THE ARTS IN TRAVEL
There it was – on the big screen – a life-sized statue I had seen in a European church several years ago.
But, in this movie, based on a true story, the statue had been stolen during World War II.
After realizing what I had just seen, I leaned over to my friend and said, “I saw that statue in a church and it is back in its rightful place!”
Have you ever traveled somewhere and then, on television or at the theatre, seen places you have been? Don’t you get a feeling of excitement of being in a place that, now, the world is seeing? Or been in a location where filming actually is taking place?
Some of my friends were driving in New York City and got held up in traffic because of the filming of a Will Smith movie – right there was Mr. Smith!
I also watched with delight the “National Treasure” movies with Nicolas Cage. There was Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I had recently walked past the hall.
The movie I saw was “The Monuments Men.” Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel, it tells the story of Allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest hunt for stolen art.
The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from 13 countries gathered together voluntarily to form the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) program whose mission was to “save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.”
Coming from various backgrounds in art, the MFAA soldiers served from 1943 until 1951 by assessing damaged churches, museums and monuments, plus finding stolen or missing moveable pieces of art and archives.
I was on a river cruise through The Netherlands and Belgium in 2010. An optional tour was by bus to the small city of Bruges (pronounced broozh), population 118,000. The historic city centre is a UNISCO site, a designated world heritage site of special cultural or physical significance.
With our free time in the city, my friend and I strolled the cobblestone streets past many lace-, tapestry- and chocolate-making shops – chocolate, as in “decadent Belgian chocolate.” Almost every other storefront was a family-owned establishment.
At the end of the street we came upon a group of musicians performing in a church courtyard. After some musical enjoyment, we walked into the building – The Church of Our Lady.
Inside the church, there it was, the 4-foot tall, white Carrara marble statue of Madonna and Child sculpted by Michelangelo. As the placard stated, “it is one of the few works by Michelangelo outside Italy.” Beautiful.
History of Madonna and Child
Michelangelo had carved the statue in Italy for an altarpiece in the cathedral of Sienna. The sculpture was sold to the Mouscrons family and secretly taken out of Italy to the Mouscrons’ hometown of Bruges in 1506 and given to Our Lady’s Church.
In 1944, German soldiers took the statue. The soldiers told the church caretakers they had orders to take the statue, which, at the time, was in a sealed room because of the war.
The soldiers tore open the doors of the room and wrapped the statue in the mattresses that had been placed in the room for protection from bombings. The statue was hauled away in the back of a Red Cross truck (as a disguise) just eight days before a MFAA team arrived to protect it.
During the same river cruise, the ship docked in the Belgium town of Ghent (pronounced gent). The port and university city has a population of 800,000 people.
Ghent was occupied by the Germans in both world wars. Much of the city was not destroyed during the war so the medieval architecture is intact, including St. Bavo’s Cathedral, built in the Romanesque architecture style.
Inside the cathedral, no photography was allowed, but in my journal I wrote, “We had a quick walk through the cathedral; a harpist was playing music; and we saw the miniature ‘portrait’ with the simulated doors of the larger painting that was being restored.”
Little did I know at the time that this represented one of the two most valued art treasures in Belgium – the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. The other treasure was, of course, the Madonna and Child.
History of Ghent Altarpiece
The altarpiece is 12 feet high and 16 feet wide with 12 panels of individual works of religious art.
Using oil paint and transluscent glazes, painter Hubert van Eyck started the painting, but it was finished by his brother, Jan van Eyck, after Hubert’s death in 1426.
Around 1938, Adolf Hitler, a former art student, started dreaming of having an art museum named after himself. Housing his own personal collection, the museum would be the largest and most spectacular museum in the world.
Along with his collection, he would strip the German Jews of their art collections, in vindication of his rejection to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
By 1942, Hitler wanted the altarpiece to satisfy two of his revengeful quests:
To make right what he felt wrong of the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. The painting had become a German property during the war, but the treaty requested it be given back to Belgium as war reparation; and
To put the painting into his future Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria.
Hitler slyly ordered a secret taking of the altarpiece using only one truck and one car. By the time Belgian authorities learned of the order, the altarpiece already had disappeared.
From 1943-45, 100 miles outside of Linz, the Altausee salt mine became the repository of treasures of Vienna art museums. But soon Hitler demanded that all his “gathered” art be moved to the Altausee mine and hidden deep within.
Built into the side of the massive Alps mountain, the mine was protected from overhead bombings and, because of the salt, moisture was absorbed and the humidity and temperatures remained constant.
As the war wore down to the Bavarian Alps, an American infantry unit seized Atraussee. The art mine was discovered and seized by the MFAA.
Because the mine entrances had been dyamited closed, the MFAA had to dig through many layers of rocks to get to the underground tunnels and rooms.
Deep within and behind a locked iron door, eight of the 12 altarpiece panels miraculously appeared. The MFAA carefully wrapped the panels in German sheepskins. Put in a trolley car, they were pushed out of the mine.
And later, there, laying on a dirty brown and white mattress, was the Madonna and Child. Wrapping it in coats and with rope, the statue was loaded onto another trolley car and removed intact from the mine.
Several days later, in another chamber room, the Ghent Altarpiece’s final four panels were found.
Thanks to detailed records of inventory moved, taken or stolen by the Germans, it was learned that the Madonna and Child had left Belgium by boat in October 1944. The Ghent Altarpiece was taken to Neuschwanstein Castle, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps, and later to the salt mine.
All in all, more than 6,577 paintings, 137 sculptures and thousands of other items were found in the mine and, to this day, still are being reunited with rightful owners.