Cranach Madonna stolen by priest returned to Poland

"Madonna under the Fir Tree" by Lucas Cranach, ca. 1510Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Madonna under the Fir Tree is one of the master’s most elaborate and highly prized Madonnas, completed around 1510 for the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Breslau, Bohemia (now Wroclaw, Poland). It hung in the Chapel of St. John in the cathedral’s north aisle, a staple of travel guides and art histories, for more than 400 years.

Breslau was part of Germany during both World Wars, and its overwhelming majority-German population supported the Nazi party from the early 30s. To keep it safe from Allied bombing raids, Cranach’s Madonna was taken down and hidden in 1943. First it was moved to a Cistercian monastery, and then to the city of Klodzko 55 miles southwest of Breslau.

The first air attack on Breslau didn’t take place until the Soviet air force struck in July of 1944, and the damage was not extensive. The city basically managed to avoid the war beyond some Polish resistance sabotage until the approaching Red Army laid siege to the city in February of 1945. The church officials who removed the Madonna may have had other concerns as well, namely keeping their Cranach instead of seeing it spirited away to Hitler’s pet art collection project, the Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.

The Siege of Breslau lasted three months, ending on May 6th, 1945, just two days before armistice and the end of the war in Europe. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist after the siege, 1945Cathedral of St. John the Baptist aisle after the siegeThe city which had survived virtually unscathed during five years of war was reduced to rubble in the last three months of it courtesy of Red Army artillery and Soviet Air Army bombing. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was one of the hardest hit buildings with 70% of its construction destroyed. Its aisles, including the north aisle where the Madonna had once hung, were in ruins.

Under the terms of the Potsdam Conference held in July of 1945, Breslau was transferred to Poland and renamed Wroclaw. A mass exodus of its German population followed. Between 1945 and 1949, ethnic Germans either fled the city or were forced out while ethnic Poles were forced in by population transfers from newly annexed Soviet territories.

With this massive dislocation and ethnic conflict as the backdrop, the Madonna was taken out of hiding and brought to the Diocesan Museum in Wroclaw, since returning it to the cathedral was not possible. During its war-time vicissitudes, the painting had been broken horizontally in two pieces, so diocesan officials commissioned Siegfried Zimmer, a priest, art collector and painter, to restore it. Siegfried Zimmer was also German. Between 1946 and 1947, while he restored the Cranach, he had a forgery made. He gave the fake to the diocese and then moved to Berlin with the authentic Madonna under the Fir Tree.

The fraud wasn’t discovered until a Polish conservator examined the painting in 1961 and found a nasty surprise. For decades the Madonna was missing. Rumors of it being sold in the private art collection market popped up on occasion, but the authorities were never able to track it down. Finally the painting found its way into the clutches of, you guessed it, an anonymous Swiss collector who kept it on the down low until his recent death. He bequeathed it to the Diocese of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Minister Radosław Sikorski hands Cranach "Madonna" to Bishop Andrzej SiemieniewskiIn March of this year, Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office for the Restitution of Cultural Goods found out the Cranach was in St. Gallen and began negotiations to get it back. On Friday, July 27, in an official return ceremony, Minister Radoslaw Sikorski handed the Madonna under the Fir Tree over to Bishop Andrzej Siemieniewski of the Wroclaw Diocese.

“We pass on to the church authorities the most treasured recovered artifact in the history of free Poland since 1990,” Minister Sikorski said.

The cathedral was mostly rebuilt by 1951 with the final tower restoration being completed in 1991, so the canvas can now return to its home of four centuries.

11 thoughts on “Cranach Madonna stolen by priest returned to Poland

  1. Breslau is in Silesia, not Bohemia. (Those are the German spellings, in Polish it’s Wrocław and Śląsk.) Breslau/Wrocław is also the subject of a fascinating book by Norman Davies and Roger Moorehouse called “Microcosm” The book is hard to find in the US, but worth the effort. (We visited Poland this spring and I found an English copy there.)

    This is the second great recovery for Poland, after the Krakow Raphael, see

    1. Silesia was incorporated into the Kingdom of Bohemia in the early 14th century. The kingdom in turn was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire in the 16th century, then ceded to the Kingdom of Prussia in the 18th century during the War of Austria Succession. From then on it stayed in German hands through various configurations until Potsdam.

      The region of Bohemia today is in the Czech Republic and obviously does not include Silesia, but the map of Europe in 1510 was very different.

      Speaking of which, Norman Davies is one of my very favorite historians. His Europe: A History was a complete revelation, particularly in regards to the construction of west and east which he entirely upends. I’ll keep my eye open for reasonably priced copies of Microcosm. :thanks:

  2. Alas, even the hubris and deceit of your ever-familiar anonymous Swiss collector couldn’t withstand the light of day after donating it to a church of all places. How on earth can anyone enjoy having something that was stolen from innocent people? This person wasn’t an art collector; he/she was a common thief at best. May the relatives and representatives of this crook inherit the shame he/she has brought onto his/her family and community. But then again, it’s Switzerland and art treasures that we’re talking about.

