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The Ghent Altarpiece – Art & Crime

Stealing the Mystic Lamb cover

Now that its snowing in New England, I’m staring to think about a potential European vacation next year.  I’ve become fascinated by one massive piece and somehow have got to get to Belgium.  This fall I read Noah Charney’s Stealing the Mystic Lamb which describes the exciting life of the most stolen work of art ever – The Ghent Altarpiece.  A captivating artwork and a suspenseful story, the book made me want to study the painting in its home cathedral.

Jan van Ekye’s 1432AD masterwork comprised of 24 panels is known for its luminous, naturalistic and detailed images.  The book begins with an analysis of the extraordinary iconography.  The altarpiece was designed with two massive doors showing the Annunciation, Saints, Prophets and its two patrons in prayer.  When opened on Easter and feast days, you can see a glorious scene of God enthroned, angels, Adam, Eve and a procession of holy men and women visiting the altar of a holy sacrificial lamb.  For a time period in which religious imagery and symbolism was fairly straight-forward, van Eyke pulls from some interesting theology to create the namesake Mystic Lamb panel and others.  For example, the central royal figure is God but he is depicted with attributes more frequently associated with Jesus (two finger blessing, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist, youthful appearance), thus blurring the line between these two entities of the Trinity.

The historical discussion of the painting and its commission is disappointingly short because very little information survives.  I did at least enjoy the discussion of Hubert van Eyke, Jan’s brother, who is believed to have started the piece and left it to his brother Jan to finish on his death.  Hubert’s overall contributions in the painting, planning or preparations of the altarpiece are still under debate.

John the Baptist - van Eyke, Ghent Altarpiece

Expertly executed grisaille image of John the Baptist meant to resemble stone on the subdued outer panels

In the early 20th century, two panels were stolen.  The description of the events surrounding the theft read like a real life Dan Brown novel!  A crime which has never been solved, the tale is filled with conspiracy, weird ransom notes, unusual inconsistencies in the evidence, financial scandal, railway luggage tags, poor police work and of course, Nazi’s.  Ultimately, the panel of the Righteous Judges has never been found; some believe it is still hidden in the church while others believe that the replica panel created by a local art conservator simply covers the original panel.

Righteous Judges panel - Ghent altarpiece

Replica by restorer Jef Van der Veken of the “Righteous Judges” panel, on display today

The Ghent altarpiece was stolen during World War II and hunted down by the allied “Monument Men”.  The chapter describing this process begins slowly with a lengthy description of international governmental organizations set up to protect art.  The story then proceeds too quickly to several, barely connected rescue teams with a large confusing cast of characters.

Eve - Jan Van Eyke, The Ghent Altarpiece

Adam and Eve’s revolutionarily natural appearances have shocked viewers over the centuries

In order to understand how the altarpiece became a victim of war, Noah Charney includes a length but very fascinating history of museums.  The narrative traces the evolution of art as booty following a conquest, to the status of art as sacred national or cultural objects worth fighting for.  Surprisingly, the display of plundered art by Napoleon directly led to the establishment of the Louvre.  The practice continued to World War II in which Hitler had a list of target art destined for either his own use or repatriation back to Germany.  The ruthlessness and organization of the Nazi art hunters is a chilling section for anyone who loves art.

Ghent altarpiece jewel detail

Detail from Mary’s jeweled robe with scale bar.  The high quality digital images allow for very detailed study of the Ghent altarpiece

I may not need to go to Belgium next year after all.  I can “see” the Ghent Altarpiece anytime thanks to a massive digitization project.  The Getty Foundation sponsored Closer to Van Eyke: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece which produced high quality photography and scientific analysis of the panels following cleaning and restoration.  All of these images are available free online.  Given that the priceless artwork is shielded in a protective case, you may actually be able to see the brushwork better online than in person.  At the very least, read the book and decide for yourself how long you want to spend visually traversing this masterpiece online or on an airplane to see it in person!

Dismantling the central panel of the Ghent altarpiece

Dismantling the central panel of the massive Ghent altarpiece for conservation

(Some detail images of the Ghent Altarpiece used herein come from the Closer to Van Eyke: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece project and are reproduced for educational purposes.)

***UPDATE: I finally got to see the Ghent Altarpiece in person!  Read about it here.***

Happy St. Patrick’s Day Book of Kells

Google has the best logo today to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day 2012.  It’s based on the Book of Kells which you can see in Dublin at Trinity College Library.  The four gospel volume was created by Irish monks around 800 AD.  It is richly decorated and draws from traditional Hibernian Gothic design elements.  The text and its excellent exhibit at Trinity College is definitely one of the top things to see in Dublin!

Book of Kells, Folio 291v contains a portrait of John the Evangelist (Wikipedia)

Book of Kells, Folio 7v contains an image of the Virgin and Child. This is the oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript (Wikipedia)

Book of Kells, Folio 34r contains the Chi Rho monogram. "Chi" and "Rho" are the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek.

