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Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is on any art historian’s list of the ten most important paintings ever made. Often referred to by the subject of its central panel, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, it represents the fulcrum between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 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, illegally sold, 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 stories of each of these thefts. In the process, he illuminates the whole fascinating history of art crime, and the psychological, ideological, religious, political, and social motivations that have led many men to covet this one masterpiece above all others.

Published: PublicAffairs on Oct 5, 2010
ISBN: 9781586489243
List price: $16.99
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Stealing the Mystic Lamb is an account of the many crimes perpetrated against the Ghent Alterpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This book represents exactly the kind of non-fiction I don't enjoy. Rather than the "riveting narrative" claimed on the back of the book, I found Mystic Lamb to be a a dry, and sometimes repetitious, presentation of facts. The detailed description of the piece and background history of Jan van Eyck, the artist, and the city of Ghent became tedious to me. I kept plowing forward hoping the narrative would become more engaging when I got to the thefts. However, I finally lost my patience when I reached page 79 and the story of the first theft was set to begin. Instead, the author regressed into a primer on the French Revolution. For what I think was the third time, Charney decided it would be "useful" to digress into a history lesson before coming to his point. I come from a history background, but was frustrated that the topic the book promised to address had still not come to the forefront. Unfortunately, I have too many book on my TBR pile to continue slogging through Stealing the Mystic Lamb hoping for an engaging story. A true art historian may find Stealing the Mystic Lamb a fascinating read, but I'm leaving this book unfinished.read more
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The Ghent Altarpiece, completed by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck in 1432, was one of the first large scale oil paintings. This masterpiece is considered to represent the transition from medieval to northern Renaissance art, and the beginning of artistic realism. The importance of this work to the art world may be suggested by the fact that it has been stolen a total of 13 times, including by Napoleon and the Nazis.In writing Stealing the Mystic Lamb, it seems that author Noah Charney couldn’t decide where he wanted to go with the story. The book begins with a detailed description of the altarpiece, which comprises twelve painted panels on oak, hinged together in a triptych weighing approximately two tons, and measures 14.5 by 11.5 feet when open. The eight wing panels are also painted on the reverse side. The altarpiece is opened on its hinges for religious holidays, displaying the twelve inside paintings. For most of the year, the altarpiece remains closed, displaying the eight panels on the back sides of the outer panels. Unfortunately, such a complicated piece cannot be understood from narrative description alone, and this advance reading copy did not include the 8 page color insert promised for the retail edition. However, a review of the images available online made me want to visit Ghent on my next trip to Europe.The author then proceeds to a biography of Jan van Eyck and his mysterious brother Hubert, who apparently began the altarpiece, but died soon after, leaving his younger brother to complete the work. This is followed by a recital of the various indignities to which the altarpiece has been subjected. As described in the publisher’s summary, the altarpiece has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, hidden, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Australian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.The final third of the book describes the massive art theft program of the Nazis during World War II, and the efforts of the Allies and a few Austrian double agents to rescue these art treasures before they could be destroyed.The story is fascinating, but the book gets bogged down with various digressions and a good deal of repetition that will hopefully be edited out of the published version. In several areas (including the disappearance and failed ransom of the Righteous Judges panel, and the recovery of various Nazi art archives at the end of WWII) the author presents multiple conflicting stories, but gives no analysis of the validity of the various claims. The Getty Foundation is funding an evaluation and eventual restoration of the altarpiece, which may yield some answers to the mystery of the replaced Righteous Judges panel.The advanced reading copy includes a brief bibliography and limited notes on sources, but no footnotes or endnotes. I obtained Stealing the Mystic Lamb through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.read more
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In 1432, Flemish painter Jan van Eyck put the finishing touches on his Ghent altarpiece entitled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In the 680 years of its history, it has been burned, forged, sold on the black market, ransomed, and stolen thirteen times. Charney’s saga of the piece’s history is as enthralling as one can make art history. From diplomatic struggles to Napoleon to burglars to the Nazis, van Eyck’s ode to Christian symbolism has had a very eventful past, even more than the ubiquitous Mona Lisa. While there are some sections that take a while to get going, the whole book is charming and full of wonderful details. A well-done book.