    1. Sad but true. I like to think attitudes towards art theft in Switzerland are slowly changing, but there’s so much underground that we haven’t even scratched the surface.

  3. Great that they got it back. The “fir tree” itself, however, does not really rock me: Parts of the castle in the upper left hand corner seem to be flying in the air and “mother and child”, contrastingly, appear rather static – which is alright for a cathedral.

    Hence, time for two more dynamic examples that will hopefully never end up in Switzerland: example_a and example_b – Is the “mother” the same in both versions ?

  4. Your friend and mine, the Anonymous Swiss Collector, played a nice (posthumous) trick on the Diocese of Saint Gallen. I hope that he was rewarded with an appreciative chuckle, wherever he is. I am afraid that celebration of the recovery of the Csartoryski Raphael was somewhat premature. The official spokesman for the Polish government had to roll back the announcement, clarifying that they had information that the picture was in a bank vault…somewhere…but they didn’t know where. Yes, an “Undisclosed Bank Vault”–which ranks right up there with “Swiss Private Collector”! Here is a recent account of the story of the Czartoryski Raphael:

  5. I wouldn’t dump on Switzerland in particular. Plenty of dubiously provenanced material wound up in the US after the war and is without doubt gathering dust in grandpa’s attic or worse, disintegrating in some trash heap because the heirs either didn’t recognize the value or thought it too hot to handle.

    Kenneth Alford’s Allied Looting in World War Two makes for dispiriting reading

    1. Switzerland is a particular case, though, because a lot of that dubious material now in the US was trafficked through it. Due to its keen appreciation of looking the other way and tax-free, no-questions-asked, customs policies, Switzerland has been a central staging area for literally thousands of looted artifacts that we know of, probably millions that we don’t. Giacomo Medici’s warehouse in Freeport was found to contain more than 10,000 artifacts with dirt still on them and thousands of Polaroids of other objects already sold to collectors and major museums. Police found more than 6,000 looted artifacts in Gianfranco Becchina’s warehouse in Basel, and 8,000 photographs of unreported archaeological finds.

      You can’t really compare that kind of bulk trafficking to individual soldiers stealing artifacts in WWII, no matter how much of that went on. Switzerland’s laws have provided cover for unscrupulous dealers in looted antiquities for decades, which is why the “anonymous Swiss collector” has become a cliche’ of falsified ownership records. What’s surprising about this case is that for once there actually was a real anonymous Swiss collector buying stolen goods. Usually that part is made up.

  6. You go, girl! I would definitely dump on Switzerland! Looted odds and ends trickled back to America and other countries after WW II but Switzerland has cynically exploited their neutral status and morally bankrupt laws to recycle stolen art and/or illegally excavated antiquities (not to mention drug and terrorist money…just to begin the list)for several generations, at least.

  7. My point was a little narrower and pointing only to universal willingness among individuals to both thievery and receiving stolen goods, that (dubious Swiss laws notwithstanding)the anonymous collector of this piece could have been from any country on earth. (And, as mentioned above, even in Switzerland he felt obliged to be uber discreet- how much in fear of PR, how much in fear of the law, only he can say.)

    As to wholesale theft and questionable law of ownership, consider the Soviets who took trainloads of personal property (including items belonging to relatives of mine) not just from Germany, but also – Poland. Many in Russia still consider this stuff legitimate war booty.

    But then, not even everything that Bonaparte stole has been returned to their points of origin, and at this point, probably never will be. Oh, it’s all bad.

  8. As for the Russians, who can hardly blame them? I mean, they’ve been attacked, attacked, and attacked again, over and over and over, and over, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum since European time began.

    A bit over-exagerrated, to be sure. The Russians themselves, certainly are not exactly innocent, but the three largest international wars ever fought since over the past 205 years, have been western and central Europeans marching aggressively eastwards, murder, butchering, and stealing from untold millions of Russians and Cossacks. Particualrly after WWI, then even more so after WWII…who can hardly blame them for arguing that any “stolen” artworks from GERMANY, of all places, is really legitimate war booty? I mean, afterall, they do deserve it, and any and all treasure still in Russian hands today belongs there, IMO. If at the very least, as a powerful symbol towards any nation that dares launch any aggressive war on another from now on. Like: “Do you REALLY want to do that? See what happens when you attack someone. You;ll not only have your artworks and treasures stolen, but you’ll be decimated to boot.” That’s what the stolen works in Russian hands represent. The destruction, decimation, and rape of an evil society that has wreaked the worst human-induced disaster on the world in human history.

    As a matter of fact, it could also serve as a symbol to themselves: Don’t fuck with anyone stronger than Chechnya or Georgia. And don’t press too far beyond Crimea. The same exact things could happen to them, as what was exacted on Germany at the end of WWII.

    So I say, the Russians do legitimately hold whatever art treasures they have taken as war booty during WWII.

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