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Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece    by Noah Charney order for
Stealing the Mystic Lamb
by Noah Charney
Order:  USA  Can
PublicAffairs, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

There are different criteria for judging the fame and importance of any given piece of art, but if you consider how many times it has been stolen, The Ghent Altarpiece has to be placed at the very top of the list as the most desired artwork of all time.

In this well illustrated narrative, Noah Charney traces the history of a twelve-panel oil painting created by Jan van Eyck in 1432. Often referred to as The Mystic Lamb, the Ghent Altarpiece has been taken seven times, been involved in thirteen different crimes and today, although it is back in its home in Belgium's Saint Bavo Cathedral, one of the original panels, the Righteous Judges, still is missing although a copy was created to replace it.

Since its completion, the Ghent Altarpiece has not only been looted in three different wars but it has also been burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, attacked by iconoclasts, and hidden away, as well as been ransomed and rescued by various people.

The magnificent piece of art is so very important because it represents a number of firsts in the history of art. For centuries artists traveled on artistic pilgrimages to Ghent to see and study the masterpiece.

'It is considered the fulcrum between art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and therefore may be seen as the first Renaissance painting,' explains Charney.

'It was the first major oil painting, showing European artists the delicacy and grandeur of which this medium was capable a medium that would be preferred by painters for the next five hundred years.'

The artist was the first to paint light reflecting off an animal's eyes, to capture the individual hairs in a beard, and to create botanically accurate flora and the illusion of atmospheric perspective.

According to the author, this was also 'the first work to incorporate disguised symbolism, hiding Christian allegories and obscure, mystical references in inanimate objects depicted with stunning accuracy'.

After a detailed account of Jan van Eyck's life and the creation of the altarpiece, art historian Noah Charney focuses on the tumultuous history of the work as it was caught in the ebb and flow of European history. Napoleon, Goering and Hitler are some of the more famous individuals who had a role in the art piece's misfortunes.

Charney tells the remarkable story of this masterpiece - which reads like a mystery novel rather than a work of non-fiction - and explains why it has been the source of so much intrigue.

And, as he explains, the intriguing story of the Mystic Lamb continues. Last year the Getty Foundation and the Belgian government launched a project to do a thorough restoration of the piece and determine if the original Judges' panel actually isn't lost at all.

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