Category Archives: Art

The Most Wanted Painting in the World

7457666532_5a99f53464_oIf our culture is the shared memory of all historical experiences or, as renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuścinski claims, “we are human because we recount stories and myths”, then the huge painting (twice the size of Rembrandt’s Night Watch) covering a whole wall of the National Museum in Warsaw provides a major opening into the history of Central Europe.

Created to provide inspiration and resistance during the period of Empires and partitions, Jan Matejko’s “The Battle of Grunwald” became the focus of search, torture, bribery  and a huge  “wanted” reward following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

The painting, depicting the famous struggle in 1410, essentially highlights the death in battle of Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen against King Jagello’s Polish-Lithuanian forces and the charge by the hero Vytutas. This portrayal was seen by the Nazis as an unwelcome reminder of the greatest confrontation in medieval times and earmarked Matejko’s masterpiece for destruction.

The Teutonic Knights, a heavily armed German military order, were originally invited from Jerusalem by a Polish prince in 1230 to help spread Christianity. Instead, the Knights established an expanding monastic state along the Baltic coast based around their impregnable castle at Malbork/Marienburg. They extracted feudal levies, seized control of the lucrative amber trade and made themselves a naval power as well.
Over time their rule was transformed into, first the Duchy, and then later, the Kingdom of Prussia, but not before the Knights suffered a major defeat at Grunwald in 1410, thus halting major Germanic expansion.

It also obliged the Grand Masters/Dukes to pay homage to Polish kings (the subject of another major Matejko work). Although the Knights may have been defeated, their state eventually became the expanding Prussia of Prince Bismarck and his Germanization policies or “KulturKampf”, when all non-German schools and universities were closed down and printing in other languages forbidden.

The Nazis, in turn, saw themselves as a kind of continuation of the knights mission, on their way towards a world empire. When attacking Russia Hitler affirmed “We will give this country a past. We will take away its character of an Asian steppe. We will Europanize it”.

Hitler stated clearly that he wanted to erase the identity of neighbouring nations. Himmler, leader of the Gestapo security forces, had emphasized that “Polish lands are to be converted into an intellectual desert”, while Propaganda minister Joseph Goebels was anxious to establish German superiority by proving that all other cultures had German origins. With this in mind, a spectacular portrayal of past defeat could not be tolerated, so experts were specifically sent from the Reich to destroy all monuments  of national identity.

Among the first to be blown up was the granite and bronze “Grunwald” monument in Cracow, a pre-WWI symbol erected for the 500th anniversary of the battle, due to efforts by world famous musician Ignacy Paderewski. This was followed by destruction of the statues to poet Adam Mickiewicz, revolutionary independence hero Kościuszko and even the prominent monument to Frederyk Chopin in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park was cut up and sent for smelting. A new museum claiming Chopin’s (non existent) German roots was established by 1943. The search for these symbolic art works was relentless.

By 1942 Nazi administrators estimated that 90% of art in Poland was in their possession, including hidden masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s ermine“Lady with an Ermine”, which was betrayed to the Gestapo within days of the Occupation. Seized by governor Hans Frank, it was hung in his family living quarters and is still remembered as a picturesque backdrop by his son Niklas. Even the largest Gothic altarpiece by Veit Stoss was dismantled and transported to Bavaria on Frank’s orders. Looted and confiscated art was to form the core of the proposed Führermuseum in Linz or the Herman Göring collection. Today, it is estimated that at least 100,000 items have still not been returned to their rightful owners.

During this time, Himmler and his SS infiltrated the army and, similarly to the Knights, created a state within a state. He actively encouraged the SS to seek out the Church of the Teutonic Order in Vienna as a symbolic source for his military elite (the actual religious order had been abolished by 1938). The highest award of the Third Reich became a badge/insignia modeled on a crest of the historic Order and given first to SS General Reinhard Heydrich and then the top ten Nazis. They created a bureaucracy of terror at the centre of which was a network of concentration camps.

