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Madonna under the Fir Tree
Author, school, workshop
Lucas Cranach the Elder
Material and technique
Oil on linden board
71×57 cm
Archdiocesan Museum in Wroclaw
Oil painting from 1510 by the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. It depicts Mary with baby Jesus on her lap. Jesus holds a grape in his hand, resting on an expensive cushion. Beside her is a gold signet ring with the signature L.C. The background is a mountainous landscape with sloping birch and fir trees. Around 1517, Lucas Cranach the Elder painted the Madonna under the Fir Trees in the Chapel of the Fourteen Helpers - now St. John the Evangelist - in Wroclaw Cathedral. It remained there until the end of the 19th century, when it was decided to move the work to the cathedral treasury (which demonstrates the awareness of the high artistic quality of the work at the time). In 1935, the painting was presented at an exhibition at the Schlesisches Museum der Bildenden Künste in Wroclaw, at which time large-scale photographs were taken which, from the perspective of the work's subsequent fate, proved to be extremely valuable. In 1943, by order of the German authorities - for fear of Allied air raids - the Madonna under the firs, together with other objects, was transported to the Henrykow monastery, and shortly afterwards to Klodzko. After the capture of the city by the Russians, Kurt Engelbert, a theologian and historian and director of the Diözesanmuseum (now the Archdiocesan Museum in Wroclaw), brought Cranach's work to Wroclaw and placed it in the museum he managed, as the cathedral was already in ruins at the time. During the evacuation and warfare, the work was damaged: the linden board broke in two places and traces of joining were visible. After the end of the war, the task of restoring the painting was entrusted to the German clergyman Siegfried Zimmer, who was able to act on his own - Director Engelbert had previously been resettled in Germany and so could not oversee the restoration. Years later, it came to light that in 1946 Siegfried Zimmer, together with the curate from St. Boniface parish in Wroclaw Georg Kupke, had created a copy of the Madonna under the firs and secretly swapped it with the original. In 1948, the then Ordinary of the Wroclaw Archdiocese, Father Karol Milik, received this copy (believed to be the original) from the German church administration, and the work has since been housed in the bishop's palace on Ostrow Tumski. In 1961, the Wroclaw curia was asked for colour photographs of Cranach's work, at which time the painting was sent to the conservation workshop of the National Museum in Wroclaw (then the Silesian Museum) in order to prepare the Madonna for a photographic session by repairing the cracks in the canvas. The task was assigned to conservator Daniela Stankiewicz. The researcher discovered the forgery and proved the fact by using old photographs for comparison. Her doubts were aroused by, among other things, the fir board on which the copy was painted (it should have been linden wood) and, above all, the low artistic level of the painting. The forgery was finally revealed in 1968 in the pages of the Art History Bulletin. Over time, it was established that when Siegfried Zimmer had to travel to Germany in 1948, he smuggled the genuine Cranach's work with him at the time, which he then (in the 1960s) sold in Munich. Since the 1970s, the Madonna under the firs has been offered several times on the international antiquarian market, but from 1981 onwards efforts were made on the Polish side to recover the work. In 1985, an anonymous bidder put the painting up for sale in Switzerland. Despite the passage of time and the unquestionable belonging of Cranach's work to the archdiocese of Wroclaw, the matter could not be resolved for many years. Eventually, the parish priest of the Diocese of Sankt Gallen informed Wojciech Kowalski, the representative for the restitution of cultural property of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that a Swiss collector had bequeathed the work, which was precisely the Madonna under the Fir Tree, to one of the priests. After many vicissitudes, it was only in 2012 that the painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder returned to the Archdiocesan Museum in Wroclaw. This was a remarkable event, as it is the most valuable painting ever recovered by Poland after wartime losses. The Madonna under the Fir Tree is one of the most unique representations of the subject of Mary and the Child, which served as a model for the master's further work and subsequent generations. It is also considered to be the most beautiful of the Madonnas to have emerged from Cranach's brush.