The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II

Stephanie Schoppert - April 2, 2017

Popularized by Hollywood in recent years the Monuments Men consisted of scholars from around the world who sought to join the war effort in order to save the world’s priceless works of art. Prior to the U.S. entrance to the war, American art professionals were looking for ways to protect European art and monuments from being stolen by the Nazis or from being destroyed during the war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Area.

In 1945, 345 men and women from 13 different countries made up the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit and the group risked their lives to uncover 1,000 hidden troves that held over 5 million pieces of art and culture stolen from people and institutions all over the world. Even after the war, 60 members of the MFAA stayed in Europe to continue tracking down lost treasures.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
Monuments Men examining the Ghent Altarpiece.

van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece is a large and complex Early Flemish polyptych altarpiece from the 15th century which is attributed to the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It has long been considered one of the world’s great treasures. The history of the altarpiece has been rife with struggle and danger. Through periods of iconoclasm, it was feared the altarpiece would be destroyed. It has been stolen more than once and one panel called “The Just Judges” has never been recovered. The altarpiece has been damaged by fire and was taken by the Germans during World War I.

All of the known pieces of the altarpiece were returned to Belgium following World War I and a copy of the “The Just Judges” panel was made so the entire altarpiece could be together again. With the outbreak of World War II, there were fears about the safety of the altarpiece and it was packaged up to be shipped to Italy to be kept in the Vatican. However, as the piece was being readied for transport, Italy joined the war on the side of the Axis powers. For the safety of the van Eyck piece, it was kept in a museum in Pau, France, and French, Belgian, and German military representatives signed an agreement that required all three parties to consent before the pieces could be moved.

In 1942, Hitler ordered that the altarpiece be seized and brought to Germany. The Vichy government in France allowed the pieces to be taken to Germany without the consent of Belgium. The head of Germany’s Art Protection Unit was relieved of his position after he protested against the taking of the pieces. Belgian and non-Vichy French authorities protested against the paintings being moved.

Once it reached Germany, the pieces were stored in the Schloss Neuschwanstein castle. When Allied bombings in the area threatened the paintings, they were moved to the Altaussee salt mines. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives members found the paintings and returned them to Belgium in a ceremony that was presided over by the Belgian royal family at the Royal Palace of Brussels.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
Recovery of the Madonna of Bruges.

Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges

The Madonna of Bruges is a marble statue by Michelangelo that was carved between 1501 and 1504. There are a number of things that make the statue very unique, the first of which is that it is the only statue by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was purchased by Giovanni and Alessandro Moscheroni, two traders who took the statue to Bruges, Belgium which was one of the largest commercial cities in Europe at the time.

The other thing that sets the statue apart is the fact that it takes a very different approach to the subject of Mary and Jesus. Instead of cradling the baby Jesus, he stands on his own with Mary just slightly holding him with her left hand. Mary is also not looking down at the boy Jesus, but she rather looks away from him. Some believe that the statue was made as part of an altarpiece where it would have stood at 8 feet tall and therefore Mary would have been looking down at the people standing by the altar.

The sculpture remained in Belgium until 1794, when French Revolutionaries conquered the region. The people of Bruges were ordered to ship the statue and a number of other works of art to Paris where it remained until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. The statue was taken again in 1944 as the Nazis retreated out of Belgium. They placed the priceless sculpture in-between mattresses and had it smuggled out of the country in a Red Cross truck.

The Monuments Men arrived a few days later to find that the statue had been taken. They had been tasked not only with recovering lost art, but protecting what art they could and they had not expected the Madonna to disappear with the retreat. The Madonna was among the art that was recovered from the Altaussee salt mine and it now sits in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
Rembrandt’s The Night Watch being unrolled.

Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’

Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ stands out from the hundreds of other works by Rembrandt for a number of reasons. The painting is massive at 363 cm by 437 cm, and it has an unusual, effective use of light and shadow. Perhaps what makes it intriguing is the fact that it includes the perception of motion in a painting that would have traditionally been static. The painting gets its name from the dark varnish used to coat the painting and give it the appearance of a night time scene. The dark varnish was removed in the 1940s.

