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.

Happy 40th anniversary, Riace Bronzes!

Riace ARiace BOn August 16, 1972, Stefano Mariottini, a Roman chemist on vacation in Calabria, was dive fishing in waters just 26 feet deep off the Ionian Sea coast of Riace, Italy (the toe of the boot) when he saw what appeared to be a human arm in the sand. It was so realistic he thought it belonged to a dead person at first. On closer inspection he saw it was attached to a statue on its side and that there was another statue on its back lying next to it. He alerted authorities and police divers returned with oxygen-filled balloons to carefully lift the statues out of the seabed.

Crowds flock to the bronze as it's recovered from the sea, 1972The find caused a sensation. Very few ancient bronzes have survived because they were frequently melted down in later eras for their metal. Most of the Greek bronzes we know of no longer exist in their original form and are only known from Roman copies in marble. Two intact, larger-than-life Greek bronzes are not often found in shallow coastal waters or anywhere else, for that matter.

Eye of Riace B before and after the final removal of eye concretionsThey were sent to the National Museum in Reggio Calabria for cleaning and restoration. Experts confirmed at that point that they were original Greek bronzes from the 5th century B.C. Early Classical period. Preliminary conservation continued in Reggio Calabria until 1975, after which the statues were sent to Florence for further work in its better equipped restoration labs. Once the concretions, particularly dense around their heads and faces, were fully removed, restorers found exquisite details like individual silver eyelashes, copper lips and nipples, silver teeth and eyes inlaid with ivory and glass.

Riace A head detailWe don’t know who they represent. Many theories have been bruited covering pretty much every named hero in the Greek literary corpus. Both of the bronzes used to hold shields and spears, so they were probably warriors. The one with parted lips, silver teeth and long, flowing curls is known as Riace A; the one with the helmet and wide eyes is known as Riace B. Based solely on A’s open mouth and featured teeth — unique in surviving Greek statuary — and B’s wide-open eyes, one theory posits that they are Tydeus and Amphiaraus, two warriors enlisted by Polynices to attack Thebes in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. Riace B head detailStatue A would be Tydeus, who ate the brains of the defender who had mortally wounded him, hence the prominent silver teeth. Statue B would be Amphiaraus who was a seer, a role often represented by wide eyes.

Restoration was complete in 1980 whereupon the Bronzes of Riace went on display in Florence and Rome on their way back to Reggio Calabria. I had the good fortune to see them in Rome when I was a whiny kid whose complaints my parents expertly ignored (thanks again, Mom and Dad!). The crowds were insane. My parents still have the posters of each warrior we got at the gift shop framed on the wall. Good thing we took advantage of that opportunity, because they haven’t been allowed to travel since due to their fragility.

By the early 1990s, the statues were showing signs of further degradation. The Florentine restorers had conservatively left remnants of the organic cores used to cast the statues in antiquity inside the statues. Their continuing decay was causing trouble for the bronze shell, so another restoration in 1995 cleaned out the casting cores in their entirety. (The organic materials — charred wood, vegetable matter, animal hair — were preserved for dating purposes but provided no conclusive results.)

The Riace Bronzes arrive at Palazzo Campanella in 2009In 2009, Reggio Calabria’s National Museum started a major overhaul of their facilities. In order to keep the bronzes safe and to take advantage of the break, they were moved to Palazzo Campanella where they underwent extensive diagnostic analyses and further conservation in a large climate-controlled room behind glass but still on public display.

The project was supposed to be over by March 2011 so they could return to their National Museum home in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Italian unification, but the restoration of the statues wasn’t complete until the end of 2011, and the renovations at the museum still aren’t complete.

So for now they remain in their climate-controlled quarters in the Palazzo Campanella. The museum renovations have been held up by budget cutbacks, but the last six million euros have just been transferred so the museum hopes to be ready for the boys to come home by December of this year.

