Cranach’s Madonna under the Fir Tree returned to Poland
The painting, which was copied and stolen by a German priest, makes its way back to Wroclaw after 70 years
By Paul Jeromack. Web only
Published online: 07 August 2012
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Madonna under the Fir Tree, 1510, has been returned to the Cathedral of St John in Wroclaw, where it had hung since the 16th century. This follows the news that Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office for the Restitution of Cultural Goods knows that Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man “is in a bank vault in a certain country”.
Unlike the Raphael, which for some time had been feared destroyed, art historians and Polish authorities knew the Cranach had survived the war. In 1978, it was noted in the revised edition of Max Friedlander and Jakob Rosenberg’s The Paintings of Lucas Cranach that “just when and how the original vanished is obscure, but according to credible testimony it survives and has been reportedly offered for sale on the international art market”.
According to Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the painting was taken from the cathedral in Wroclaw, then known as Breslau and part of German territory, to protect it from Allied air raids. Cranach was known to be one of Hitler’s favourite artists and it is possible that it was ear marked for inclusion in the planned Führermuseum, Linz.
After the war, the picture was returned to the Diocesan Museum, Wroclaw rather than the war-damaged cathedral. It had been broken in two and officials decided to have it restored. Siegfried Zimmer, a German priest and amateur art collector and painter, was commissioned to take care of the restoration work, but he instead had a copied made between 1946 to 1947 and stole away to Berlin with the actual Cranach. The hoax was not uncovered until 1961, when a Polish conservator examined the picture and found it to be a modern copy. The original passed through private hands until it made its way to an unnamed Swiss collector who held it until his recent death, when it was left to the Diocese of St Gallen.
Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs learned of its location earlier this year and after months of negotiations, the work was returned to Wroclaw Cathedral on 27 July. Handing over the work to Bishop Andrzej Siemieniewski, foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said: “The story of how the Madonna under the Fire Tree was recovered reads like a crime novel” and called the painting one of Poland’s most treasured works of art.
The recovery of the picture is especially exciting to Cranach scholars, as it is an early work of exceptional refinement. Among the early works painted by Cranach after his move to Wittenberg, it is usually dated about 1510, but it is likely to have painted as early as 1505, since its expansive and expressive landscape, spiked with shaggy pine trees, is close to the few known works Cranach painted in Vienna around 1500 to 1504.
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