Lizzie's Reviews > Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece

Stealing the Mystic Lamb by Noah Charney
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's review
Jul 22, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, read-in-2010, read-but-unowned, culled
Recommended for: art historians

This is a book about the misadventures of the Ghent Altarpiece, the "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb", completed by Jan van Eyck in 1432. With its realistic depiction of the Lamb and its adorers, it links Medieval and Renaissance art and is the national treasure of Belgium. Not surprisingly, it's been stolen and recovered a number of times.

Charney starts with a detailed description of the 24 panels that make up the polyptych panel painting: a main panel showing the adoration of Christ depicted as a lamb, with smaller panels on each side, and two outer wings of multiple panels that can be folded over the main scene, with more paintings on the outside. The paintings contain religious symbology that would have been designed by some church official, not the painter. Over the years scholars have found all kinds of coded messages about the painter and the subject. But it's the realism and beauty of the panels that make them such treasures.

The rest of the book is about the thefts and damage the painting has undergone. It was taken by Napoleon's troops, it was broken up and the outer wings exhibited in Berlin for some time, it was united as part of Germany's reparations after the second world war. A panel was stolen in 1934 and that crime has never been solved. Charney says the crime has the same status in Belgium as the Kennedy assassination here, with new books and theories every year. He goes into it in detail but it was really more than I cared about. I'm uninterested in unsolved mysteries - I'm bored to tears by theories about Kennedy or Jack the Ripper. Perhaps readers who enjoy such things will be more delighted by this material than I was.

Along the way Charney describes how plunder of a nation's art work was once standard procedure in war, but at the start of WWI art scholars implored the world's great powers to end this. Most complied.

During WWII, England and the US set up military units to list and protect archeological and art treasures, and to educate soldiers so that they'd respect these things. The Nazis acknowledged that defeated nations should keep their artworks... unless they were in the hands of Jews or other non citizens. Hitler and Goering were each trying to grab as many pieces as possible, Hitler for a museum he envisioned in his home town of Linz, Austria, that would make it the center of the art world. The number of pieces is staggering, and it included The Lamb. The Reich converted a salt mine in Austria into a storehouse. But when the end was in sight, Hitler gave orders to bomb the mine and destroy everything. If the Reich couldn't have them, nobody could. By this time, American intelligence knew about the salt mine storage, but could they prevent the art from being destroyed? That's the main story of this book.

Well, we know how it comes out, so there's not too much suspense, though that part's interesting. All told, it's another of those books that would have been a good magazine article but has been stretched to book length. The references at the end are kind of cursory; I'd have preferred footnotes and more details about sources. The published version will include color pictures of the painting, which my advance copy lacked.
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Reading Progress

July 22, 2010 – Shelved
July 22, 2010 – Shelved as: nonfiction
July 22, 2010 – Shelved as: read-in-2010
July 23, 2010 – Started Reading
July 31, 2010 – Finished Reading
April 1, 2013 – Shelved as: read-but-unowned
September 22, 2016 – Shelved as: culled

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Lizzie Thanks! I think those were cited as references, and I'm going to look for them. "The Rape of Europa" is going to be on my local PBS station soon.

James Hi---you are reading the advance copy of the book since it isn't published until October. if you read the small print on the cover you will see that in fact there will be a color insert in the final published edition---and it will indeed include color pictures of the Ghent Altarpiece. I agree that that will make a big difference in being able to appreciate why this painting is so special

Lizzie Thanks, I will revise my review.

message 4: by Vivienne (new) - added it

Vivienne This is probably my favourite work of art from this period and so I ordered the book.

In the published edition there are plenty of photographs and also a fair number of sources cited. Often these kind of things don't end up in the advance copies either.

I did get the impression as well that it is meant as a work of popular non-fiction over the kind of book I'd expect from an academic source.

Lizzie Vivienne wrote: "This is probably my favourite work of art from this period and so I ordered the book.

In the published edition there are plenty of photographs and also a fair number of sources cited. Often these..."

Oh yeah, this was clearly not an academic book, but still had a lot of interesting info. The whole story was new to me.

message 6: by Vivienne (new) - added it

Vivienne I studied the Altarpiece as part of a course on the art of the Renaissance though that concentrated on the period and the symbolism rather than its more recent history.

I even toyed with the idea of making a deeper study of it but life has rather put a hold on that.

So yes am looking forward to tucking into it sooner rather than later. :)

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