The Monuments Men (Movie) and the Bruges Madonna

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).

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child (aka the Bruges Madonna)

Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child (aka the Bruges Madonna)

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 programa 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.

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9 Responses to The Monuments Men (Movie) and the Bruges Madonna

  1. Susan says:

    I loved this movie. I was moved by the whole idea that so many people sacrificed their lives in the name of artistry. I did not find Clooney’s character to be too preachy. Instead, I was immersed in the whole idea of what the character did, the organization of people (mostly men) who were willing to go behind enemy lines and rescue great works of art. I have thought a lot about this movie since I saw it a few weeks ago. I would like to see it again. I was extremely moved by the whole concept and for the men who lost their lives for a most important cause. I was fortunate to also see the Bruges Madonna and it still is one of the highlights of my life. I know this sounds corny, but I get teary thinking about it and to see this movie put it in such a perspective that I am now anxious to return.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      When it comes to stories like the MM, I often wonder if it wouldn’t be better to just make a documentary. But the problem with plan is: few people watch documentaries. So a popular movie, which will hopefully be seen by millions of movie goers, is probably a good way to go (They can still make a documentary if they want.). The story of the mm needed to be told on filmn. And the movie certainly shines a light on their heroic and highly successful activities.

  2. rick ansell says:

    My wife and I just went and saw this movie, it was absolutely fantastic. It is hard to impress my wife, but she thought it was one of the best she has seen. I was very impressed also.
    Great movie.

  3. Susan says:

    As soon as I can, back to Bruges I go. I suspect the tourism has increased to see the Madonna and Child, but so be it. It was busy last year when we were there, even though the Church of our Lady was going through intensive construction/remodeling.

  4. Dilkash Ahmed says:

    I too didn’t find GC’s character preachy or the movie flawed. It reminded me of the great caper movies based on WWII that focused on an untold story that needed to be told. I had the opportunity to fly into Brussels last Friday on my way to Amsterdam. I took the train to Bruges just to see Michelangelo’s Mother and Child at the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk. The detour was worth very euro. Thank you, Monuments Men, and thank you, George Clooney, for bringing this remarkable story to light.

  5. blano says:

    We just saw this movie and thought is was vey good. A little to short to fill in all the blanks during the war but we got the idea. Much better than Noah that we also saw today.

  6. Natacha says:

    The movie is very much worth seeing. The story is compelling, the acting wonderful, but I think the editing had issues because the film didn’t flow well. Clooney’s character had to be “preachy” to make people understand the importance of their mission, which transcended WWII. Field commanders saw their soldiers dying every day, and didn’t see the value in preserving architecture, historical items or art.

  7. Pingback: 10 Priceless Works Of Art Rescued By The Monuments Men | ratermob

  8. hudson says:

    After viewing Monuments Men my wife and I journeyed to Brugges and Ghent to view the Brugges Madonna and the Ghent Altar Piece. There was no line at the Church of Our Lady where the Madonna is located. We were able to stay a while with very few people there. The Ghent Altar Piece was a bit different in that there was a line of people waiting to get in and even though photography is forbidden there is always some knuckle head taking a flash picture.
    The whole trip was very worthwhile. Both are beautiful works of art.

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