The painting was completed in 1642 and was actually cut down from its original size in 1715 so that it could fit between two columns in the Amsterdam Town Hall. The painting was commissioned by Captain Banning Cocq and seventeen members of his civic militia guards. The shield in the center-right background gives the 18 names of the people in portrait. The large painting was commissioned for 1,600 guilders, which was a massive sum for the period.

When World War II broke out, ‘The Night Watch’ was one of many paintings that people were concerned about being stolen or destroyed. The painting was taken down from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, rolled on a spindle and hidden away. The painting was moved from place to place for two years in order to keep it hidden from the Germans, but it was eventually discovered in 1942.

The Germans took painting and moved to the St. Pietersberg repository in Holland, near the German border. In 1944, a tip brought the MFAA to the repository, where the treasured painting was recovered. It was largely unharmed, though it was beginning to yellow and the colors were muting. The painting was unrolled, mounted on a stretcher, and returned in 1945.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. Wikipedia

The Original Manuscript of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

The Allies’ relentless bombing of Germany may have helped to bring about the end of the war, but it may have also destroyed countless works of art. Some of the art was carted away and protected, other art was looted, and many pieces of art were destroyed by bombs. When a train car filled with art that was stolen by Hermann Goering was pillaged by locals, priceless works of art were found hidden, damaged, or re-purposed by locals. One 15th century tapestry was cut apart to make curtains and a child’s bed sheet.

When the war ended, the MFAA traveled to Germany and scoured the country to try and recover what art could be found. One area that was heavily bombed was the Rhineland in western Germany. Bonn, the location of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth home, was damaged. When the MFAA arrived, they were horrified to find that many of the irreplaceable artifacts of the brilliant composer were gone.

One of the pieces that was missing from the home was the original manuscript of Beethoven’s sixth symphony. This symphony, also known as his Pastoral Symphony, is one of his most treasured works. It was first performed in 1808 as part of a four-hour concert in the Theater an der Wien. It was written at the same time as the Fifth Symphony, which also debuted at the same concert.

To the relief of the MFAA, they were able to recover the original manuscript of the symphony in the Siegen copper mine. The mine was the location of the first treasure trove of art and artifacts that would be found in Germany. Inside the mine were 600 paintings and 100 sculptures, along with the prized handwritten symphony.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
The Bust of Charlemagne.

Bust of Charlemagne

The bust of Charlemagne was created in the 14th century, with pieces of Charlemagne’s actual skull cap inside. In 2014, scientists were able to verify that the pieces of skull contained within the bust are that of the famed emperor. Charlemagne died in 814 and was buried at the Cathedral at Aachen, Germany. However, 350 years later his remains were moved to a golden shrine within the same cathedral.

The bust is believed to have been a donation from Charles IV, who was crowned king at Aachen Cathedral in 1349. This is not confirmed, but it is likely considering the admiration that the King had for Charlemagne. The skin is chased with silver and partially gilt while the hair and beard are gilt. The bust also features a border of filigree and precious stones.

During World War II, Aachen suffered heavy bombing and the cathedral was badly damaged. When the MFAA arrived in 1944, they found that the walls of the cathedral which had stood for over 1,000 years were completely destroyed. The only good news was that the artifacts within the cathedral had been moved before they were damaged by the bombing.

The bust of Charlemagne was one of the first treasures recovered when the MFAA entered Germany in search of stolen art. It was found in the Siegen copper mine along with numerous other priceless treasures. It was returned and now resides in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
The Discovery of The Astronomer in the salt mine.

Johannes Vermeer’s ‘The Astronomer’

When it comes to the most priceless, rare, and treasured works of art stolen by the Nazis, most people think of art in museums and churches. However, there were also thousands of personal art collections that were plundered that contained some remarkable treasures as well. One such painting was Johannes Vermeer’s ‘The Astronomer,’ which was held in the private collection of Edouard Alphonse James de Rothschild. He, like many other Jewish citizens with the resources, fled Paris when the Germans advanced. He did his best to hide his art collection, but it was still discovered and completely looted.

