Last year while in Bruges, Belgium, I took an hour and visited Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child (1501-1504), the sculptor’s only statue to escape Italy during his life time. It is located in the Church of Our Lady (noted for its tall brick tower).
At the time of my visit, I was unaware of the statue’s tumultuous history. I was, however, provided some background when I watched the movie The Monument Men over the weekend.
According to wikipedia.org
The scupture was removed twice from Belgium after its initial arrival. The first was in 1794, after French revolutionaries had conquered the Austrian Netherlands. The citizens of Bruges were ordered to ship it and several other valuable works of art to Paris. It was returned after Napoleon’s defeat. The second removal was in 1944 with the retreat of German soldiers, who smuggled the sculpture to Germany enveloped in mattresses in a Red Cross lorry.
The movie, in part, deals with the German theft and its subsequent recovery by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, a group of soldiers organized to help protect and recover artwork which had been looted by the Nazis.
As World War II was nearing an end, the art protectionist group was getting increasing concerned about finding the Bruges Madonna. By a quirk of luck, they were able to determine its storage location in Germany at Altaussee Mine, the perfect hideaway for Hitler’s loot.
The complex series of tunnels had been mined by the same families for 3,000 years. Inside, the conditions were constant, between 40 and 47 degrees and about 65 percent humidity, ideal for stolen art. From 1943 through early 1945, a stream of [Nazi] trucks transported tons of treasures into the tunnel.
As the war was coming to an end, Hitler had issued the “Nero Decree,” interpreted as an order to destroy any objects of value. Luckily this order was thwarted at Altaussee. At first, getting the art work out of the mine was a slow process. But when the Allies divided up Germany and Altaussee fell under the Russian sector, there was an increased sense of urgency. There was a fear that Stalin would keep any objects of value.
[The monument men] spent a few days packing the Bruges Madonna, which was described as ‘looking very much like a large ham.’ On July 10, it was lifted onto a mine cart and walked to the entrance, where it [was] loaded onto a truck.
And eventually, Michelangelo’s work was returned to Bruges.
Without the monuments men, a huge quantity of important of European treasures would have been lost. They did an extraordinary amount of work under very difficult circumstance to protect and secure our western cultural heritage.
The movie The Monuments Men is a flawed movie (only 34 percent positive on rottentomatoes). For example, George Clooney’s character is far too preachy. But the movie is well worth seeing. It would also be a great movie to rent (when it comes out in video) and enjoy with the family.
The movie does ask the important question: Is a work of art worth a human life? (Two of the original monument men died.) For me, yes. But I haven’t been asked to sacrifice my life.