Traveling by Book – Turn Right at Machu Picchu (Peru)

Turn right at Machu Picchu - Mark Adams

Since Peru is near the top of my “Where next?” Travel List, I’ve started doing some research.  I picked up Mark Adam’s “Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time.”  A combination of history and travel narrative, I loved this book and need to speed up my travel planning now.

With the hundredth anniversary of Hiram Bingham III’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu in 2011, Mark Adams got to thinking about the authenticity this claim and the meaning of the famous ancient Inca site.  He embarks on a month long back-country trek to trace Bingham’s first expedition.  His team is led by John, an intense and almost larger-than-life actual explorer, and several local Peruvian men who seem unphased by the physical challenges of the journey.  While it seems that Mark does not find all the answers he was looking for, the book does a good job analyzing all the historical realities of  Machu Piccu – a beautiful piece in the interconnected Inca urban web, a forgotten jewel during the Spanish invasion, a vehicle for fame in the early 20th century and a modern day “bucket list” destination.

The book has an excellent balance of travel narrative and history.  Bingham’s background and expedition details are effortless incorporated into Mark’s modern experiences in Peru.  The chapter pacing is quick, hopping back and forth between history, anthropology and the dangers of only wearing one pair of socks while hiking.  Mark is an engaging writer and story-teller.  I immediately sympathized with the challenges he’d take on and identified with his desire to explore both the geography and the past.  Learning and seeing the world is at the heart of every trip and every adventure. Whether you’ve climbed the Inca Trail or hope to some day, you’d definitely enjoy reading “Turn Right at Machu Picchu”.

Traveling by Book – The Leopard (Sicily)

After a trip to Sicily, Amazon kept recommending The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa to me.  No matter what else I bought or added to my wish-list, the Leopard did not budge from the number one spot so I figured I might as well give in.  What I found was a true gem of a novel with marvelous characters that inhibited a living Sicily.

The Leopard tells the story of the Prince, a noble in mid-19th century Italy, facing an uncertain future threatened by political revolution and economic flux.  He is clearly a proud man born and raised with aristocratic tastes and manners.  The novel is sympathetic to the out-dated great man but it is interesting to watch as he lets the changing world pass him without even trying to keep up. The book is not driven by plot per say as it only covers a few full days.  The beauty lies in the characters who muse about the mundane and fleeting pleasures of their lives – the Prince’s favorite dog, the childish crushes of the Prince’s daughters, the priest’s political and family troubles.  It’s both nostalgic and comfortable, like picnicking with friends telling stories.

I think what made these docile characters really work though was the setting.  There is a dry heat that permeates the novel and slows the characters making their speech quiet and steps deliberate so as not to kick up too much dust.  Their palaces are thick with detail and you can imagine the flies in their summer countryside manor.  Maybe it’s not fair because I read this after visiting Sicily, but I could perfectly pictured these people in its arid countryside and echoing stone streets.  The Prince has a brilliant monologue at one point about Sicilians claiming that they are a steady, consistent people who having been conquered over and over throughout the centuries and cannot be troubled by anything outside their world.  In traveling western Sicily, I found the pace of life slow (even by Italian standards!) and was surprised how rocky and harsh the landscape was.  A story of waning power and decline seems well-suited for this environment.  I appreciated the rich descriptions of places and people in The Leopard and would recommend it to anyone looking for a book vacation to an often-forgotten, quiet corner of the Mediterranean.

Traveling by Book – No-Man’s Lands (Greece)

No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through The Odyssey by Scott Huler

One thing I pride myself on is being a nerdy traveler.  I like to read local history and art books before I leave to give my destination context.  That being said, I’m hoping to go to Greece soon and am really forcing myself to consider the mere possibility of reading an ancient Homeric classic.  I’d never read the Iliad (hurray, 1000 pages about war*) and only begrudging got through the Odyssey in high school.  (Honestly, what I remember of the plot comes from Duck Tales… which may not exactly be accurate.)  Thankfully, I was relieved to find Scott Huler’s No-Man’s Lands which delightfully summarizes the Odyssey as a travel journal and was ironically written because he forced himself to read a classic too.

 Having struggled through Joyce’s Ulysses, Huler realizes that it all ultimately goes back to Odysseus – the iconic lost traveler.  Getting interested in the original Greek version of the story and facing the birth of his first child, Huler decides to retrace Odysseus’s voyage as a personal pilgrimage.  What results is one-part travel journal as he stumbles through Greece, Italy, Tunisia, and Malta, and one-part literary criticism as he discusses the plot of the Odyssey, its history and context.  The writing is clever and he’s an entertaining narrator.  As a storyteller, Huler is conscious of his journey and keeps it interesting while avoiding the potential for constant whining about being lost and living cheaply.  It’s a little confusing in the first chapter or so because he starts the narration from almost the end of his journey (how very Homer), but it picks right up and is a quick read.  No-Man’s Lands a good summer read for anyone who wants to take a little mental cruise through the Mediterranean and besides, it a lot more fun than reading the Odyssey!

*Technically the Fagles translation is 704 pages which just sounds fantastically long.  That being said, the last Harry Potter book is 784 pages.  Guess which one sold more copies last year?

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