Hermann Goering, who was known for taking the world’s treasures for his own personal collection, coveted the painting, but knew that it was also a personal favorite of Hitler. So instead of keeping it for himself as he had so many other works, he sent it to Hitler as a gift. The painting is particularly coveted because there are so few Vermeer paintings in existence. ‘The Astronomer’ was painted in 1668 and is rich with detail and symbolism.

‘The Astronomer’ is suggested to be a painting of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and it shows the man looking at a celestial globe while the 1621 edition of Institutiones Astronicae Geograhicae sits open on the desk. There is religious symbolism with the book open to the section that tells the astronomer to seek “inspiration from God.”

After being looted by the Nazis, the painting was hidden in the Altausee salt mine. It was discovered by the MFAA and returned to the Rothschild family who were lucky enough to survive the war. The family turned the painting over to the state as payment for inheritance taxes in 1983, and it has been displayed in the Louvre ever since.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
Monuments Men pose with Lady with an Ermine upon returning it to Poland in 1946.

DaVinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’

While Herman Goering may have turned over ‘The Astronomer’ he did manage to keep 1,500 works of art and sculptures for himself. One such work that he prized was Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine.’ This portrait was completed around 1490 and is one of only four portraits of women that were painted by DaVinci. The painting is of Cecilia Gallerani, who was the mistress of the Duke of Milan at the time of the painting.

At the time of the painting, Cecilia Gallerani was just 16-years-old but was known for her beauty and scholarship. The ermine in the painting is said to be the symbol of purity, for it was believed that the ermine would rather die than soil its white coat. Others suggest that the ermine might be a symbol of her pregnancy. The painting is beloved for how well it shows DaVinci’s skill in painting portraits, and how much detail is given to every aspect of the human form.

The first records of the painting state that it was acquired by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski in 1798 and it was incorporated into the family collection at Pulawy in 1800. It was known as the time to be a DaVinci even though the painting had never before been referenced. In 1830, the painting was hidden from advancing Russians, but returned to Krakow in 1882.

In 1939 it was seized by the Nazis immediately after the invasion of Poland and it was sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. A year later it was requested by Hans Frank, the Governor-General of Poland so that he could hang it in his suite of offices. He kept the painting with him when he fled Poland ahead of the advancing Soviet Army in 1945. When he was arrested in 1946, the painting was recovered by the MFAA and returned to the Czartoryski Museum.

The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II
Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera.

Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera

Benvenuto Cellini was a Renaissance sculptor with an infamous reputation. He was known to get into fights, commit murders, and embezzle money. He was sentenced to death and imprisoned numerous times, but he either escaped or was forgiven of his crimes so that he could work for one wealthy aristocrat or another. He first received recognition in Rome for his metalwork, where he made seals and medals for the high-ranking members of the church. In return, he was pardoned for his crimes.

He was imprisoned in Rome in 1537 but escaped only to be recaptured. However, he was released so that he could work for Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara. It was in the Cardinal’s employ that he presented a wax model of an intricate salt shaker, but the Cardinal refused the expense. Cellini decided to try his luck in France and presented the model to King Frances I, who commissioned the piece.

The stunning golden shaker depicts Neptune and Tellus, the gods of the sea and earth. Under the shaker are rollers so the king could push the shaker and move “the world” with his fingers. It was said that when the king first saw the shaker he “gasped in amazement and could not take his eyes off it.” Today it remains the only surviving work of Cellini that is made in precious metals, and it remains his most famous work.

When the Nazis made their way through Italy, it was seized from the Vienna Kunsthistorische Museum. It was in Kitzbuhel, Austria that Monuments Man Calvin Hathaway discovered the salt cellar. The cellar was returned to the museum and is estimated to be worth more than $60 million today.

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