Saturday, March 18, 2006

Tales of Birthday Revelry - Holbein's Madonna

This just in. Revelers (aka Martina) report that this year's festivities are shaping up to be the best birthday week ever in the history of Martina!

Although my birthday is not until the 20th, festivities began early with a cake and presents at work on Thursday. My boss (who got me a lovely Entertaining at Home cookbook, which features a recipe for a Mixed Berry & Chicken Salad that I cannot wait to try!) is going out of town next week as is another coworker. This meant that I could not have my actual birthday off, so I chose to take St. Patrick's Day off instead.

As it turns out, other people's infernal insistance on taking vacations and going to meetings just to spite me (ok, they didn't really do it to spite me) ended up being a blessing, because it allowed me to go downtown visit the Hesse: A Princely German Collection exhibit which is reaching its last days at the Portland Art Museum. The exhibit features the stunning Holbein Madonna and a number of Winterhalter portraits on loan from Moritz, Landgraf of Hesse and his son, Prince Donatus. With the collection closing on the 19th, I managed to slip in just in time.

It really is awe inspiring to stand in front a painting like Holbein's, not only for its magnificence, but for its history. As was the case with many German art works in World War II, the painting was sent eastward for safe keeping as the fighting advanced, and came very close to being lost, as a HeraldNet article explains:

During World War II, it was transported from Darmstadt east to Silesia to keep it safe. As Russian soldiers advanced through Silesia in February 1945, the painting was again loaded up and transported westward. En route, it narrowly escaped the firebombing of Dresden.

On a snowy night in December 1945, the 19-year-old Moritz of Hesse was sent by his uncle, Prince Ludwig, to retrieve the painting from Coburg Castle, accompanied by an American officer whose job was to find works of art that went missing during the war.

After removing the painting from Coburg Castle's dungeon, Moritz and the American officer packed it into an Army truck and headed for the Hesse family's Schloss Wolfsgarten palace. The truck caught fire. Fire extinguishers on Jeeps that passed by didn't work.

"We finally suffocated the flames with sand and earth, and I was able to bring the family treasure to Schloss Wolfsgarten intact," Moritz, now the Landgrave of Hesse explains.

And lucky it was that the family treasure was restored. The family held onto it for a while until seizing the opportunity to try to sell it to the Getty Museum. Ultimately, however, the fell through when was blocked by the German government due some beaurocracy on its part concerning non-exportable national treasures, so the family was forced hang onto it. Fortunately, Portland has been lucky enough to have the painting here on loan for the past months.

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