This video is in Italian, but watch even if you can’t understand the language just to see how they moved the Bronzes of Riace out of the National Museum to the Palazzo Campanella in 2009. A few salient points from the interviews: Simonetta Bonomi, Archaeology Superintendent of Calabria, notes that the restoration campaign is tied to the 2011 celebrations of Italian unification and that even though the planning for the move had to be careful and deliberate, when the time came the execution had to be swift to minimize the stress on the statues.

Pasquale Dapoto, Directing Archaeologist of the Restoration Laboratory, rather poetically juxtaposes the statues as symbols of vigorous strength with their actual fragility as a result of the shipwreck that put them at the bottom of the sea and the 2500 or so years spent in corrosive salt water. He also describes the challenge of detaching the statues from their anti-seismic bases to which they were anchored by stakes running from the mechanism in the base up through the feet and legs into the body.


Return to mass grave of sacrificed Iron Age warriors

Excavation pit at the Alken Enge wetlandsIn 2009, students from the University of Aarhus found the remains of more than 200 Iron Age warriors scattered in the Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland, Denmark. Human remains had been found before in the bog by ditch diggers in 1944-45, and extensive excavations led by archaeologist Harald Andersen between 1957 and 1962 unearthed a number of human bones, mainly large bones like pelvises and skulls, all from young adult males and many of them showing signs of damage from weapons. Andersen concluded that the bones belonged to enemy warriors sacrificed after a military defeat. Radiocarbon dating indicated the warriors had died sometime around 1 A.D.

The Aarhus excavation used Andersen’s excellent documentation when they returned to the site in 2009, so they were expecting to find more of what he had found. They were not disappointed. The large number of remains, however, was unexpected and unique in the Danish archaeological record.

The Alken Enge wetlands form where the Illerup River flows into Lake Mossø. The river valley is also known as the “Holy Valley” because of the large number of sacrificial sites that have been found in the area. The people living there during the Iron Age regularly performed ritual sacrifices in various places in the valley, mostly offering pottery and wooden artifacts. The Alken Enge sacrifice, however, is an entirely different mold. The sheer numbers of bones indicate a massive event took place approximately 2000 years ago. (Incidentally, I mentioned in the 2009 entry that weapons had been found sacrificed at a nearby site. They’ve been dated to around 200 A.D., so they definitely did not belong to these warriors.)

After securing a grant of 1.5 million Kroner (about $250,000) from the Carlsberg Foundation, a team of experts from the Skanderborg Museum, the Moesgård Museum and Aarhus University returned to the wetlands this summer. They reopened the 2009 pit and dug some new ones, finding more skeletal remains with wounds of war. One skull has a large hole in the back from a spear or projectile. One thighbone was found hacked in half. They also found weapons, like spears, clubs, shields and a wonderfully preserved axe about 2.5 feet in length with the entire wooden shaft still intact, courtesy of the miracle of peat. (Weapons have been discovered before, but only a handful of lance heads and a wooden shield, so researchers don’t think they were systematically sacrificed.)

Hoping to get an idea of just how large the sacrificial ground zero might be, archaeologists have dug test pits at numerous points over the 40 hectare range of the Alken Enge wetlands. All returned human remains, which means the potential total number of warriors sacrificed could easily reach into the thousands.

“It’s clear that this must have been a quite far-reaching and dramatic event that must have had profound effect on the society of the time,” explains Project Manager Mads Kähler Holst, professor of archaeology at Aarhus University.

Some of the bones and teeth are in such excellent condition that DNA has been extracted from them. In preliminary tests, there was insufficient recoverable DNA in the femurs, but scientists were able to extract a testable sample from the teeth. That dental DNA might be able to tell us where these warriors came from. If they were local, their DNA should basically match that of today’s Scandinavians. If there are notable differences, that might indicate the sacrificial victims came from the south.

It’s unlikely to be Romans. Although Roman armies were very much on the move around 2000 years ago, they never did get as far north as Jutland. They did put a great deal of pressure on the Germanic peoples north of the Alps, however, which could in turn have caused conflict between the Iron Age Danes and the Germans. Continued study of the bones could potentially fill in all kinds of blanks in our knowledge of this period’s military and social history.

