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The Mystic Lamb: Admired And Stolen by Harry De Paepe and Jan Van Der Veken (graphic novel).

April 1, 2020 | By | Reply More

The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is a large, multi-panel altar display measuring well over 3 metres in height and 4 metres in width. Over the centuries it has been stolen, taken apart, even sold in pieces to different collectors. It was confiscated by Nazis and only narrowly escaped destruction during the Reformation. On top of that, while unquestionably painted by the two brothers Van Eyck, Hubert and Jan, exactly which brother did what has been open to debate.

While Jan’s work is well-known today through his many extant paintings, nothing of Hubert’s has survived, making it impossible for art historians to accurately determine his style. So, while considered one of the true masterpieces of the Northern European renaissance, its convoluted history and attribution have added to its fame, making it one of the most notorious pieces of art in existence.

What ‘The Mystic Lamb’ sets out to do is to condense this history into an accessible account that brings this piece of high art into the world of popular culture. In a general sense they achieve this admirably. The translation from the Dutch reads well and, if a bit dry, it’s competent, reflecting the author’s day job as a history teacher. There’s definitely something of the knowing teacher teasing his students with hints of foul play and conspiracies as he works his way through the history of the Ghent Altarpiece. It’s not as if he needs to be cute here: there’s everything from fanatical iconoclasts to larcenous stockbrokers in cahoots with corrupt clergymen.

On the other hand, while Jan Van Der Veken’s art is workmanlike, the use of blues or sepia shades feels a bit flat. This is especially true when contrasted with the brilliant colours of the Ghent Altarpiece as it is exhibited and explained towards the end of the book. They do a good job of conjuring up moments in the history of the artwork, but the lack of captions means they don’t have quite the level of relevance they could have. They just don’t have the ‘bite’ needed to arrest the reader flipping through the book, nor enough context to make them good starting points for readers who like to dip in and out. Some of the paintings start feeling a bit samey after a while and there’s only so many ways you can show a stolen painting being surreptitiously sneaked into obscurity.

The book rounds off with a panel-by-panel analysis of the Ghent Altarpiece, which should help modern readers interpret the figures and scenes. While not especially deep, we’re less familiar with classical and biblical iconography than the audience would have been when the Ghent Altarpiece was created, so this sort of help is essential. There’s also a decent list of resources including books and websites that can help readers further understand the artwork and its history.

‘The Mystic Lamb’ is a tough book to recommend. Lacking enough arresting artwork to interest fans of graphic novels, the total absence of photographs of the real people and places involved diminishes its value as a piece of straightforward art history. While the story is interesting, the writing suffers from being taken from the original Dutch and translated into somewhat spiritless English.

Perhaps more than anything, while the artwork is a core piece of Dutch identity, bound up with their story from the Renaissance to the Nazi occupation, the Ghent Altarpiece is less well known to English and American readers. With that said, the book is well presented and informative and the subject matter is described in impressive detail. So while perhaps not an obvious pick for those with a casual interest in art, it would be appreciated by those who know a little more, particularly about the Northern Renaissance.

Neale Monks

March 2020

(pub: Self Made Hero. 112 page graphic novel hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91059-389-9)

check out website: www.selfmadehero.com

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Category: Comics

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