"Stealing the Mystic Lamb": A Review

This past weekend I finally finished reading art historian Noah Charney’s book Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, and I finally got my hands on a copy over a month ago. It took me several weeks to read this book, not because it was boring, but because I kept pausing to type notes on my computer. And now, with eighteen pages of notes in my computer files, I have finally finished the book. Phew!

This book recounts the troubled (and bizarre!) history of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. Specifically, Charney deals with the many crimes (particularly thefts and attempted thefts) of this famous altarpiece from the Northern Renaissance. Historically, this work of art has been stolen and “coveted” more than any other work of art. I was particularly interested in how much of the altarpiece ended up in France during the Napoleonic era. During this time, the panels were put on display at the Louvre. The panels were undoubtedly seen in the Louvre by the artist Ingres, whose painting Napoleon on his Imperial Throne quotes van Eyck’s image of God the Father.1

Although I liked all of the book, I think that I enjoyed the first half of the book a little bit more. In this first half, Charney races through several centuries of history in a lively discussion of the altarpiece’s creation and thefts before WWII. I really enjoyed the quick, animated pace in the first few chapters. The latter half of Charney’s book slows down considerably to focus on just one historical event: the theft of the Ghent Altarpiece by Nazis during WWII. The altarpiece panels, which were intended to be placed in Hitler’s super-museum for art, were kept in the Alt Aussee mine in Austria. Although I thought that this story was still very interesting, it took a some mental adjustment to move at a slower pace in terms of chronology.

This book is fascinating and written with a very engaging tone. Aside from the change in pace, I only had one other teensy-weensy issue with Charney’s book: I was really surprised to see that he referred to Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) as a marriage scene.2 Since the marriage interpretation has been questioned by art historians for so long (and has been disproved in many ways), it ever-so-slightly undermined the quality of Charney’s book. But that being said, don’t let my nit-picky issue deter you from reading Stealing the Mystic Lamb. On the contrary, please read it. (Just know that I have crossed out the word “wedding” on a few pages. That’s all.)

P.S. There is a great interview of Noah Charney on Three Pipe Problem. Be sure to check it out!

1 Noah Charney, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010), 104.

2 Ibid., 22.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Hi M! Nice review.

    In all fairness, even Koster's reading does affirm a marriage scene of sorts, all be it a memorial one!

    I do not think this resistance to flying off on a tangent in any way detracts from the book. I think Charney simply didn't want to get sidetracked, I enjoyed seeing an art historian stick to the point for a change!

    I also recommend the audiobook version for people on the go. The narrator has a voice which is reminsicent of a newsreel announcer and really suits the WW2 bits especially.

    Kind Regards

  • Margarida Elias says:

    Very interesting. I specially liked the fact that the Van Eyck painting was seen by Ingres.

  • heidenkind says:

    Well, no one can be an expert on everything. And maybe he felt as if taking the time out to explain why he wasn't referring to the Arnolfini Portrait as a marriage portrait would be too much of a diversion. This is a book for a general audience, right?

    Or maybe he just prefers the theory that it's a marriage portrait. 🙂

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments. And I see what H Niyazi is saying about Charney's resistance to "fly off on a tangent." Understandably, since this book is about the Ghent altarpiece, one wouldn't expect Charney to discuss the Arnolfini portrait in depth. However, I still have issues with the fact that he describes this scene as a wedding ceremony. He also refers to the sitters of the portrait as Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami ("Mystic Lamb," p. 22). This comment was quite telling for me, and especially suggested that Charney wasn't up-to-date with the recent theories about this painting (as opposed to simply arguing in favor of the wedding theory.) By identifying the figures as Giovanni [di Arrigo] Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, Charney is going back to a theory that was popular from 1861 (when it was proposed by Weale) until 1998.

    However, in 1998 Lorne Campbell proved that the painting couldn't be of Giovanni [di Arrigo] Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, since those two individuals were married thirteen years after this portrait was painted, and six years after Jan van Eyck died. (See Lorne Campbell, "Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife," The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools, London, 1998: 174-204). Obviously, this painting must depict another Arnolfini couple than the one that Charney has identified in his book.

    But, as heidenkind points out, it could be that Charney agrees with the marriage interpretation. If that is the case, I hope that he writes a book and defends his stance. I'd be curious to see why he holds onto that interpretation.

    And yeah, no one can be an expert on everything. I understand (and personally lament!) that fact. I know Charney is an art historian, but his expertise may not even be Northern Renaissance painting.

  • H Niyazi says:

    M! I am as fond of fact scouring as the next person, but you need to be more diligent to nitpick at this:

    In no instance does Charney refer to the sitters identities so directly as to suggest it is what he thinks they represent.

    Here is whole sentence in context.

    "He sometimes hid his signature, yet did do in plain sight, as in his work The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, which he signed right in the centre of the painting as a witness to the marriage ceremony, thought to involve Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami."

    Citing something is "thought to involve" is hardly a statement of fact or preference that anyone needs to defend?!

    This very statement is common in many art history textbooks, despite Campbell's or Koster's work. nb. Campbell's volume is listed in the bibliography, Koster's article is not.

    I have an electronic version I can quickly scan for every instance of a word – so I would like to offer some clarification on the mentions of this portrait:

    In every instance it is referred to, it is expressed in italics as the title of the work. One instance also adds another alternative name to this painting(The Marriage Contract).

    The point is, rather than being a statement of what the author thinks, he is citing the popular name for this work, as it would appear in many catalogues, textbooks and search engines.

    You may as well go on a mission to tear down every scholar that has ever written about The School of Athens, which is not what the painting is about, just its common moniker.

    Unlike Charney, I think we have all succeeded in getting sidetracked 🙂

    If you really want to get riled up about the Arnolfini Portrait, direct your attentions to the National Gallery London's defiant insistence that the female figure is not pregnant!


  • M says:

    Hi H! I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree on this point. I think that Charney's comment is still misleading (and incorrect!), since this identification of the couple has not been "thought" by scholars for almost fifteen years. It's especially unfortunate that Charney cites Campbell in his biography, since Charney is referring to the antiquated argument which Campbell decisively refuted!

    As for the old-fashioned title of the painting, I (obviously!) have issues with that. Referring to the Arnolfini portrait with a title that indicates any allusion to marriage (i.e. "Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride" or "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini") is almost seen as a joke by some art historians. For this reason, today scholars try to refer to this painting by alternate titles or descriptions (i.e. "The Arnolfini Family Portrait" or "The Arnolfini Double-Portrait"). Even the National Gallery, which houses this painting, refers to the work as The Arnolfini Portrait.

    I'm touchy about this painting, aren't I? This was one of the first works of art that ever impressed me as an art history student, and I feel a special affinity for it.

    All this being said, I realize that Charney did not have a scholarly audience in mind when he wrote "Mystic Lamb." And, truth be told, I'd rather have an average person reading at least something about "The Arnolfini Portrait" than reading nothing at all. The whole point of popular history books are to get people to think about art and history, and in that sense, Charney has definitely succeeded.

  • H Niyazi says:

    I definitely can agree on that point! This book is written in an engaging style designed to be accessible to a greater audience in different formats. Future scholars and authors should bear this in mind when writing. The greatest works of any medium are one that can transcend audiences and time.

    I would gladly recommend it to anyone interested in art, you would never catch me doing that with other writers, such as Fried for example.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.