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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Stealing the Mystic Lamb is an account of the many crimes perpetrated against the Ghent Alterpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This book represents exactly the kind of non-fiction I don't enjoy. Rather than the "riveting narrative" claimed on the back of the book, I found Mystic Lamb to be a a dry, and sometimes repetitious, presentation of facts. The detailed description of the piece and background history of Jan van Eyck, the artist, and the city of Ghent became tedious to me. I kept plowing forward hoping the narrative would become more engaging when I got to the thefts. However, I finally lost my patience when I reached page 79 and the story of the first theft was set to begin. Instead, the author regressed into a primer on the French Revolution. For what I think was the third time, Charney decided it would be "useful" to digress into a history lesson before coming to his point. I come from a history background, but was frustrated that the topic the book promised to address had still not come to the forefront. Unfortunately, I have too many book on my TBR pile to continue slogging through Stealing the Mystic Lamb hoping for an engaging story. A true art historian may find Stealing the Mystic Lamb a fascinating read, but I'm leaving this book unfinished.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
The Ghent Altarpiece, completed by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck in 1432, was one of the first large scale oil paintings. This masterpiece is considered to represent the transition from medieval to northern Renaissance art, and the beginning of artistic realism. The importance of this work to the art world may be suggested by the fact that it has been stolen a total of 13 times, including by Napoleon and the Nazis.In writing Stealing the Mystic Lamb, it seems that author Noah Charney couldn’t decide where he wanted to go with the story. The book begins with a detailed description of the altarpiece, which comprises twelve painted panels on oak, hinged together in a triptych weighing approximately two tons, and measures 14.5 by 11.5 feet when open. The eight wing panels are also painted on the reverse side. The altarpiece is opened on its hinges for religious holidays, displaying the twelve inside paintings. For most of the year, the altarpiece remains closed, displaying the eight panels on the back sides of the outer panels. Unfortunately, such a complicated piece cannot be understood from narrative description alone, and this advance reading copy did not include the 8 page color insert promised for the retail edition. However, a review of the images available online made me want to visit Ghent on my next trip to Europe.The author then proceeds to a biography of Jan van Eyck and his mysterious brother Hubert, who apparently began the altarpiece, but died soon after, leaving his younger brother to complete the work. This is followed by a recital of the various indignities to which the altarpiece has been subjected. As described in the publisher’s summary, the altarpiece has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, hidden, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Australian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.The final third of the book describes the massive art theft program of the Nazis during World War II, and the efforts of the Allies and a few Austrian double agents to rescue these art treasures before they could be destroyed.The story is fascinating, but the book gets bogged down with various digressions and a good deal of repetition that will hopefully be edited out of the published version. In several areas (including the disappearance and failed ransom of the Righteous Judges panel, and the recovery of various Nazi art archives at the end of WWII) the author presents multiple conflicting stories, but gives no analysis of the validity of the various claims. The Getty Foundation is funding an evaluation and eventual restoration of the altarpiece, which may yield some answers to the mystery of the replaced Righteous Judges panel.The advanced reading copy includes a brief bibliography and limited notes on sources, but no footnotes or endnotes. I obtained Stealing the Mystic Lamb through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
In 1432, Flemish painter Jan van Eyck put the finishing touches on his Ghent altarpiece entitled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In the 680 years of its history, it has been burned, forged, sold on the black market, ransomed, and stolen thirteen times. Charney’s saga of the piece’s history is as enthralling as one can make art history. From diplomatic struggles to Napoleon to burglars to the Nazis, van Eyck’s ode to Christian symbolism has had a very eventful past, even more than the ubiquitous Mona Lisa. While there are some sections that take a while to get going, the whole book is charming and full of wonderful details. A well-done book.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I debated a while on what rating to give this book. On the one hand, I found a lot of the information contained in the book very interesting. I've read a few art history books, but it's not a topic I know much about, so the chapters on how van Eyck painted the altarpiece and the historical significance of the painting made for fascinating reading. But I felt like there was way too much repetition and speculation, especially in the later chapters on post WWI history. In the end, although the raw information in the book was interesting, the writing style brought me down to 2.5 stars.