Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Mystic Lamb

Stealing the Mystic Lamb, by Noah Charney

I wanted to like this book. It's about the life of the Ghent Altarpiece, and especially about two significant thefts of the piece, during the first half of the 20th century. The altarpiece was a hugely important work in my life as an art student—probably the most important single piece. My final comps project was built in triptych form, and used the idea of literal symbolism that is so central to Northern Renaissance art, and of which the Ghent Altarpiece is a prime example.

I wanted to like it, but in the end it just isn't a great book. Partly it's just clunkily written; it needed a development editor to really make it shine. But partly, also... well...

The thing I love about Northern Renaissance painting is how it is filled with specific, almost textual meaning. Every object in the painting is there not just because it looks good or happened to be in the studio when the artist was painting, but because it is an element in a specific argument:

The angel Gabriel carries lilies, a symbol of purity. He speaks so we can read his words, but Mary's words are backwards so they can be read by Gabriel. The water jug and basin refer to a common argument of the time as to how Mary could be both Virgin and a mother. And my favorite: through the window we see a Flemish town, but given where the altarpiece was placed in the church, the light falling on that city comes from the north: it is the light of the extraordinary, not of our everyday sun.

Every panel of the altarpiece, and of Northern Renaissance art in general, is filled with this heightened sense that the world itself—which the paintings mirror in finest detail—is pregnant with meaning. No object is "merely" an object. Every part of the world has this added glow of importance and meaning beyond its physical self.

What's sad about the final theft of the painting, by the Nazis, is how the painting itself was important to them not for its content as a meaning-filled mini-world, but as a totem: it was thought to hold keys to the location of relics of Christ's passion, and was important as a symbol of Belgian national pride, because it was so important in the history of painting as the first major oil painting in Europe. Also, the Treaty of Versailles had specifically called for the wing panels, stolen in 1816 and eventually housed in Berlin, to be returned to Ghent, and this rankled Hitler.

And unfortunately, the author falls into the trap of focusing on the Indiana Jones-esque adventures around the paintings, losing track of why they painting is so powerful even now, almost 600 years after it was painted. In essence, the author does the opposite of what the altarpiece does: it takes an document of extraordinary meaning-full-ness and makes us see it as an object.

I don't really blame the author, Mr Cherney. His heart is in the right place, and you can see just how obsessed with the whole sweeping adventure the painting has been involved in: a theft followed by mysterious messages one year, sinister Nazi agents who take it to a remote cave in the Alps the next... it really is the stuff of movie plotting.


When does a fascination with a document become a fetish? What happens to a powerful argument when the references it draws on become obscure? When does the fact of richly layered meaning become a web that draws us towards the madness of Dan Brown-style conspiracy theory? How can we best look at a document so rich in meanings and symbols, which in their specifics carry little weight with us?

And for those of us who deal in meaning-filled arts, what does looking at such a piece tell us today about how to make our objects meaningful, instead of the other way around?

1 comment:

Frank Zweegers said...

Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.