Somehow the huge Matejko canvas survived the first World War period. It had been taken to Czarist Russia and returned by the post-revolution Soviet State only in 1922. The theme of the struggle against the Teutonic invaders was also taken up by Nobel prize writer Henryk Sienkiewicz in the same spirit of “Romantic Nationalism” as Matejko’s. The conflict was portrayed in his 1910 novel “The Knights of the Cross”, later turned into a a 1960 film by director Aleksander Ford.nevsky-charge-lg In Soviet Russia, cinema great Sergei Eisenstein directed his 1938 classic “Alexander Nevsky” (complete with a music score by Prokofiev). It portrayed an attack over frozen Lake Peipus against the Russians, by the Livonian branch of the Knights. The film ending, with the heavily armoured Teutonic horsemen drowning as the ice collapsed under their weight, was presented as symbolic retribution for spreading Christianity by the sword.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, what made the survival of “Grunwald” more remarkable was the intensity of the search for the removed painting and the astronomical reward offered. Initially, on Goebels orders, the museum curator was to be bribed with two million Reichmarks (about $16M USD in today’s money)  to reveal where the picture was hidden. When this was refused a public broadcast increased the sum to ten million Reichmarks (approximately $80M USD in today’s money).
Captured underground resistance fighters were tortured to death by the Gestapo seeking its hiding place. All to no avail. In fact, the  canvas had been rolled, placed in a specially made wooden box and secretly buried in a protective stone sarcophagus close to a village near Lublin.

The search by the Nazis was only abandoned when, in a clever ruse, the Polish government-in-exile based in London, announced the arrival of the painting in Britain. It actually only emerged from hiding in Poland after the war to be exhibited by 1949.
After years of meticulous restoration, finally finished in 2012, “The Battle of Grunwald” has once more taken pride of place in Warsaw’s National Museum, where it provides a visual insight to the struggles in “God’s Playground” (Norman Davies), still studied by modern historians and visitors.

In the rebuilt Old Town of Warsaw, on the façade of the cathedral, restored after Nazi destruction, the importance of national memory is emphasized with a plaque quoting Cardinal Wyszyński :

“A nation without a record, without a past,
becomes a nation homeless, without a future”

Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald is a vital, imaginative link to that past.

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Filed under Art, Europe, Germany, History, Military Orders, Nazis, Poland, Religious Orders, World War II

The Mediterranean Winter in Malta – “Bring me the head of John the Baptist”

DSC_0003Cool temperatures and glorious skies mark Malta in November. Clouds tinged with gold, red, crimson, blue against creamy-yellow limestone, echo Titian, Veronese, and maybe even Turner. A fabulous blend of colours –  Nature always remains the greatest artist.

The Maltese archipelago is a remnant of the geological land bridge, over 40 million years old, that once linked the continents. It is the shallowest stretch of the Mediterranean, dividing the sea into its eastern and western halves and, underwater, connecting Sicily and Tunisia.

Local people identify Gozo as Calypso’s isle where Odysseus was kept as a love slave over 7 years for the pleasures of the goddess-nymph. Eventually, helped by Athena,  he was allowed to go, but not before being offered immortality as a last temptation.

Away from myth, the temple blocks of Ggantija are composed of stones, several tons in weight, that are considered by Unesco and confirmed by carbon-dating, to be the oldest buildings in the world. They were left by a neolithic people who made their home there, long before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed, but who disappeared mysteriously around 2000BC.

Christianity came with the legendary shipwreck of St Paul on his way to Rome where he would be tried and executed by the sword.  On Malta’s high point near the ancient capital of Medina, the “Silent City”, St Paul’s catacombs at Rabat still mark ancient Christian burial grounds

It is the Knights of St John, however, who left the biggest impact on the main island . The warrior-monks transformed it into a fortress and, after victory over the Turks in the Great Siege of 1545,  the island became known as the Shield of Europe. The Knights’ familiar eight-pointed cross was said to symbolize the main elements of the Sermon on the Mount as well as the different national groupings or “langues”.