Zoom in on the evolution of the Royal Coat of Arms

The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a national charity dedicated to the conservation of England’s historic churches, has created a fascinating interactive online history of the Royal Coat of Arms. The CCT is particularly well-placed to illustrate this history because ever since Henry VIII created the Church of England to secure a divorce, the Royal Arms have been displayed in churches as a pointed symbol of the sovereign’s role as head of the church.

The first Royal Arms at St. James' Church, CameleyOne hundred of the 340 churches under the CCT’s purview have painted, stone, wooden, plaster, stained glass, tapestry, etc. versions of the Royal Arms inside. The earliest, St. James’ Church in Cameley, dates to the 12th century reign of Richard I (1189-1199), the first monarch to add his heraldry to the Great Seal. Appropriately for a man known by the sobriquet “Lionheart,” his Arms featured three white lions on a red background. They were the first style of the Royal Arms to be used by themselves as Royal Arms, and the three lions of England have been on every Royal Coat of Arms ever since. Click on the picture of the painted lions here to zoom in on it.

Sir William Gascoigne's tomb at All Saints' Church Harewood, Royal Arms from 1340–1405From Richard I until Henry VIII, the Royal Arms were reserved for the tombs of kings in Westminster Abbey, or for the tombs of noblemen who claimed a family connection to the monarchs in more modest parish churches. For example, the tomb of Sir William Gascoigne, Chief Justice of England under Henry IV, is a carved alabaster monument in All Saints Church, Harewood. The Royal Arms are carved on the foot of the tomb because his first wife, Elizabeth de Mowbray, was descended from the House of Plantagenet.

James I Royal Arms at St. Mary's Church, West Bergholt, 1603-1649The lion and unicorn on either side of the shield (called supporters) were added by King James I, who was also King James VI of Scotland, when he ascended to the throne after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603. The Stuart shield had two silver unicorns supporting it, so as a compromise he added England’s lion to support the left side of England’s shield and the unicorn of Scotland to support the right. As with Richard III’s wild boars, the new supporters were noticeably well-endowed.

State Shield from the Commonwealth, 1649Surprise, surprise, Oliver Cromwell was not a fan. Under the Commonwealth, the Royal Arms were changed to State Arms. No genitals were in evidence. King Charles II brought them back to the Royal Arms with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 where they remained jutting proudly until the first half of the 19th century. Queen Victoria opted for the Ken doll look.

Charles II's Royal Arms at St Mary's Church Sandwich, 1660Click through the Evolution of Royal Arms timeline for zoomable images and fascinating details about how the Royal Arms developed over the years in different churches. Each entry has a link to the website of the specific church, so if you want to make an itinerary of Royal Arms visits all the information is at your fingertips.

Queen Victoria's Royal Arms at Holy Trinity Church, Blackburn, 1837For a quick visual overview of the different Royal Arms from the first official one in 1198 until today’s, see this timeline. The symbols are easier to pick out in the digital renderings than they are in some of the historical shields.

I love this rollover explanation of the modern Royal Arms. You hover over a given part, click on the symbol you’re interested in and a little window pops out with details about that specific element. I had no idea about the mantling. It’s the floral looking scarf attached to the helmet (called the helm) on top of the shield.

The mantling is based on the small cloth or cloak that would hang from a knight’s helmet, over his shoulders, to protect him from the elements. It was often depicted as torn or jagged – perhaps alluding to the cuts and slashes it would have received in battle, which would have greatly enhanced a knight’s reputation on his return home.

There’s also a handy introduction to the many and vast complexities of heraldry, such as the rules governing colors, symbols, division, and how heraldry relays familial histories.

For archaeology nerds, the section on conservation is a must-read. Conservator Sally Woodcock explains how and why many of the Royal Arms in churches have suffered damage over the years, the methods they use to stabilize the pieces and in some cases reverse the damage, and best of all, uses before and after pictures to illustrate the process.

