the installation in the church to the many thefts over the years. By the time you reach the World War II drama of the Nazis stealing art it almost reads like a different book. You will come away with a greater appreciation for both the painted work and the history that is embedded in this old world masterpiece.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fine material, porly written July 10 2011
By foxglove - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book was in many ways a delight, but the author or his editor permitted countless repetitions that made me wonder: Was this book was put together from a series of articles written for a magazine that were published over several months?

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.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating! For both scholar and beginner of Art History Oct. 15 2010
By T. Coner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I can't recommended this book enough to those who love to learn more about how Art history doesn't just comment on the history of the world around it but an active and undeniable provocateur at the base of it.

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!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ecce Agnus Dei Jan. 13 2014
By Brian Morgan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book, written by a very prolific writer, concerns one of the world's most fascinating examples of Sacred Art, the Ghent Altar-piece, which dates from the early 15th century.

This reviewer would not question Noah Charney's qualifications as an art historian, but the subject of this particular masterpiece, which is replete with heavy symbolism, displays his poor knowledge of Christianity. He refers to Blessed Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar ("Fra"), as a monk (page 7). He anachronistically refers to an ancient translation of the Blessed Virgin Mary's words at the Annunciation as "politically correct," and displays his arrogance and disrespect toward theology which he does not understand: "Even back then, virgin pregnancy sounded a bit suspect" (page 11). He accepts (without discussion) that the figure wearing the Triple Tiara is God the Father, but this is disputed, many believing the figure to be Christ the King.

On page 47, the author confuses Limbo with Purgatory, and makes hash of the Catholic tradition of praying for the dead. On page 72, he does not even make an attempt to understand the granting of Indulgences.

In discussing (if that be the mot juste of such careless writing) the Allied bombing of Monte Cassino (page 219), he blindly accepts the victors' version of history, where one makes violence upon suspicion, as later with our suspected "Weapons of Mass Destruction."

Moving from religious topics, we have a real howler on page 278, when he writes that the great Lincoln Kirstein "went on to direct the Metropolitan Opera." Indeed, it was probably a mistake to quote Kirstein's writings, since we can see the chasm of quality between Kirstein and Charney, whose efforts read like that of a schoolboy in comparison.

The entire book appears to be the result of a lack of research and comprehension, resulting in a completely superficial and disorganized study of the retable. One suspects that this author needs to read more and write less. In truth, the current Wikipedia article on the Altar-piece is far more mature, reliable, and interesting than this book.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Intriguing Read Sept. 29 2010
By Ben Davies - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The chapters have a wonderful dramatic arc and I found the story of how the painting was repeatedly stolen very easy to read. It is an utterly convincing book with a precise regard for detail, and yet without being too bogged down. Who would have thought that a single painting could contain so much and have such a fascinating history. I loved the chapter called 'Thieves in the Cathedral'. I got a very visual sense - as in a film. Would highly recommend this!
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Please don't steal the lamb March 18 2011
By M. A Newman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a very interesting book, but even at a mere 288 pages, it does have a tendency to drag. Noah Charney does have an interesting tale to tell, it is just he takes a long time getting there.

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.
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