VallettaCoCathedralFloorOverviewIt is in their Cathedral of St John that one of Europe’s greatest art treasures can be experienced. Just entering the main church there is a feeling of celebration and exuberance, apparent from floor to ceiling. High above, the ceiling paintings by Mattia Preti recount the life story of St John the Baptist. Behind the altar, marble figures portray the Baptism of Christ but it is the floor that soon becomes the focus of attention. Like a tapestry of color in marble, filling the whole nave, are some 400 brilliant decorative tombstones of Grand Masters  and major figures of the order, each with a story and image. This alone would make a visit to the Cathedral unforgettable. It is, however, just a preamble to the Oratory which contains a powerful and graphic portrayal of the “Beheading of John the Baptist” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The Oratory was a place for meditation and prayer by young knights newly inducted into the Order. It was also a place of judgement. Caravaggio was commissioned to fill a whole wall, more than 3×5 meters, with an altarpiece. Traditional portrayals of St John the Baptist range  from the optimistic depiction of St John as a child in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”(in Paris and London), to scenes from his life, such as those painted on the walls of the cathedral in Prato by Fillipo Lippi, focusing on the dance of Salome as a principal element.  Alternatively he appears as a teaching figure on the side of God holding a book, such as in the exquisitely detailed Ghent altarpiece “The Lamb of God” by Jan Van Eyck.

Caravaggio, however, chose a radically different approach to his subject.Variously called  “The Painting of the 17th century” (!) or “the first work of a modern art”, the artist presents a scene involving the spectator in the moment after the beheading, the used sword still lying on the ground. Caravaggio usually painted from live models, so his contemporaries saw his art as “not painting but truth”. Here only the expression on the dead saint’s face is peaceful. A bright ray of light highlights the central scene, in the background prisoners look out from a building said to resemble the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta.

The stark theme breaks away from illustrating a biblical past to a vision of an artist familiar with murder,violence and brutality. It is a work that speaks to a post-Auschwitz age where “only following orders” became the standard, emotionless explanation for unspeakable horror.  It has consequently been described as one of the most important works in western painting even though darkness seems to prevail. The artist, having been made a knight himself in the same Oratory, was shortly a fugitive once more, escaping from an impregnable prison. In absentia, he was ceremonially disrobed by the knights in front of his masterwork, a cloak being pulled from a stool in the original place of induction.

On the wall facing the “execution” is Caravaggio’s  “St Jerome Writing”. Faintly behind the figure, a cardinal’s hat can be seen hanging from the wall of the hermit’s cell. He almost seems to be contemplating the events opposite. St.Jerome, an early Church father is shown with a skull symbolizing the transience of life while a candlestick suggests spiritual illumination. Like the larger picture it is painted mostly in brown but also underlined by a defining strip of red, in this case the saint’s robe Originally in a different location, it was moved to the Oratory after being stolen in 1984, held for ransom, then recovered in 1986.  Another attempted theft, this time on “St John” badly damaged the picture. It is unlikely that either work will leave Malta again.

Escaping from Malta, a paranoid Caravaggio went on to portray himself as a severed head of Goliath held by David and as a head on a platter in “Salome With Head of John the Baptist”.Shortly afterwards he was dead, in mysterious circumstances, at the age of 39.

Today he remains a figure of interest and speculation. Did this genius murderer fugitive exhibit violent behaviour as a result of lead poisoning from the paint used at the time? Was he unstable due to the trauma of losing most of his family to plague when aged six? Certainly dark stories penetrated by beams of light became his trademark. Many consider that Rembrandt could not have existed without him, and  his major works, particularly “St John” in Malta, are seen as the most spiritually intense  paintings in the history of art. This, his largest work, is the only one he ever signed using the red, painted blood of the beheaded saint, an ultimate acknowledgement.

For anyone exploring the ideas of western culture,  a visit to Malta is essential. The Chief Executive of one of the world’s major auction houses, Stephen Murphy has emphasized the need to experience , to see, a work of art : “ We have a saying in our company, when our people are assessing or valuing something, they will say “ I haven’t stood in front of the painting yet” No matter how many times they may have seen images of it, they are not ready to give their opinion.”

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Seeing the Caravaggio’s in Malta can be a life-changing visit. What better place for a meaningful winter break?

Disclosure: LG visited Malta courtesy of  Hilton Hotels and EasyJet, organized by the Malta Tourist Office.

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