All the information is concise and readable but still detailed and intelligent. It’s an excellent educational resource for young and old alike, because the subject of heraldry can be incredibly daunting to tackle with its arcane nomenclature and dense symbolism. The Churches Conservation Trust has created a practical introduction to the entire field by way of sharing the exceptional examples of Royal Arms in its churches.

New York puts its history on display at State Capitol

The New York State Capitol in Albany has always been a working building, housing offices of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government. Its dazzling Neo-Renaissance, Romanesque Revival and Gothic architecture also make it a bona fide tourist destination, but despite its rich history of important political figures and significant events, in its 130 years of existence the space has kept to its workmanlike purpose. Governor Andrew Cuomo has changed that, drawing on the state archives, library and museum, plus loans from private collections, professional organizations, local historical societies to pepper the statehouse with artifacts that tell the story of New York and the United States.

Now visitors to the Capitol will find a wealth of exhibits arranged in its galleries according to theme. In the Hall of Governors, where governors of New York from the first one, George Clinton (the signer of the Declaration of the Independence, not the King of Interplanetary Funk) to the current one have worked, the official portraits of almost all of them line the walls. Several of those governors became Presidents of the United States, which makes the artifacts and documents from their gubernatorial terms take on national import. One of the documents on display is the resignation letter Grover Cleveland wrote on January 6, 1885, before he took up his duties as President. It is a masterpiece of concision.

To The Legislators:
I hereby resign the office of Governor of the State of New York, to take effect immediately.
Grover Cleveland

On the other side of the scale is a 1762 bill of sale for slaves, a mother and her two children. It makes a point of stating that the sale is done under the laws of British America, because slavery had already been outlawed in England itself.

In the Governor’s Reception Room, the exhibit features documents and objects that illustrate the founding and growth of New York. The oldest document is a report written by Pieter Schaghen to the Dutch West India Company on November 5, 1626. In it Schaghen announces that they have purchased the island of Manhattan for the equivalent of 60 guilders. It’s the first documentary reference to the purchase of Manhattan.

The Flag Room has, not surprisingly, an impressive collection of flags from the New York State Military Museum, but as much as I like historic flags, I like historic hats even more, and they have a couple of splendid examples. One is a Chapeau-bras, meaning an arm-hat because it folds to carry easily under the arm. It belonged to New York State Militia officer Jacob DeForest before the Civil War. My other favorite is a Shako — a rather rococo cylindrical hat with a visor — from the 1840s that was once worn by a member of the 27th New York State Militia Artillery. It looks like something out of a Stendhal novel.

There’s also an exhibit dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant. He wasn’t a governor of New York, but he did die upstate in 1885. His body was transported to Albany for a public funeral complete with procession to the black-draped Capitol where his coffin was put on a bier and almost 100,000 people lined up to pay their respects. There’s a picture of the procession on display which is remarkable not only for the massive crowds and the views of the 19th century city, but for the extraordinary number of cables crisscrossing between the buildings. I knew Albany was one of the first cities to electrify, but 1885 seems awfully early to have such a mass of wires.

Because I am a sucker for period vehicles, I simply must point out the exhibit in the concourse of the Empire State Plaza, the modern administrative complex that was built in the 60s and 70s and integrated with the Capitol. There’s a restored Adirondack guideboat from the early 19th century, a peddler’s wagon that sold tin in the Hudson Valley during the 1890s, and some exquisite high-end conveyances to transport governors: a seven-passenger Pierce-Arrow Type 43 from 1931, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 Packard Phaeton which is still in the state fleet and was used to drive Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus of the Netherlands in style when they visited Albany in 1982. Also dreamy is the 1967 Lincoln Executive Limousine first used by Nelson Rockefeller and then by successive governors until 1988.

There’s piles more neat stuff to go through on the website — don’t miss the 1911 Capitol Fire online exhibit — but if you have a chance to go to Albany in person, make sure you put a visit to the Capitol on the itinerary. There are walk-in tours run four times a day, and you can get a self-guided audio tour to take you through the exhibits on your own time and schedule.