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Stealing the Mystic Lamb details the wild history of artist Jan van Eyck’s great masterwork, the Ghent Altarpiece, which holds the record as the most stolen work of art in history. Since its completion in 1432, the work has been stolen thirteen times -- amazing in and of itself, but all the more remarkable when you consider that it weighs two tons and is the size of a barn wall. (To be fair, some of the thefts involved only a few of the painting’s 12 panels – a little more manageable of a caper.) Coveted by Napoleon and Hitler, cherished by the people of Belgium, and considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by art historians, the Ghent Altarpiece is at the heart of one of the most improbable narratives in the annals of human creativity and conquest.The chapters of the book take the reader through a chronology of the altarpiece, starting with an explanation of the iconography of the work, which depicts the adoration of the “Lamb of God” (a metaphor for Christ) on its interior, and the Annunciation (when Mary is told she will give birth to the Son of God) on its exterior. The altarpiece was one of the world’s first great oil paintings, a technique that allowed for stunning, near photographic realism. Some of the brushes used to create the altarpiece were so delicate they consisted of only a few hairs, enabling van Eyck to paint details down to the pores on a person’s skin and individual strands of a man’s beard. By the time I finished the chapter I was ready to book a flight to Belgium to see it for myself. (I settled for Google images.) The first chapter also gives a biography of Jan van Eyck and tells how the altarpiece came to be commissioned.The subsequent chapters track (to paraphrase the jacket copy) the looting, burning, dismemberment, forgery, smuggling, illegal sale, censorship, theft, concealment, and ultimate rescue of the altarpiece.Early in its history, the Ghent Altarpiece was swept into the religious tug of war between Catholics and Protestants, barely escaping destruction at the hands of Calvinists who saw it as an icon of everything that was wrong with Catholicism. Later, wars threatened the work - from the Napoleonic campaigns to two World Wars. Author Noah Charney uses the Ghent Altarpiece as a lens to explore how art can become a religious lightening rod or a political tool, its destruction signaling the triumph of an ideology and its capture symbolizing domination by an invading power. Charney shows how art has been used to validate a rising ruler, citing both Napoleon’s creation of the Louvre (filled with loot from his tromp across Europe, including the Ghent Altarpiece) as a way to establish France’s cultural preeminence -- and Hitler’s quest to create a Super Museum in his working-class childhood home of Linz (looting the altarpiece in his turn) to prove the greatness of his vision and by extension the superiority of Aryan race.The episode that had me most intrigued (who would think art history could have you on the edge of your seat!) was that of the mysterious, and still unidentified, thief who stole two panels of the altarpiece and then started sending bizarre notes demanding ransom. The twists and turns in this theft are too complex to relate in a review, but they involve cover ups, conspiracy theories, death bed confessions, and possibly murder. One panel is missing to this day.Charney writes in an accessible style, but if you have an aversion to history you’ll find Stealing the Mystic Lamb slow going. I certainly recommend for anyone interested in European history and the non-aesthetic side of the visual arts. Very satisfying and very informative.
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Begun in 1426 and finished in 1432, "The Ghent Altarpiece" by Jan van Eyck would become masterpiece on the move through theft, deceit, and greed. Originally created for the church of Saint John (later the Saint Bavo Cathedral) in Ghent (Belgium), it was commissioned by a wealthy couple as an offering and instrument of hope that they would be held in high regard by both the church members and clergy, and in the afterlife. It is a massive undertaking, both in size (measuring approximately 11' by 14') and content. Also known as "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb", it is comprised of 20 panels that many art historians believe bridges the transition from artwork at the end of the Middle Ages and to the beginning of the Renaissance. In "Stealing The Mystic Lamb" by Noah Charney, we learn that most of the world's masterpieces played an integral role in wars and conquests. Bargains were made about the return of historically important works; paintings, sculptures, drawings, statues, furniture, tapestries, and rare books changed hands in the name of peace, often unrealized. The book is a fascinating look at how important art was, not just for nationalistic reasons, but as tangible items of conquest. The author takes us on travels through time as the "Mystic Lamb" moves from church to country to museum, all in the name of covetous ownership of this work of art.Through the last 600 years it has been both a bargaining chip and a chess piece on a grand scale. It has been burned, taken apart, forged, held for ransom, and hidden away, yet never forgotten. Its depictions of Mary, Saint John, the Righteous Judges, and other figures continue to intrigue and baffle. Even today, one panel remains a mystery. Inscribed on the back is this compelling poem: "I did it for love/And for duty/And to avenge myself/I borrowed/From the dark side".The painting itself is a wonderment of the 'new' style of oil painting (van Eyck is often considered the first artist to use oil paints) and ecclesiastical mysteries. Charney reveals and discusses many of the hidden symbols and words to show how paintings of this era were created to inspire and teach. Unfortunately, some of the information seems repetitive (on one page alone he twice states that the Louvre was originally a royal palace and on another page an entire paragraph is repeated) but, given that this is an advance copy it may simply be an editing error that will be corrected. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the book can be found on the back cover - "Finished book will include...an 8-pp. color photo insert". There are small black and white photos of the artwork but it's difficult to appreciate and discern all the aspects of the painting as described in the text. Obviously, this will not be an issue when the book is released in October and excellent photos are available on the internet.All in all, this is an intriguing and highly recommended book, especially for those interested in art history and, oddly enough, the history of war. The illegal acquisition of art throughout the centuries played such an important role, especially in the Treaty of Versailles, that you may never look at a masterpiece the same way again.
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