A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see the movie The Monuments Men, about the U.S. military team assigned to protect art and monuments as the Allied forces invaded France on D-Day and rolled (and inched) toward Germany. I’m not usually a fan of World War II movies, but this one had George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Hugh “Downton Abbey” Bonneville and a number of other stars, and so we went.
Based on a true story, it was the Monuments Men who stumbled upon the Nazis’ vast looting of art from across Europe. The looting came from museums of conquered nations, churches, Jewish families like the Rothschilds, and even German citizens, forced to surrender valuable works to Hitler’s plan for an ubermuseum in Austria (and Hermann Goering’s personal collection).
The extent of the looting was enormous. Some of it was deliberately destroyed. Some was never found. But much was recovered, and it is largely due to the work the Monuments Men, art museum clerks like the Frenchwoman Rose Volland (played by Cate Blanchett in the movie), and even a group of salt miners in Austria (who didn’t get any billing in the movie, although their salt mine did).
As the movie ended, I realized I had a book at home that was partially about this story, sitting on a bookshelf waiting to be read. The book was Noah Charney’s Stealing the Mystic Lamb. When we got home, I went straight to the book and started reading.
The book is even more enthralling than the movie.
“The Mystic Lamb” is the title given to a work of 12 panels by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, completed in 1432 for what came to be called Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. It is an extraordinary work, one of the first oil paintings, and it evoked as much awe and wonder in 1432 as it does today.
It also evoked the desire to possess it. As Charney describes in the book, “The Mystic Lamb” has been associated with some 13 crimes, a “kidnapping” and ransom demand, several outright thefts, and an attack during the Protestant-Catholic religious wars following the Reformation (a Calvinist mob came very close to destroying the work). Over the centuries, the painting has assumed an important place in the region’s history and culture, and is considered (by Belgians) to be their country’s “national painting.”
Charney details the story of the artwork, beginning with its creation, who Jan van Eyck was, the possible involvement in the artwork by his brother Humberto, the benefactors who commissioned it, and why it inspired and thrilled from the very beginning. He then goes on to make a convincing case why this work is the most coveted artwork of all time. Given how many tiems it was stolen, partially stolen, hidden so it wouldn’t be stolen, and transported to keep it out of the clutches of thieves like Hitler, it’s amazing that the panels have survived. But survive they did.
Most of Stealing the Mystic Lamb is devoted to the three most spectacular thefts involving the panels collectively and individually – Napoleon (France’s Revolutionary Army and its successor the Army of the Empire anticipated and perhaps provided the model for the Nazis); the 1934 “kidnapping” of one of the work’s panels (a crime never officially solved); and the Nazis. Charney puts each of the thefts and criminal activities surrounding the painting in their historical context, so that the reader gets a solid overview of what was happening in Europe.
In the case of the Nazis, Hitler wanted to build the world’s greatest art museum in Linz, Austria, his hometown. This involved not only selling off art works deemed decadent but also identifying and purloining the works worthy enough for the museum, mostly art by northern European artists (Nazi ideology and propaganda fully embraced the role of art).
The extent of the Nazi looting boggles the mind. Some 1500 caches of art, each with thousands of paintings, sculptures, rare books, jewels and other valuables, were found in salt mines, castles and often unexpected locations. (Much of what was in the Uffizi Museum in Florence was found in a small jail in northern Italy, left behind by the German troops that had stolen it.)
“The Mystic Lamb,” sent ahead of the German invasion to the Vatican for safekeeping, was sidetracked to France when Italy joined the war. There it was found by the Nazis, and then it disappeared. It was one of the works found in the Alt Ausee sale mine in Austria, but not before it came very close to being destroyed as a final act of Nazi outrage.
Charney does an excellent job of telling the story of this artwork. Stealing the Mystic Lamb is a riveting story, exhaustively researched, carefully crafted and utterly fascinating.
Painting: Top, the paneled artwork by Jan van Eyck in Saint Bavo Cathedral. Bottom, the central panel depicting the Adoration of the Lamb.